The recent Newsweek cover story, “The Decline and Fall of Christian America,” has generated a lot of interest (and some controversy) over the Easter holidays. If you haven’t had a chance to read the story, check it out. It’s well worth it.
I’ve always really enjoyed reading Jon Meacham’s stuff. An editor, commentator, and best-selling author, he’s a great storyteller with fantastic insight into faith and religion in America. A practicing Episcopalian, he’s originally from the Chattanooga area, so there’s a local connection. I find him consistently engaging and fair.
Some have misunderstood the article to be about the decline of Christianity. But even a quick scan of the piece shows that Meacham actually focuses on the decline of “Christian America,” by which he means an approach to public life that is governed solely by Christian principles.
While we remain a nation decisively shaped by religious faith, our politics and our culture are, in the main, less influenced by movements and arguments of an explicitly Christian character than they were even five years ago. I think this is a good thing—good for our political culture, which, as the American Founders saw, is complex and charged enough without attempting to compel or coerce religious belief or observance. It is good for Christianity too, in that many Christians are rediscovering the virtues of a separation of church and state that protects what Roger Williams, who founded Rhode Island as a haven for religious dissenters, called ‘the garden of the church’ from ‘the wilderness of the world.’
Meacham cites the recent American Religious Identification Survey, which found that the number of Americans who claim no religious affiliation has nearly doubled over the past 20 years, rising from 8 to 15 percent. According to Meacham, “while the percentage of Christians may be shrinking, rumors of the death of Christianity are greatly exaggerated. Being less Christian does not necessarily mean that America is post-Christian.”
What Meacham observes instead is dwindling fervor for the notion that the U.S. should be governed by certain interpretations of the Bible or by Christian theology, an approach common among evangelicals.
“American public life is neither wholly secular nor wholly religious but an ever-fluid mix of the two,” he writes. “History suggests that trouble tends to come when one of these forces grows too powerful in proportion to the other...Worldly success tends to mark the beginning of the end for the overtly religious in politics. Prohibition was initially seen as a great moral victory, but its failure and ultimate repeal show that a movement should always be careful what it wishes for in America."
This reminded me of some interesting statistics we uncovered in reading the unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity, by David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons. The book focused on young people’s perceptions of Christianity, based on studies conducted by The Barna Group. These studies showed that while 85 percent of non-believers had a favorable opinion of Christianity’s role in society in 1996, those numbers have fallen sharply in recent years, to the point that 38 percent of young adults have a negative impression of present-day Christianity. Interestingly, this survey showed that when asked to identify society’s best-known Christians by name, young people identified the Pope, George W. Bush, and Billy Graham most often. Three-quarters of young adults without Christian affiliations described Christianity as “too involved in politics.” Nearly two-thirds said they perceive “the political efforts of conservative Christians” to be a problem facing America.
I wonder if perhaps the failures/unpopularity of the Bush administration actually affected the country’s perception of and identification with Christianity. Perhaps evangelicalism in particular has become so tied up with politics that the decline of Republicanism signals, to many, the decline of Christianity in public life.
Perhaps evangelicals should be careful what they wish for.
What do you think? Is the “decline of Christian America” a good thing or a bad thing?