The web is abuzz with discussion about Jon Meacham’s recent Newsweek cover story, “The Decline and Fall of Christian America.” First, Meacham affirms, based upon recent surveys, that the number of self-professed Christians in America is declining. Second, he argues that the Christian Right in America has failed.
I agree with Meacham. Neither of these developments should cause Christians to be alarmed.
In a follow-up piece, Meacham distinguishes between “Christianity” and “Christian America”:
Note that we did not say we were discussing the decline and fall of Christianity, or even the decline and fall of Christianity in America. But “Christian America” is something else again. It is the vision of a nation whose public life is governed by explicitly articulated and adopted Christian principles in the hope, I think, that God will bless and protect the country and its people in the spirit of II Chron. 7:14. To see how well that is going from the perspective of the religious right, take a look at the news from Iowa and Vermont. I do not think, as some evangelicals do, that we are entering a “post-Christian” phase, but I do believe we are growing rather more secular than I would have anticipated even five years ago. The cumulative effect of a somewhat declining Christian population and a weakening Christian force in partisan politics is likely, I think, to lead to a more secular politics. Not wholly secular, to be sure, but more secular than we have been accustomed to in our Jesus-Winthrop-Reagan “city on a hill.”
Meacham’s article celebrates the separation of church and state as an alternative to this kind of “Christian America” thinking. As a Christian himself, he is concerned about what happens to his faith when it is wed too strongly to the political sphere. The separation of church and state, of course, is a longstanding tradition in American life, dating back to Roger Williams and the Baptists and James Madison and the United States Constitution. It is the theme of two good recent books on religion and the founding era: Meacham’s American Gospel and Steve Waldman’s Founding Faith.
Meacham is right to assert that Christianity thrives under a polity defined by religious liberty. It is strongest, and has always been strongest, when it functions outside the corridors of political power. In other words, the “Decline and Fall of Christian America” may not be a bad thing for the Church.
The responses to Meacham have been pouring in:
Albert Mohler, a conservative evangelical who is featured in the article, seems to generally agree that the era of the Christian Right is over. What concerns him is how the decline of America’s so-called Christian culture will impact evangelism:
…my greater concern is not with political influence and what secularization means for the political sphere, but with what secularization means for the souls of men and women who are now considerably more distant from Christianity — and perhaps even with any contact with Christianity — than ever before. My main concern is evangelism, not cultural influence.
I appreciate Mohler’s concern here. Evangelism is one of the defining characteristics of the evangelical movement. But does the Gospel spread more effectively in a Christian culture? There are all kinds of examples in human history when Christianity has thrived in a secular or non-Christian culture–a culture in which people were “distant from Christianity.” Think about the success of Christianity as it spread throughout Rome–a society that one would be hard pressed to call “Christian” (at least prior to the fourth century).
If American culture is indeed becoming “post-Christian,” or even “secular,” then the Christian message will become countercultural. Isn’t this what Christians should want? The City of God functions in the world, but it is not “of” the world. The Church might be smaller under such a scenario, but it would certainly be stronger–made up of true believers willing to follow what Jesus called the “narrow” road. Megachurches may not be quite as filled with people on Sunday mornings when the demands of being Christian in the world become increasingly harder and more costly.
As E.J. Dionne put it in his column in today’s Washington Post: “…something is changing, and that change will strengthen rather than weaken the Christian church over the long run.”
Despite these developments, America will remain a culturally “Christian” nation for some time. Pentecostalism and Catholicism, for example, are on the rise even as the political power of the Christian Right declines. And if we are indeed a post-Christian nation, believers should celebrate the fact that they will continue to have religious freedom under the First Amendment.
I am also not entirely convinced that we have seen the end of the Christian Right. As long as there is abortion, gay-marriage, and embryonic stem-cell research the Christian Right will continue to exist. But there is a difference between a Christian politician who promotes good laws rooted in Christian justice and a Christian politician who is out to build a country that is uniquely “Christian” based upon some sketchy or nostalgic vision of American history.
On one level, Christians should be concerned about the “Decline and Fall of Christian America.” Christians always want people to embrace the Gospel and should lament the fact that fewer people identify themselves with Christian faith. Perhaps this “decline and fall” might prompt Christians to put more effort into doing the work of the Church–fulfilling the Great Commission and loving God and neighbor. On the other hand, Christians should not be scared by these demographic developments. In fact, they just might do the Church some good.