Sunday, April 5, 2009

A Post-Christian America?

Jon Meachem of Newsweek has a detailed article on the perceived entrance into a post-Christian America. Interweaving polls with interviews, recent events, gospel citations, and religious and American history, Meachem explores the make-up of a post-Christian America, if existent. Near the beginning of the article, he offers this understanding:
There it was, an old term with new urgency: post-Christian. This is not to say that the Christian God is dead, but that [God] is less of a force in American politics and culture than at any other time in recent memory.
Meachem cites the American Religious Identification Survey saying that America is becoming less Christian and less religious, the lack of denominational identification and the individualization of theology, the increasing lack of influence of religion in politics, the Religious Right's perception that the culture wars are lost and their increasing disengagement from politics, to show that, in fact, the religious milieu of American life has in fact changed. Meachem, still early in the article, believes this is generally a good thing:
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 .... As crucial as religion has been and is to the life of the nation, America's unifying force has never been a specific faith, but a commitment to freedom—not least freedom of conscience. At our best, we single religion out for neither particular help nor particular harm; we have historically treated faith-based arguments as one element among many in the republican sphere of debate and decision. The decline and fall of the modern religious right's notion of a Christian America creates a calmer political environment and, for many believers, may help open the way for a more theologically serious religious life.

Let's be clear: 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. ... [T]here is no doubt that the nation remains vibrantly religious—far more so, for instance, than Europe.
The rest of the article follows this argument through, and whether you agree or disagree, the article is well worth your time.


Anonymous said...

I, for one, would welcome a world that shines a light without forcing that light down my throat. I've had Christians tell me that I'm lying about my faith because I'm not a Republican, and because I won't put a second mortgage on my home to build a larger church. My faith is mine, my politics are mine, and my gratitude for the separation of church and state is overflowing.

Drew said...

My faith is mine, my politics are mine, and my gratitude for the separation of church and state is overflowing.

Wow. Well said.

matt said...

yikes, many tentacles.

as a theological junkie, Drew, i'm sure you realize that America was founded by, and only until recently populated by, what most people these days would call, "bible beaters".

if you believe, christianity is infallible, however, christians are not. it's a very important distinction that most overlook. there would be no state without church, so the separation is not possible - also a fact that most overlook.

if you follow your faith, as our founders did, so should your politics. it's your faith interpretation that determines the level of your infallibility.

Anonymous said...

I think you mean, "Bible thumpers," Matt. I did not study theology, but do have a masters in American history and the Reformation. If you believe that this country was founded upon "Bible thumping," you are wrong. Or, fallible.

This country was populated by individuals who rebelled against or who were under the protection of the Church of England. And, the New England states initially were much more religious than the south. Church of England as Bible thumpers? Hardly. Even the Huguenots who landed in Virginia in 1700 - Calvinist as they were - were forced to read from the Church of England's prayer book, although they MAY have learned how to read from a Bible. There is no documentation on this theory, however.

Talk about church and state connectivity...that's what the Revolutionary War was about - to separate us from Great Britain AND its church. Hence, the separation of church and state re: Jefferson.

"Bible thumping," or evangelical religion had fits and spurts throughout this country's history until the 20th century when it went mainstream through televangelism. This country, although moving away from a "church-state" connection, is much more religious now than it ever was upon its founding.

I don't believe I was born into a religion, Matt. But, I was born American. There's a vast difference there, because I am free to join the religion of my choice. I am free to believe as I choose to believe. That is because I am an American.

matt said...

Anon - sorry that your entire post was based on an incorrect interpretation of my first sentence (see, drew, what happens when people place their own meaning behind others' words?).

What I meant was that our founders were religious people and that they openly stated that their religious views shaped their viewpoints, i.e. we were all endowed by our Creator.... These days, people who talk openly about how their belief in God guides their moral and social beliefs, are often labeled as having "extreme" religious viewpoints.

That's all. I was not making the case for state to endorse church, nor would i ever. What I was saying is that faith in God and the values system thereof are what our founding and all our laws are based on, and that the conversion from a "religious" country to a "spiritual" country may not be a good thing.

ps - not sure what the last paragraph was about, but i agree.

Anonymous said...

