History News Network is running a piece entitled “Predicting the End of Faith in America.” The article is written by Charles Mathewes (BTW–I love his monograph, A Theology of Public Life) and Christopher McKnight Nichols. They are editors of a great new book: Prophesies of Godlessness: Predictions of America’s Imminent Secularization from the Puritans to the Present Day (Oxford University Press). Here is the Oxford’s description:
Prophesies of Godlessness explores the expectation of moral and religious change that has been voiced in America from the time of the Puritans to today. Predictions of “godlessness” in society — sometimes by those favoring the foreseen future, sometimes by those fearing it — have a history as old as America. There have been and continue to be patterns — what we call “scripts” — to these prophesies.These scripts have taken a sinuous and at times subterranean route, but they consistently inform the way we think about our future. This book excavates the history of these prophesies, attending in each chapter to a particular era, focal individual, community of thought, and conception of secularization. From the role of prophesies in Thomas Jefferson’s thought, to the Civil War, progressivism, the Scopes Trial, the Cold War and beyond, Prophesies of Godlessness argues that expectations about America’s future character and piety are not an accidental feature of American thought, but have been, and continue to be, essential to the meaning of the nation itself.
McKnight and Mathewes’s HNN piece place Jon Meacham’s Newsweek article, “The Decline and Fall of Christian America” (see my remarks on it here) in the larger context of the subject of their book. They write:
In his theatricalized hand-wringing about the future of Christianity (always a topic that sells magazines, particularly important in this down market), Meacham passes over the plentiful evidence of the persistent vitality of American religiosity, and ignores the way that not just Christianity but Protestantism shapes every American religion–so that, for example, Muslim and Buddhist religious organizations in America must still conform, even legally, to the institutional structures of those most Protestant of social realities, the local “church” and the national “denomination.”
Their statements about Meacham’s motives for writing the essay border on uncharitableness (I imagine that they too wrote their essay to sell more books “in this down market”–we are all, in some ways, guilty of this) and I do think they are probably right about the “Protestant social realities” to which non-Christians must conform.
But more importantly, I do not think Mathewes and McKnight do justice to Meacham’s argument. Granted, Meacham may be predicting “godlessness” in America, but he is responding to legitimate statistics on Christianity’s decline. This makes him quite different from the historic cases Mathewes and McKnight include in their book. Moreover, Meacham connects the decline of Christianity in America to the fall of the Christian Right, one particular form of Christianity. As Meacham wrote in a recent follow up piece:
Some have read the piece (or, I suspect, the cover line) as an attack on Christianity, which it is not and which would, in any case, be an act of self-loathing, since I am a Christian, albeit a poor one. 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.”
It seems a bit of a stretch to connect Meacham’s Newsweek essay with the apocalyptic and prophetic movements–the “prophecies of Godliness”–that have occurred throughout the course of American history.
In other words, Meacham’s article is not a jeremiad. And he is no prophet.