TO THE PERPLEXITY of many nonbelievers, the United States remains a stubbornly religious nation. While much of the developed world, especially Western Europe, charts an ever more secular course, large percentages of Americans continue to believe in God, question the theory of evolution, and belong to a church or other place of worship. Religion permeates America’s public life, suffusing political discourse and inspiring widespread debate over such fundamental issues as sexuality, science, and the sanctity of human life. In the headquarters of global capitalism, God’s name is on the money — and on seemingly everything else.
Yet there is an irony at the heart of American religiosity. Though faith is arguably one of the most important influences on American politics and society, the observers best positioned to understand and explain that influence — academics, journalists, artists, writers — tend to be far less religious than the rest of society; they pay less attention to faith than to other issues that they care about more. The common charge from conservatives that the so-called liberal, urban “elites” are anti-religious is an exaggeration, but studies do show that higher levels of education and income correlate with lower levels of religious belief. And America’s religiously unaffiliated are concentrated right where you’d expect to find them, in the Northeast and coastal West, according to the Pew Research Center.
Hence, it’s not surprising that the nation’s major media outlets devote fewer resources to covering religion than they do to technology, the entertainment industry, or politics. The New York Times and the Washington Post each assigns one or two full-time reporters to the religion beat. The Los Angeles Times assigns none. Apart from a few standouts like Stanford anthropologist T. M. Luhrmann, who writes about evangelical Christians for The New York Times op-ed page, few academics specializing in the study of religion gain a wide public readership by writing about Americans’ faith. In one of the world’s most religious nations, there is a surprising lack of religious knowledge, especially among the intelligentsia. (The recent awarding of two major literary prizes to Harvard professor Stephen Greenblatt’s 2011 book The Swerve, which advances an anti-religious thesis on the basis of sloppy and error-ridden historical research, illustrates this point. For more on this, see my review in these pages.)
Into this gap comes a recent spate of books written by the very people of faith who feel most maligned and misunderstood by secular America — conservative Christians. These books, by an intriguing mix of evangelical Christian and conservative Catholic pastors, academics, and journalists, are important because they are among the first attempts to understand a major shift in contemporary American religiosity that, though still largely unreported, is already exerting a profound influence on society. That shift — a decline in once-dominant evangelical Christianity coupled with a rise in secularism and extra-denominational and non-Christian immigrant faith communities — is captured in an ever-growing list of titles that read like tryouts for America’s Last Sermon Ever.
Conservative Catholic New York Times op-ed columnist Ross Douthat was arguably first in this emerging genre with his Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, published in 2012. Douthat was followed in 2013 by The Great Evangelical Recession: Six Factors That Will Crash the American Church … and How to Prepare, by an Arizona investigative journalist turned evangelical pastor named John Dickerson. Also published in 2013 was A Call to Resurgence: Will Christianity Have a Funeral or a Future? by popular Seattle megachurch pastor Mark Driscoll. These books can be seen as fulfillments of early warnings about Christianity’s rocky future, which began appearing roughly in tandem with the foundering of George W. Bush’s presidency in the middle of the last decade. In 2007, a respected Christian market research organization called The Barna Group published unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity … and Why It Matters, an unsparing collection of poll research showing that young Americans hold overwhelmingly negative views of evangelical Christianity. Similarly foreboding findings appeared the following year in journalist Christine Wicker’s The Fall of the Evangelical Nation, and writer/pastor David T. Olson’s The American Church in Crisis.
The common thread in these books is the contention that Christianity, especially conservative Christianity, is rapidly losing strength and cultural authority in a changing America. Charting Americans’ religious beliefs is notoriously tricky, as comparison between any two religion-related polls will attest. Nevertheless, these authors’ argument that conservative Christianity — both evangelical Protestantism and conservative Catholicism — is losing sway in America has become the consensus view of most experts who study American religiosity. In 2012, the Pew Research Center made headlines with a study showing that for the first time, the percentage of Americans claiming no religious affiliation (19.6 percent) surpassed the number of white evangelical Protestants (19 percent). Other surveys conducted in recent years (by Gallup, the General Social Survey, Baylor University, and other research organizations) show declines in the number of people who identify as Christian, believe in God, and attend church regularly. American Catholicism has undergone its own similar involution, with nearly half of all Catholics under age 40 now Hispanic and a majority of Catholics favoring same-sex marriage, according to Pew. Meanwhile, the number of Muslims in America has risen rapidly, more than doubling since 1990. In the most recent (2008) American Religious Identification Survey, Islam surpassed Mormonism as America’s fastest growing faith.