Hello Matt - It would help if you meant what you wrote. Otherwise, you can blame anyone in misunderstanding you. Nice trick. I would make another comment on your latest, but - gut feeling - you would manage to make my comment 'wrong' again by stating that I misunderstood you - again. So, I'm outtie.

Kent H said...

Oh how I love this subject.

Our nation is the greatest that has ever graced the pages of history because we understood and gladly embraced the power and focus of religious faith on the public culture without making any one religious mandatory by law (unlike the governments of other faith-systems). The nation our founders erected was not a "Christian" nation in that the church and state were co-laborers and co-dependent. Each had its field of influence. But people of political strength were often people of faith (Washington, Henry, Adams). And people of faith had their political views and expressions informed by their philosophical/religious views (Jefferson, Madison). The nation founded in Philadelphia was one of religious freedom (a Christian sentiment)and expressed quite well by Steven Waldman in his book, "Founding Faith".

Frankly, we have not always lived up to our ideals. Established religions in individual states were common and the last state (Mass) dis-established in the 1820's. Slavery was a brazen disregard of our ideals but a mainly religous conservative and biblically fundamental movement forced the issue here and abroad (Wilberforce, anti-slavery Christian groups, etc.)

We may be "post-Christian" in the sense that the Christian worldview does not dominate the views of as many people as it once did. But, as the article states, that does not mean that the Christian sentiments of freedom of faith, freedom of conscience, justice, and liberty are dead. Hardly. We are still free (for now). Thank God.

Drew said...

Great response, Kent. I've been chewing for a day or so on how to respond to matt, and you took some of the air out of my tires.

In the sense that a post-Christian America means the disentanglement of religion and politics - despite the fact that politicians can be religious - I think it is a good thing, for both religion and politics. And, Kent shows the history here well.

Yet, I am uncomfortable with some parts of a post-Christian America. I don't like that our Christianity has become a warm and fuzzy feeling, with vague theological understandings of the tenets of our faith. That is a bad thing. But, religion is resilient, and Christianity especially so. So, let's not overreact and think gloomy thoughts. Everything will be okay, just the pervasive interaction of religion in our public life will look different. That's all.

And, Matt, like I have said before, and Anonymous alluded to, your statements could be interpreted several ways. I understood "bible beaters" as "bible thumpers" also. What, if anything is the difference? Remember, we cannot be in your head to understand your intention, so don't belittle our perceptions. Perceptions matter, and in this case, you did not write as clearly on this thought.

And to another point, nobody calls people "extreme" for openly and vocally professing beliefs. I do not, and people I know do not. People, however, do get anxious when others are seemingly compelled (legislatively, socially, morally) to follow your professed beliefs - remember we were founded on the freedom to choose which belief system in which we want to adhere. And "extremism" is when literal and physical violence forces one doctrinal belief over people who do not believe the same.

Did I answer everything. Thanks matt, Anonymous, and Kent for a great discussion so far!

Darren Staley said...

I have waded into this argument before and really don't want to do so again, but what the heck.

For every quote that makes a founder sound religous I can find two that make them sound athiest (and vice versa).

In the end this was a diverse group of athiests, thiests, agnostics, evangelicals, etc.

What they all had in common was that no one belief was better than another (or none at all) in the eyes of the government.

Another common belief among them was that faith should always be questioned and debated in one's life. Hence the contradictory statements.

These guys were enlightenment thinkers. The study and practice of faith was important to them, and to society.

But their primary concern was for the common good. Many were opposed to slavery, but left it intact because opposition would have killed the new government by dividing the nation (see Civil War).

This was actually a smart move. They new that public opinion would eventually shift and created a form of government that could adapt to shifting opinions without conceding to mob rule.

It's really pretty simple. If your representative votes for bad legislation, they can be voted out of office.

If your president appoints bad judges, he must first get advice and consent of the Senate. If it still gets through you can vote out your senator and president.

The founders, regardless of their faith or mine or yours, created a democratic republic, not a democracy.

They did so because they realized that opinions change and science grows over time while also realizing that sudden, radical change could lead to rebellion.

America was created to move forward, not backward, to adapt, to grow, to evolve. IMO, so was theology.

Drew said...

