WASHINGTON--Are we witnessing this Easter season the decline of Christianity in America, or is this rather a moment of reform and renewal, a time when the deterioration that has been under way is arrested?
The death and resurrection of religion, if not of Jesus Christ, has been a favorite subject of newsmagazines ever since Time, on April 8, 1966, momentously asked: "Is God Dead?"
This trend, announced on a somber black and red cover, lasted a little over three years. Or perhaps the original question was premature. In any event, on Dec. 26, 1969, Time offered a bright white, yellow, blue and purple cover carrying the hopeful new question: "Is God Coming Back to Life?"
This Easter week, Newsweek doesn't pretend to know God's state, but its cover offers a stark declarative statement positing "The Decline and Fall of Christian America."
The article by Jon Meacham, a thoroughly knowledgeable student of these issues, offers some powerful data, notably a near doubling since 1990 of the number of Americans who claim no religious affiliation, from 8 percent to 15 percent. Meacham also points to a 10-point drop in the share of Americans who self-identify as Christian, from 86 percent to 76 percent.
As a Christian, I find these figures neither alarming nor surprising. There has been a long, steady growth in the proportion of Americans whom pollster Andrew Kohut calls "the seculars," those disconnected from religious institutions who may or may not describe themselves as atheists. Yet the United States still runs well behind Western Europe in moving in this secular direction.
Immigration has also made us far more diverse religiously, which will inevitably reduce the size of the country's Christian majority. Indeed, immigration long ago reduced the dominance of Protestantism, with Roman Catholics now constituting the nation's largest single religious group.
Will Herberg wrote an important piece of religious sociology in 1955 called Protestant, Catholic, Jew. If he were here now, his book would have to be named Protestant, Catholic, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Confucian. And even that ungainly title wouldn't exhaust the possibilities.
In fact, the United States has gone through many periods in which religious enthusiasm and affiliation waned, only to be renewed in a subsequent revival. Christianity is a rather durable faith. Many believers would ascribe this to the power of its truth claims, but its resilience also speaks to the adaptability of its core message.
But, yes, something is changing, and that change will strengthen rather than weaken the Christian church over the long run. For nearly a quarter-century, Christianity in the United States has been defined to a large degree by the voices and the ideas of a very conservative strain of evangelical Christianity that, over time, became highly politicized and closely allied with a single political party.
These conservative Christians had as much right as any other group to bring their core concerns to politics. But in doing so, they narrowed the Christian message. They sometimes became apologists for politicians whose behavior and attitudes could not easily be called Christian and forgot that Christ himself became a victim of injustice at the hands of a mighty empire.
As James Carroll notes in his lovely new book, Practicing Catholic, the idea that there is no "light of Easter dawn" without "the darkness of the Good Friday noon" is at the heart of the Christian message. It entails the "exaltation of servanthood over lordship" and a Resurrection that turns "defeat into a kind of victory."
Religion is always corrupted when it gets too close to political power. It's possible to win a precinct caucus and lose your soul, to mistake political victory for salvation itself.
It is this approach to Christianity that is decidedly in decline, thank God, in part because conservative Christians themselves are rediscovering the Church's mission to the poor, the sick, the strangers and the outcasts. This augurs new life, not decay.
The theologian H. Richard Niebuhr offered the classic criticism of a feel-good brand of American religion that presented no challenges and posed no problems. He said it peddled the idea that "a God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross."
Niebuhr was critiquing certain varieties of liberal Christianity, but his scolding applies to all Christians too eager to conform their faith to the political and cultural whims of the moment. Grace is never cheap, and a Christianity that is struggling with itself is on the path of rediscovering its true calling.
E.J. Dionne, Jr. is the author of the recently published Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith and Politics After the Religious Right. He is a Washington Post columnist, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and a professor at Georgetown University.
By E.J. Dionne, Jr.