With Easter fast approaching, Newsweek Magazine published a provocatively titled cover story ‘The Decline and Fall of Christian America’ by Jon Meacham. The cover had wording in red letters in the form of a cross on a black background. It was based on the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS), which stated the following:
The percentage of Americans who identify themselves as Christians has fallen from 86% in 1990 to 76% in 2009;
Those Americans who call themselves ‘unaffiliated’ rose from 8% in 1990 to 15% in 2009;
Atheists and agnostics have grown from 1 million in 1990 to 3.6 million in 2009 (my note: so, for that matter, has America’s overall population to over 300 million);
Unaffiliated may be ‘theists,’ in that they believe in ‘God’ or ‘gods,’ and they describe themselves as ‘spiritual’ rather than ‘religious.’
If Mr. Meacham wanted a response, he got one. Some said he was attacking Christianity. Others said the church was not declining but ‘doing just fine.’ One reader asked for Meacham’s resignation and that the magazine should be renamed ‘Opinion-Week’ instead of ‘Newsweek.’
Christianity in the United States is a topic that influences more than just America. It has been rightly said that no nation on earth has been influenced by Biblical Christianity more than the USA. America’s influence on global Christianity, including world missions, theological training, and church trends, has been incalculable. In the minds of much of the world, America and Christianity go hand-in-hand. For believers everywhere, the situation in America impacts the church worldwide.
In commenting on Christianity in America today, it is very important to get our facts straight. Christians should be committed to truth, and that commitment is poorly served if we react to the cover title alone. We at least owe Mr. Meacham, a self-proclaimed Christian but a ‘poor one,’ to read his article completely and carefully before responding.
His thesis is simple:
1. The amount of Christians who identify themselves as Christian has been declining, from ‘astronomical heights to semi-astronomical.’
2. That the ‘religious right,’ who are the theological and politically conservative culture warriors fighting everything from abortion to gay rights, has ‘failed.’
3. Traditionally, the Pacific Northwest (where my American family lives) has been the place of low church attendance and of the ‘religiously unidentified.’ Now, it is New England that is taking the lead.
This is startling because New England was where Christianity—the reformed Puritan version—took hold in the seventeenth century. Here the Pilgrims sailed on the Mayflower to seek religious freedom from the state church in England. Some of our famous educational institutions, like Harvard University (1636), were established to help train in Christian theology. Now, this American cradle of Christendom is going through an unwelcomed metamorphosis.
Meacham claims he has not written about the ‘decline of Christianity’ nor the ‘decline of Christianity in America,’ but the ‘decline of Christian America.’ What is this? In his words, Christian America:
‘…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.’
What can we make about Meacham and the larger scene of American Christendom? Or process this recent statement made by US President Barack Obama at a news conference in—of all places—the Muslim country of Turkey—where he said:
"One of the great strengths of the United States is ... we have a very large Christian population -- we do not consider ourselves a Christian nation or a Jewish nation or a Muslim nation. We consider ourselves a nation of citizens who are bound by ideals and a set of values."
So ‘Christian America’ has declined and fell? So America is not a Christian nation? Here are a few thoughts.
First, Christianity in America is not likely to disappear anytime soon. It is well-established and the numbers are simply too big to indicate otherwise. Meacham would agree with this. Even a 76% rate of Christians in the USA is still an overwhelming majority (in Australia, by contrast, the ‘Christian’ population is around 66%, according to the 2006 census). Though mainline Protestant churches in America have declined, the growing Hispanic population has beefed up the US Catholic church, and the Pentecostals are still popular.
Second, America has assiduously tried to keep ‘church’ and ‘state’ separate. The history of Europe, indeed the world, makes this a compelling goal. Usually there has been a tug-o-war between the two. Often times, the state prevails and seeks to control the church. On a few occasions, the church has assumed temporal power. This was true of the Catholic church in Europe; even John Calvin’s Geneva was no ‘New Jerusalem,’ as much as he may have tried otherwise. As Lord Acton so famously said, ‘Power corrupts; and absolute power corrupts absolutely.’ That is why it is important to render to Caesar what is Caesar and to God what is God’s (in this case, the church). Indeed, the church is better off not interfere or to be interfered with by the government. This is why the church is tax free, because God does not pay Caesar.
Though it is advisable to keep church and state separate, this does not mean the church should be voiceless in the public square. While it is unwise to endorse individual candidates and political parties publicly, when it comes to key issues like the welfare of the family, sanctity of life, freedom of speech, protection of Christian minorities in other countries, and human rights in general, there is a place for the church’s voice to be heard on high. This is not violating the separation of ‘church’ and ‘state,’ but merely showing responsible citizenship and moral leadership.
At the same time, Christianity in the USA and the world is facing some major challenges. The biggest is not through external competition, opposition, and persecution, but internal challenges. This has always been the case: the churches greatest foes have been within more than without.
Biblical literacy is decreasing, both in the pew and the pulpit (the reason for this could be the subject of another blog), including in churches that traditionally had a reputation for being Bible-centered. The same applies to the churches that once specialized in the Holy Spirit; the well has been stopped up by the Philistines (Genesis 26). The irony is that the outside community is more receptive to experiencing the supernatural and transcendent than any time in centuries. Yet, at the very time the community is open to a ‘full gospel’ message, the Pentecostal/Charismatic churches are going corporate, quiet, programmatic, and ‘Spirit-free’ rather than ‘Spirit-filled.’
Moral standards are also sliding and some Christians are sliding with it. Culture warrior Bill Muehlenberg wrote an SOS email when he posted a blog in defense of traditional, Biblical morality, and was challenged, if not attacked, by other Christians. Professing Christians are practicing perjury, philandering, and pornography, just to mention a few. Again, there are reasons for this and also solutions. The prevailing culture and postmodernism have made big inroads into western Christianity, and unless go through a ‘spiritual detox’ and return to an organic form of Christianity which includes God’s Word, the Holy Spirit, repentance, obedience, and discipleship, the decline will not just be of ‘Christian America’ but of Christianity in America and beyond.