Very well said, Darren.

matt said...

let's forget i used the phrase "bible beater," cuz it's just causing confusion. just imagine the reception today's politician would receive if he/she walked around talking about freedom from tyranny, faith in God, equal rights for all people, rights endowed by our Creator? think they'd catch some flack? anyway, that's really besides the point and not totally related to the theme of drew's post.

i stand by my comment regarding one's faith in guiding political policy. daily we are told that the two should be separate.
i just hope that they don't become to far separated.

and drew, anon, no belittlement intended - frankly i think we agree on this subject more than you think. but it's hard to write concisely on a subject so complicated. Kent did an awesome job, though.

Drew said...

matt, I think you would have liked the guy I helped elect, Tom Perriello. Talked openly about his faith, and how his faith compelled him to go over seas to help end genocide and civil wars. During the campaign, he and staff tithed 10% of our time to local charities and community organizations.

Democrats loved him, even those uneasy with faith in politics. So people are willing to have their politicians discuss religion openly and freely. People get very nervous, and writefully so, when politicians try to legislate their religious beliefs. There is a difference in informing voters on how one comes to decisions (a la religion), and then using that religion through legislative means. I know this is a big tangent here, but that might be where we are getting caught up. We have not yet made that distinction on this post ... a distinction made on several times on other posts.

Does that help, matt?

matt said...

yeah, a slight tangent, but i understood, and wasn't really debating that point. however, i maintain that the average person isn't as thoughtful as you are, or even the people around you (since we tend to hang with like-minded people) when it comes to religion and politics. we are usually treated to blanket "separation of church and state" responses without any further thought.

i think we got caught up because someone thought i was calling our founders bible beaters (or thumpers - maybe that's a northern thing :)), when all i was trying to say is that i think that is how some people *today* would have perceived them; thought they clearly were not.

Pat Carr said...

I have enjoyed your great historical discussion but I would like to move it to the present time and a personal insight as to what is happening to many people I know who have been involved with religion during these times but are now moving away from their churches.

As a person entering her 60th year I find myself among those struggling with their faith. I used to see it as a struggle with the institutional church, for whom I worked for 25 years, but I now believe it is deeper then that. The dualism of western religion, the patriarchal language, the idea of an elsewhere God, the certainty of the "authority" figures, the dry liturgies which seem disconnected from the "signs of the times", rituals that ask me to suspend my intellect, all of this and more, which religion offers me just leaves me thirsting for something deeper.

Recently in small groups and in one on one discussions I have found that many of my friends feel the same way. As Catholics who embraced Vatican II we lived through some exciting times when things seemed to be changing in the church and a spiritual awakening seemed to be coming to life. All of that is being rolled back and what is left is dry and lifeless.

I find myself drawn to the writings of Diarmuid O'Murchu, Michael Morewood & Thomas Berry, the first two are Catholic priests who are moving outside of the institutional church and are looking at creation,science, relationships and faith in very different ways, ways that I am sure would horrify Rev. Mohler. These writings offer a connectedness that I find missing even in the vibrant church communities I have been involved with. They seem to concentrate more on how one lives out their faith and follows the example of Jesus and other great figures -- how one reaches out to others with love, forgiveness and healing.

Anthony DeMello, one of my favorite spiritual teacher said it is not so much about being loved, what is important is "to love". I guess I am looking for a community of people who want to live that out while we honor each other and the world around us.

Darren Staley said...

One last point I would like to address. There are those who say that we are founded on Judaeo-Christian principles. There are those that say we were founded as a Christian nation.

The former is a cop-out, the latter is just untrue in the political sense.

We were founded as a diverse yet moral nation. It was left to the people, not the Bible (or lack thereof) to define morality.

Ben Franklin would never get elected today. Neither would Jefferson. To go a step further, neither would Jesus.

I will throw out a challenge to every theologian in the room. Make Jesus a candidate for president.

Create a ten-point political platform with today's issues..war, economy, environment, health care, church and state, abortion, gay rights, gun control, prison reform, etc.

There are only two requirements:

You must use the actual words of Jesus as told in the New Testament.

Your plan must be relevant to today's political environment.

Let's run Jesus for Prez here.

Drew said...

Pat, excellent comment. I promise that I will get respond later tonight when I get a chance, free from work. I think you have hit on one of the core issues here, that is the problem with many people's understanding of Christianity right now, and that movement towards spiritualism that we are seeing.

A Faithful Reader said...

