Christian America is busy dying again.
If you believe some partisan historians, it was dead before the American Revolution, or at least, nobody important was a Christian by then. The Founders had all moved on to deism. Then again, maybe Christian America died at the Scopes Trial during the 1920s when Clarence Darrow pinned down the non-theologian, non-scientist politician William Jennings Bryan with the power of hostile cross-examination. If it wasn’t dead by then, it was really dead by the late 1960s when every other religion book seemed to be about either the death of God movement or “secular” Christianity. The most memorable volume of the period was Harvey Cox’s The Secular City, which put a happy face of the death of public Christianity and heralded a new, more mature age of secular community.
Meanwhile, a host of prominent sociologists of religion sagely assured the public (and each other) that public faith simply could not co-exist with a world full of technological wonders like conveyor belts, cathode ray tubes, and time and motion studies. The great sociologist Peter Berger imagined tiny groups of believers huddled together against the coming of the 21st century.
In the years following Cox’s book, Christian America exploded back into the American consciousness. Evangelists popped up all over television (just as they had on radio earlier). The former Nixon hatchet man Chuck Colson (who once said he’d run over his own grandmother to help Richard Nixon) experienced a religious conversion and turned Born Again into a household expression with his mega-selling book. America followed Nixon by electing Jimmy Carter, an outspoken evangelical enthusiastically backed by\...wait for it...Pat Robertson! Disappointed with Carter, Christian conservatives became part of the coalition that elected Ronald Reagan to two terms in the White House.
Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club began selling Christian books in huge numbers and better metrics often put religious titles at the top of the bestseller list (Prayer of Jabez, anyone?). Along the way, many sociologists of religion, like Berger and Rodney Stark, turned on the old secularization thesis and began to proclaim the theory more ideologically-loaded than truly descriptive. Cox, looking back on his once-important book, would eventually note apologetically that he had relied on what the sociologists were claiming at the time. Christian America, it seemed, was not actually dead at all. Not even close.
Jon Meacham, editor of Newsweek, is in line to become the new Harvey Cox. In a recent issue of the magazine, he wrote a major piece on the end of Christian America. Meacham relies on a longitudinal survey of the American public (the ARIS study) which shows a 10 percent drop in the number of self-identified Christians and a 7 percent increase in the number of Americans who claim no religious affiliation to suggest religious decline. Triumphant secularists and worried Christians alike are chattering away about the decline of Christianity in America.
The meme will make for good newsprint (or maybe I should say newspixels as the papers are dying much more rapidly than Christian America ever could), but it is all severely premature. Consider the work done in 2006 by Baylor University with funding from the Templeton Foundation and fieldwork by Gallup. Their findings countered the secularization narrative and tellingly showed that even among the religiously unaffiliated, nearly two-thirds believe in God or some higher power. That study got a lot less attention, in part because it did not play into the persistent story of religious decline pushed by those anxious for it to occur.
“Christianity is important in America!” is no more a story than “dog bites man.” “The death of Christianity,” on the other hand, grabs eyeballs. Secularists are joined by many Christians who assume religious decline will precede an eschatological event in which God removes his church from the earth. Thus, they expect to hear this kind of story. The narratives of ideological secularists on one hand and end-times theorists like Hal Lindsey (The Late Great Planet Earth) or Tim LaHaye (Left Behind) are not as different as one might assume.
The wise observer will be more cautious. It was less than five years ago that Garry Wills, flustered by the re-election of George W. Bush, wrote histrionically for The New York Times about “The Day the Enlightenment Went Out.” He bemoaned the power of Christianity over the American people and expressed his own disbelief that his fellow citizens endorsed the Virgin Birth more readily than Darwin’s theory. Bush’s victory, a substantial improvement over his performance in 2000, was largely credited to an unusually heavy turn-out among Catholics and Evangelicals in his favor. Does anyone really think that things have changed so much in five years?
The simple truth of the matter is that America turns on the margins. A movement gets the right politician, finds the right message, and builds a coalition that can command the levers of power. Suddenly, it seems the losers have been cast out and the winners are ascendant. But it is never as simple as that. Nor is it ever really over. Barack Obama is the president. To many, particularly to many social elites, he appears to be the avatar of secular enlightenment. But don’t tell that to the overwhelming majority of his ethnic fan base or to the young, white evangelicals his campaign actively courted. Ronald Reagan was president, too. His rise seemed to augur a new era for religion in the public square. Yet that was not the reason many libertarians and corporate interests supported him.
America is a complicated place. We are a dynamic society because we are a free society. From our birth as a republic, we have been a quasi-stable partnership of enlightenment modernism and vigorous Christian belief working together for the preservation of ordered liberty. There will be more proclamations of the death of Christian America. It is as good a story as the “war” between science and religion, which gets a makeover every time we have a slow news day.
The smart money is on Christianity to be around and relevant for as long as the American republic endures. The even smarter money says the faith will outlast the republic just as it did the empire into which it was born.