For conservative Christians, the turnabout has been disorienting. Just 10 years ago, conservative Christianity appeared ascendant, with a coalition of evangelical Protestants and conservative Catholics twice electing a born-again Christian to the presidency and, in 2004, outlawing gay marriage in 11 states. Today, laws against same-sex marriage are being rolled back and conservatives have failed to budge debate over access to contraception in the new health law. The Tea Party, which pairs evangelicals in an uneasy alliance with an increasingly assertive libertarian movement, is now a dominant force in Republican politics, shouldering aside once-feared evangelical organizations such as the Christian Coalition. Key evangelicals, stung by polls showing younger Americans are turned off by strident conservatism, have begun pivoting politically, as have Catholic bishops in response to Pope Francis’s attempt to reorient his church toward evangelism and social justice. Last year, prominent evangelical leaders, including the political director of the Southern Baptist Convention, spurned the Tea Party and emerged as prominent backers of comprehensive immigration reform. Evangelical leaders told me they were responding to demographic change in America: both the rise of immigrants in their churches and the emergence of a younger, more politically progressive generation of Christians. Yet in a sign of Christians’ diminished political clout, so far evangelicals’ fervent activism on this issue has failed to garner congressional Republican support.
The broader cultural implications of this shift in American religiosity are immense and deserve careful study. The books considered in this essay don’t supply such study — but then, that’s not their aim. Change has come so quickly to American conservative Christianity that conservatives are still scrambling to understand the challenges they face, and to persuade one another that their problems are real, which is telling. Reading these books is like listening in on a board meeting as corporate executives struggle to come to terms with sudden massive economic decline. The errors and off notes in each book — and there are plenty, ranging from counterfactual history to weird persecution complexes — are as valuable as the books’ many passages of sound reportage and insightful critique. After decades in which conservative Christians went from strength to strength in America, growing in numbers and political clout, suddenly they are facing a moment of acute self-doubt. The contours of that doubt can help more neutral observers gain a fuller understanding of America’s changing religious present, and its future.
The starting premise of each book is the claim that Christianity, especially conservative Christianity, is declining in America. For Ross Douthat, that decline is evidenced by present-day America’s near total abandonment of what he describes as a broad-based Christian culture that flourished in the decades following World War II, when rates of churchgoing were at an all-time high and Christian intellectuals such as C. S. Lewis and Reinhold Niebuhr enjoyed wide readerships. Like most conservatives, Douthat traces the downfall of this “lost world” (a chapter title in his book) to the tumult of the 1960s, when Vietnam War protests and the sexual revolution shattered America’s cultural consensus. To his credit, Douthat includes other factors in his analysis: the centrifugal forces of globalized capitalism; Reagan-era celebration of personal wealth; suburbanization and its accompanying effects on families and work patterns; the postwar rise of an educated class with little interest in religious faith; and a corresponding conservative Christian reaction against intellectual endeavor.
Douthat also cogently discusses various “heresies” (again, his term) that rushed to fill the spiritual vacuum left by Christianity’s retreat. He pokes fun at the amateurism and self-indulgence of historical Jesus scholars who purport to uncover the “real” Jesus under layers of biblical accretion. He has plenty of company documenting the excesses of prosperity gospel hustlers and New Age purveyors of latter-day enlightenment. And, surprisingly for a conservative writer, he is forthright in his denunciation of the religious nationalism that seized conservative Christianity in the years following the September 11 terrorist attacks.
Ultimately, however, Douthat’s account of Christianity’s plight is hobbled by an inability to grapple with the faith’s decidedly mixed role in American history. The “lost world” of Christian hegemony Douthat eulogizes is a chimera. In fact, scholars have long pointed out that the civic faith that held sway in America following World War II was just that — a form of civic, not religious, solidarity in a nation reeling from the effects of war and desperate for a stabilizing social force. Douthat acknowledges that the church of the 1950s and 1960s could have done more to advance the cause of civil rights and end the war in Vietnam. Yet he fails to wrestle with the fact that many of America’s most virulent forms of racism and colonialism were outgrowths of the cultural consensus he celebrates, particularly in the case of conservative Southern Christianity. To contrast the weakened church of today with its more muscular counterpart of decades past, Douthat invokes the idea of orthodoxy, a basic commonality of belief supposedly shared by Christians for centuries — until 1960s radicals, biblical scholars, liberal churchmen, and the secularizing forces of American capitalism fractured the faith. This is simply bad history. The history of Christianity, as surveys such as Diarmaid MacCulloch’s Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years amply demonstrate, is a chronicle of often-violent theological disputes, schisms, reformations, and reformulations of even basic theological tenets. The notion of orthodoxy, often invoked by people of faith seeking to block new theological or cultural developments, has always been a fluid concept. Christians in the fourth century couldn’t agree on the divinity of Jesus. A thousand years later they fought wars over the basic definition of Christian salvation. Modern-day Episcopalians’ ordination of women priests is hardly the orthodoxy-wrecking development Douthat makes it out to be.
Douthat’s most persuasive chapters are those devoted to recent decades. The same is true for other conservatives’ attempts to diagnose their church’s ills, especially the work of John Dickerson. Dickerson, who leads a medium-sized church in the Arizona mountain town of Prescott, grew up the son and grandson of Baptist ministers. Before going into ministry, he worked as an investigative reporter for Phoenix New Times, an alternative newspaper. In 2008 he won a Livingston Award for a series exposing lax state oversight of criminally negligent doctors. In The Great Evangelical Recession, Dickerson turns his reporter’s eye on his own religious tradition, documenting in unsparing detail both evangelical Christianity’s recent decline and the numerous ways evangelicals have only themselves to blame for their situation:
While we focus on a few large churches and dynamic national leaders, the church’s overall numbers are shrinking. Its primary fuel — donations — is drying up and disappearing. And its political fervor is dividing the movement from within. In addition to these internal crises, the outside host culture is quietly but quickly turning antagonistic and hostile toward evangelicals.