What a great discussion. Gleaning from the responses I am encouraged by the prospect of true separation of church and state. That means not having the government involved in the sacred rites and customs inside the religious meeting place. It means that those in support of separation from religion can stand with equal footing with those that support separation for religion. It means having a rule of law that is based on our collective conscience, rather than the rules of one religion over another.

But a Post Christian America does not mean a Post Christian era, or a Post Christian world. Christianity will survive, and the freedoms given within our constitution will remain, no matter.

A government should never be able to divide a person from free exercise of one's beliefs. A church should never have the power to divide a person of another faith or belief system from full unhampered protection and responsibility under the national government.

If Post Christian America means to some to be that Christians will no longer be a factor in our elections, I would disagree. If Post Christian America means to some that persons of other religions and beliefs can and will have an impact on our national policy and vision, I would agree.

Anon, Matt, Drew, Kent, Pat and Darren thank you for allowing me to share in this great discussion.

Drew said...

Pat, I've been thinking about your comment all day now, and really think that you get to the heart of some of the problem: many people view those theological tenets and ecclesiastic practices as unsatisfactory or spiritually unfulfilling. You're litany is long, and many would echo your sentiments. This is the sad side of a post-Christian America, that we have lost our faith in the Christian faith.

Humanity, in general, has advanced much during the past centuries, and the Church and theology has been resistant to catch up. "Catching up" has been viewed negatively, like it would compromise the fundamental tenets of our faith. As such, things like science have been generally viewed as combative and assualting agents, instead of as complimentary partners in the search for Truth. Orthodoxy has remained static while our understandings of our environment, world, and universe around us grows exponentially daily. This has catalyzed a crisis of faith in many Americans, who embrace the notion of a higher power, but cannot find adequate answers in contemporary teachings. People, I suspect, are leaving those orthodoxical teachings behind and creating the new individualized understanding of God and our relationship therein. We are wondering from denomination to denomination, from religion to religion to search for the answers, seemingly to no avail.

The good news, and there is much, is that new voices (you name some there, though I don't know Catholic theologians well) are emerging (they just don't have the trumpet yet) to "modernize" the Gospel message. And, I don't think this is watering down or compromising our theological tenets. Incorporating new data into our core concerns is always a good thing, in my opinion. To those who disagree with that, I would say, again, that religion, and Christianity especially, is resilient. It may go through tough times, and perhaps we are in those tough times, but it will re-emerge re-visioned and strong. I can't guarantee that, but it follows historical trends.

Anonymous said...

I'm taken with Kent's post, as his comments make for a great summary for the best thoughts about America and its religions. But, Darren's post makes more sense to me. However, I am most taken with Pat's post, as I can totally empathize with Pat's concerns. Pat, your concerns are the same concerns that many individuals in this country had with the Church of England in 1771.

Pat - I left the church thirty years ago and I only attend now when I visit my parents, mainly out of respect to them. But, I never left my faith, nor did I stop trying to learn about my religion (and other religions - because I have the freedom to do so). I learned that I can take my faith with me, no matter where I go.

I had to step away from what you so aptly described as "dualism of western religion, the patriarchal language, the idea of an elsewhere God, the certainty of the "authority" figures, the dry liturgies which seem disconnected from the "signs of the times", rituals that ask me to suspend my intellect, all of this and more, which religion offers me just leaves me thirsting for something deeper."

When I stepped away from the church (and I was not a Catholic - your concerns, I think, go beyond a specific religion), I actually experienced physical pain. Everything in my world seemed upside down. But, I discovered that this catharsis was what I needed to learn how to become deeper with my faith and to trust that faith. As a woman, I firmly believe that I never would have found this depth had I stayed with any one of the churches I explored.

This is why I am so adamant about the separation of church and state as I don't want anything to do with churches. So, I don't want churches to have anything to do with my politics. With that said, I don't mind hearing a political leader talk about his or her faith (I just don't want to hear about his or her church).

Darren said it best for me when he said, "In the end this was a diverse group of athiests, thiests, agnostics, evangelicals, etc."...What I was saying, Matt, is that I am eternally grateful that I was born in this country, as I still have the freedom worship the way I choose.

I don't believe Christianity is getting 'soft' at all. What I do believe is that the traditional church is in deep trouble. And, thankfully so. Perhaps a non-political stance is best - it may grant some churches time and energy to address other issues.