What Are We Talking About When We Talk About Religious Decline in America?

Music-Concert-CrowdWithout fail, when the obvious is announced in the form of statistics, people lose their mind.  Copious digital ink has been spilled over a recent Pew Report suggesting the steady decline of Christian religion in America—including an excellent short piece by my friend John Lussier.  It speaks less of a decline in Christianity, he notes, and more telling that it is no longer socially adventitious to self-identify as Christian.  I do not wish to repeat his point, which needs no help from me.  Nor do I think this is the proper time for self-congratulation, which is the tone taken in a Christianity Today article that notes Evangelicals have held steady.  Well, good for us.  Rather, I think it is important to speak of the obvious: polls are only as good as the terms they use.  So what are we talking about when we talk about Christian religion?

It is always inelegant to begin a written reflection by dropping in a block of text upon unsuspecting reader; so consider yourself warned.  But there is an ominous moment toward the end of Mark Noll’s The Civil War as Theological Crisis that tidily encapsulates the points I wish to make.  It is long but I would ask you to read it carefully:

The inability of evangelicals to agree on how slavery should be construed according to Scripture, which all treated as their ultimate religious norm, was in fact connected to the economic individualism of American society.  The recourse to arms for civil war did reflect, at the very least, a glaring weakness in republican and democratic polity.  From the outside [i.e. in Europe] it was clear that American material interests exerted a strong influence on American theological conclusions. … Foreign commentary makes clear how tightly American religious convictions were bound to general patterns of American life.  Only because religious belief and practice had grown so strong before the [Civil War and Slavery] conflict, only because they had done so much to create the nation that went to war, did that conflict result in such a great challenge to religious belief and practice after the war.  The theological crisis of the Civil War was that while voluntary reliance on the Bible had contributed greatly to the creation of American national culture, that same voluntary reliance on Scripture led only to deadlock over what should be done about slavery. … The issue for American history was that only two courses of action seemed open when confronting such a deadlock.  The first was the course taken in the Civil war, which effectively handed the business of the theologians over to the generals to decide by ordeal what the Bible meant. … The second [course of action] though never self-consciously adopted by all Americans in all circumstances, has been followed since the Civil War.  That course is an implicit national agreement not to base public policy of any consequence on interpretations of scripture.   The result of following that second course since the Civil War has been ambiguous.  In helping to provoke the war and greatly increase its intensity, the serious commitment to Scripture rendered itself ineffective for shaping broad policy in the public arena.  In other words, even before there existed a secularization in the United States brought on by new immigrants, scientific acceptance of evolution, the higher criticism of scripture, and urban industrialization, Protestants during the Civil War had marginalized themselves as bearers of religious perspective in the body politic. [Emphasis added]

Congratulations are in order if you made it through. Your reward: a sense of unsettling, and an entirely unremarkable sense of familiarity.  Especially with the rise of religious belief in the post-9/11 atmosphere it is not too much of a stretch to identify our period in a similar way that Noll marks the time preceding the Civil War.  And just as the fallout of Civil War ideologies were of such intensity “only because religious belief and practice had grown so strong before the [Civil War and Slavery],” so too this “decline” in religion (let us permit ourselves to call it that for a moment) similarly takes its particular form from post-9/11 zeal.  Which is important because what this means is that it may not just be a decline in “religion” that these statistics are mapping, but changes in just what is being perceived as religion.  In fact it is an interesting (if fairly typical) pattern of history that irreligion (of all sorts—atheist, agnostic, unaffiliated, or otherwise) take their specific shape from the environment that they incubated within, like the negative marking in wax seal.  This is confirmed in a variety of studies—from Michael Buckley’s At the Origins of Modern Atheism to the more recent work of Alister McGrath, The Twilight of Atheism, or Nick Spencer’s Atheists: The Origin of Species (all worth the read, by the way, though Buckley’s is not for the uninitiated).

What I mean by pointing this out is that the resulting category—the residue of “Christian decline” as it were—is marked in the recent survey by labeling it “the Nones.”  This is a somewhat barbarous description, as it collects into its omnivorous jaws everything from atheism to those who perhaps (however infelicitously) love Jesus but hate the organized expressions of allegiance to him.  As it stands, however, the category is interesting because it speaks to what preceded it.  “America has never produced an interesting atheist,” remarks Stanley Hauerwas, “because America has never had a god interesting enough to deny.”  This is obviously some of Hauerwas’ trademark hyperbole; but there resides an interesting truth that speaks to why the new category should be “Nones.”

