Friday, April 10, 2009

Sunday Reflections for April 12, 2009: "Newsweek: End of Christian America?"

The most basic contours of American culture have been radically altered. The so-called Judeo-Christian consensus of the last millennium has given way to a post-modern, post-Christian, post-Western cultural crisis which threatens the very heart of our culture. (Albert Mohler in Newsweek)

Albert Mohler is the President of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville (one of the world’s largest seminaries). He was interviewed for the cover story of the most recent issue of Newsweek, titled “The End of Christian America”. As the quote above indicates, he is very disturbed by the religious trends in this country that have been highlighted in two recent surveys, the 2009 American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) and the one released last year by the Pew Trust. Both showed a continuing trend of fewer people identifying themselves not only as Christian but as having any religious identity at all. The ARIS results showed 15% answering “None” when asked to name their religion. Newsweek’s new poll reported 30% of Americans identifying themselves as “spiritual” rather than religious.

There is no question that this is a dramatic development and a genuine change in our cultural character. It is less clear what its significance is. Some, like Mohler, view it as a “the country is going to hell in a hand basket” moment. Conservative Christians like Mohler believe that Christianity is an essential element of our national identity and to lose it, or to have its influence significantly reduced, threatens its very foundations.

The author of the article, Newsweek religion editor Jon Meacham, is more sanguine. He believes religion doesn’t go away but it does change over time: “America, then, is not a post-religious society—and cannot be as long as there are people in it, for faith is an intrinsic human impulse.” In his view, the growing rejection of Christianity is the result of the church shooting itself in the foot. Evangelical Protestantism and conservative Catholicism both overreached in their attempts to impose their values on American society as a whole. Their strident battles against abortion, homosexuality, stem cell research, the teaching of evolution, and so on have not just alienated those holding different viewpoints. These struggles have led many to view Christianity as a threat to an even more fundamental value of American society, that of liberty. Meacham writes:

If we apply an Augustinian test of nationhood to ourselves, we find that liberty, not religion, is what holds us together. In "The City of God," Augustine —converted sinner and bishop of Hippo—said that a nation should be defined as "a multitude of rational beings in common agreement as to the objects of their love." What we value most highly—what we collectively love most—is thus the central test of the social contract.

For decades the Catholic Church has lived with the reality that a large portion of its members often disagree with and even disobey church teaching on social and moral issues. This same phenomenon is now being recognized in evangelical churches, especially among younger members. The haranguing by bishops and pastors to vote this or that way has turned off not only secular voters but even members of their own churches.

More importantly, the increasingly strident arguments that these various trends are evil and dangers to society just haven’t been persuasive. Younger people, especially, take our growing cultural diversity for granted. They use birth control, have gays as friends and family members, were taught evolution, and have increasing contact with members of other religions. At the same time they wonder why churches have shown little concern for global warming and the environment, clergy sexual abuse, and Third World poverty. In short, a growing number simply disagree with church positions in the “culture wars” while others, even if they are sympathetic, have just grown tired of all the shouting.

I think Meacham has this part right but I also think that this isn’t the whole story. What is significant about the recent survey results is not only that a growing number are leaving churches but also that they are not joining new churches (or even other religions) that they are more in sympathy with. Large numbers of younger people (under 40) especially have made the decision, consciously or not, that they can simply do without the organized religion experience altogether. The problems Meacham identifies may have pushed people out the church door but in the past most would have then searched for a new more comfortable pew to sit in. That isn’t happening now.

In a recent conversation with local ELCA pastors, one commented on the “deafening silence” from our bishops on the avalanche of stories about declining church membership and the succession of church closings just in our synod. The silence is telling but it may be a good sign actually. Mainline churches like the ELCA have tried just about everything to reverse their decline with no real results. Church leaders may be silent because they literally don’t know what to say anymore. It could be then that, like an alcoholic, the church is close to hitting bottom. By which I mean churches may finally be willing to consider genuinely radical change.

Until now congregations and denominations have been engaging in crisis management: How do we increase membership and offerings? What new staff and programs do we need? What staff and programs do we cut? How can we afford to fix the roof, keep the lights on, and pay the pastor’s salary? The assumed objective has always been to maintain the institution.

But what if this isn’t the goal? Does church or religion necessarily mean structured organizations with constitutions, officers, members, weekly gatherings, professional full-time clergy, and buildings costly to build and maintain? Frankly, the church has focused on these things for so long it’s hard to imagine it means anything else. Yet these are the things increasingly rejected by society or becoming economically unsustainable.

I disagree with Pastor Mohler that we are in a “crisis which threatens the very heart of our culture”. I think he is right that “there is a new narrative, a post-Christian narrative that is animating large portions of this society". It is a time for soul-searching, for innovation, and for genuine listening to the people and culture around us. As Meacham says, people will always have spiritual needs (and propping up ancient institutions is not one of those needs). What changes is how and where those needs are met. We need to face the fact that we are in the midst of one of those changes.

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