Whatever “decline” there actually is, it is not generally into brazen disbelief, but irreligion of a more casual sort.  What we are experiencing is the emerging indifference between belief and unbelief.  In 2009, for example, the bright red-orange buses in Britain found themselves chauffeur to a curious advertisement: “There is no God, So Stop Worrying and Get on With Your Life.”  The “Get on with your life” is the telling part: no longer believing in God is not world shaking, but more like wafting away a bad smell or letting go of a bouquet of balloons.  The solid world around you remains untouched as that aged phantom drifts away.  This is less Nietzsche’s “Over-man” who heroically creates his own values in the wake of God’s death, and more a guy shrugging his shoulders as he waits in line for a latte.

The religious zeal of post-9/11 Christianity produced more who were interested in those seemingly dusty categories like “good” and “evil,” and the like; and yet the “Christian religions” that emerged were often hyperactive forms of what Noll has elsewehere called the grand experiment of American Christianity: “Americanized habits of mind guided arguments about the Christian faith, even as they shaped the positive articulation of Christian thinking” (America’s God, 237).  This included the almost reflex-level association of Republican values (not our current Republicans, mind you, but the value of Republic in general), Liberal (and neoLiberal)  economics, and what he calls “Common-Sense” theism which valued the autonomous rationality of the individual in a way earlier thought would have found disconcerting in its Augustinian moments.

To be sure, a lot of good came from this.  My point is not some blunt circumlocution for “anti-American Christianity.”  It is rather that just as the fractures Noll commented upon post-Civil war were exacerbated because neither the Northerners nor the Southerners could see how their theology and exegesis were often (and in good faith) shaped by prevailing assumptions peculiar to an American environment (economic individualism, for one), so too if this religious decline is accurate it seems to express not the decline of Christianity but the expulsion of many who mistook its “Americanized” forms as the only legitimate mode of expression, and saw them as false or unnecessary.

I am no social analyst (in fact, I often feel I hardly rise to the level of theologian, which is the profession to which I actually aspire) so I will make only a few points at this juncture and be done with it, offering as few hostages to fortune as is possible.  The first point is that this Christian decline, if it is real, must be viewed not as the rise of “Godlessness” in the abstract, but as something that has been generated by many of the internal pressures within (a particularly American) Christianity itself.  This will sound like I am a closet atheist here, but this is not the case.  What I mean is this: for the last 1500 years the Gospel has by and large only been heard through the apparatus of Christendom.  Which is to say the radical message of the Gospel, which undermine’s all human certainty, has for better or worse been heard within the constructions of all-too-human cultural and political institutions.  For better or worse Christianity has been in the society-building business, and in many ways it succeeded.  This is obviously not the place to argue this, but many of the values and forms of life we take for granted especially in America are the legacy of the Gospel working with materials from the Greeks and a variety of other host cultures.

Human rights, freedom, emancipation—these are all shadows cast by the long legacy of the Incarnate Christ.  But as many have argued—in particular I am thinking of the overlapping narratives of Charles Taylor and Brad Gregory—what occurred is that Christian constructions of society were often so successful that the particular nature of the adjective “Christian” could often be pushed aside and forgotten under the new shadow of the self-sufficient machine of daily life.

Christians of all sorts were like the Magician’s apprentice: they had given life to something, but that life could not be controlled or taken back.  As Noll puts it “Because the Churches had done so much to make America, they could not escape living with what they made” (America’s God, 194).  What we need to do, then, is not panic at this “decline” of affiliation, but as Bonhoeffer said, we must allow Christ to meet men and women where they are strong instead of pointing out where they are weak and need Christ.  The latter is, of course, also true, but what must be done is to avoid focusing on all of the faults of this new culture (although of course they are there and do need to be addressed) and create a recognition that the strengths of this brave new world are themselves found in Christ, even if they are not recognized as such.

The second point I would like to humbly suggest is that a form of theological education more than ever is needed.  I say this not because one cannot form healthy judgments without training in theology (although it doesn’t hurt), but precisely because the true nature and indeed, diversity of theological argumentation has been lost.  What appears to be theological argument (often over gay marriage, and the like) which has so exhausted many, is in fact little more than the lobbing of unstated presuppositions over the battlements.  What is being bandied about is not theological argumentation, but its ruin and vestige.  Without patience, there is no theology.  And there is on all sides, no patience, only presupposition.  If one has both liberal and conservative friends as I do, this will not be a foreign phenomenon: one need only look at the daily sound and fury of a Facebook feed to see how equal but opposite positions are generated based on “scriptural warrant.”  This is why a healthy pluralism—not a relativism—needs to be fully embraced.  Blind spots are troubling precisely because we do not see them.  This means opening up Christian history in its historical depth to the Fathers—but also to all the voices that have been marginalized in order to bring to the fore our own presuppositions, instead of throwing “theological judgments” at each other like stones.

Third, and finally, I want to make a point, but I will let the elegant words of David Bentley Hart (from his essay “No Enduring City”) do the work (again, warning, there is a generous text-chunk ahead):

The Church quickly assumed religious configurations appropriate both to its age and to its own spiritual content. Jewish Scripture provided a grammar for worship, while the common cultic forms of ancient society were easily adaptable to Christian use. And there was also a certain degree of natural “pseudomorphism” in the process, a crystallization of Christian corporate life (with all its novelty) within the religious space vacated by the pagan cults it displaced. This was inevitable and necessary; a wholly apocalyptic consciousness, subsisting upon a moment of pure interruption, can be sustained for only a very brief period. Even then, the alloy was never entirely stable. At least, it has often seemed as if the Christian event is of its nature something too refractory—the impulse to rebellion too constitutive of its own spiritual logic— to be contained even within its own institutions. This might be one of the reasons why Christianity over the centuries not only has proved so irrepressibly fis- sile (as all large religious traditions, to some degree, are), but has also given rise to a culture capable of the most militant atheism, and even of self-conscious nihilism. Even in its most enduring and necessary historical forms, there is an ungovernable energy within it, something that strives not to crystallize but rather to disperse itself into the future, to start always anew, more spirit than flesh or letter. I am not speaking, I hasten to add, of some sup- posed “inner essence” of the faith, some pure Wesen des Christentums that somehow became trapped in the amber of subsequent tradition. I am speaking, rather, of a distinct element of Christianity’s power that cannot be ignored without fundamentally ignoring the very character of the Gospel: an element that may occasionally generate certain intrinsic stresses within the Church, but that could not help but produce a far greater and more chronic tension once an extrinsic accommodation had been reached with political authority. This was, of course, a fruitful tension, producing as it did all the immense social goods of the Christian order: the cultural creativity, the slow amelioration of laws, the birth of the hospital, the establishment of an immeasurably richer moral grammar than the West had ever known, a whole vast and various range of artistic, technical, and scientific achievements—all of which were inseparable in one way or another from the radical revision of the under- standing of the human being and of nature that Christianity introduced into the world. Yet its moral failures were no less astonishing or numerous. And now we live in the time after Christendom, among the rapidly vanishing fragments of its material cul- ture, bound to it by only a few lingering habits of thought. Modernity is the post-Christian age, the reality of a culture that was shaped by the final fail- ure of that accommodation …Which yields the troubling thought that perhaps the historical force ultimately most destructive of the unity of the Christian culture of the West has been not principally atheism, materialism, capitalism, collectivism, or what have you—these may all be secondary manifestations of some deeper problem—but Christianity. Or, rather, I suppose I should say, an essential Christian impulse that, as a result of the contradictions inherent in Christendom, had become alienated from its true rationality and ultimate meaning. …So perhaps the best moral sense Christians can make of the story of Christendom now, from the special vantage of its aftermath, is to recall that the Gospel was never bound to the historical fate of any political or social order, but always claimed to enjoy a transcendence of all times and places. Perhaps its presence in human history should always be shatteringly angelic: It announces, even over against one’s most cherished expectations of the present or the future, a truth that breaks in upon history, ever and again, always changing or even destroying the former things in order to make all things new. That being so, surely modern Christians should find some joy in being forced to remember that they are citizens of a Kingdom not of this world, that here they have no enduring city, and that they are called to live as strangers and pilgrims on the earth. [Emphasis added]

All of this is to say that we need now to take the time–not necessarily to bemoan the emerging lack of spirituality–but to take a hard look at ourselves and our churches, and ask where we ourselves have inadvertently often created the very things we now dislike.  We must move beyond the rhetoric of “Christian worldview” to survey the innumerable (and often other-than theological) presuppositions that rightly feed our visions of things, so that we can begin dialogue, and not boil down ambiguous and complex discussions into black and white alternatives, and then declare by fiat “the” Biblical position.  Here we have not a decline in religion, but perhaps an opportunity, a first step toward breaking old habits, which focus our moments and thoughts like ready-worn channels guide water.

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