The signposts are obvious, but many of the leaders who most need to see and plan for these trends are too busy to notice the broad cultural shifts. Others are too deceived by current success to believe that industries and ministries, like governments, can topple almost overnight in the fast-paced 21st century.
Dickerson’s statistics are eye-opening and, for anyone who cares about the future of American Christianity, sobering. Two hundred and sixty thousand evangelical young people walk away from their faith every year, he reports. Two-thirds of Christian 20-somethings will abandon their faith before they turn 30. Evangelicals nearing or past retirement age now supply the majority of their churches’ income. Younger members are not stepping up financially as their elders die off.
Dickerson, whose op-eds have appeared in USA Today, The New York Times, and elsewhere, does not hesitate to lay blame where he thinks it belongs. He condemns evangelicals’ foray into national politics as an unqualified disaster: it divided churches, won scant political gains, and earned Christians a hard-to-shake reputation as hypocritical, hard-hearted bigots. He is withering about megachurch pastors’ embrace of corporate-style growth strategies, which he asserts squandered their moral authority and deprived worshippers of essential pastoral care and faith formation. It’s no surprise, he writes, that Christians are abandoning such a shallow, divisive faith: “Somewhere along the way, our focus on programs and techniques, dollars, ministry size, and perhaps even powerful worship distracted us from the basics. […] [W]e have failed to take care of Christ’s sheep. Now we are losing them.”
For readers outside the evangelical fold, Dickerson’s critique no doubt will represent a welcome sign that leaders of what is often considered a hermetic, self-righteous movement are fully capable of acknowledging their shortcomings. They will also be quick to discern a significant off note in Dickerson’s argument. To persuade his audience of complacent pastors that evangelicals are now viewed with hostility by much of mainstream America, Dickerson zeros in on what he calls a rapidly growing “pro-homosexual and anti-Christian reactionism” in American culture. As evidence of this backlash he cites a variety of news stories about Christians arrested or otherwise disciplined for reading Bibles in public, praying at gay pride events, proselytizing to Muslims, and expressing their faith in public schools. What’s surprising about this litany of events (apart from the fact that Dickerson attributes them to the “planned and pained schemes” of Satan) is that nearly all of them are derived from highly partisan conservative news sources (http://christianexaminer.com, http://freerepublic.com, http://politics4all.com, http://onenewsnow.com, etc.), which a journalist of Dickerson’s caliber ordinarily wouldn’t regard as authoritative. This chapter, which Dickerson titles simply “Hated,” is the one anomaly in an otherwise carefully researched and argued book.
It’s a telling anomaly though. Dickerson’s claims of nascent anti-Christian persecution are echoed by other conservative writers. Seattle megachurch pastor Mark Driscoll predicts in his Call to Resurgence that he will be sanctioned by public authorities for preaching that homosexual sex is a sin. What’s symptomatic about Dickerson’s and Driscoll’s weirdly paranoid depictions of their movement’s troubles is their failure to recognize the actual source of those troubles. Dickerson’s reportage on Americans’ changing religious behavior is all sound and backed up by nonpartisan research organizations. Driscoll is on similarly firm ground when he cites copious journalistic and social science evidence for what he describes as America’s recent straying from traditional Christian mores (e.g., growing acceptance of internet pornography, a steady rise in single-parent households, precocious sexual activity among teens, etc.). It’s only when these authors attempt to identify culprits for Christianity’s decline that they veer into arguments most secular readers would regard as bizarre.
Why? Because the chief problem facing conservatives is not simply demographic or cultural change in America but rather conservatism itself — a particular approach to Christian theology and practice that worked well for churches during a certain period in American history but now has become a serious impediment. That approach combined (selective) biblical literalism with American religious nationalism to produce a Christian worldview that was strong enough to withstand the cultural upheavals of the 1960s but flexible enough to embrace the Reagan-era turn toward free-market capitalism and cultural individualism. Conservatives already have begun shedding parts of this mix, as evidenced by evangelicals’ pivot on immigration reform. Biblical literalism, though, and its accompanying inflexibility on sexual issues, has proven harder to change. And therein lies the problem.
The problem is twofold. First, insisting on the literal, unalterable truth of Scripture (expressed in Catholicism as the unimpeachable authority of church doctrine) forces conservative Christians into unnecessary conflict with secular society, especially over issues of sexuality (issues that are far less straightforward in the Bible and church history, by the way, than conservatives claim). Second, rigid literalism makes it extremely difficult for conservatives to change course, even when compelling arguments are raised against their particular biblical interpretations. One of young people’s chief complaints about present-day Christianity, polls show, is that the faith is antiscience. Christianity itself is not antiscience, and many scientists (including Francis Collins, the current director of the National Institutes of Health) are practicing Christians. But biblical literalists are antiscience, and their inability to let go of the idea that Scripture trumps scientific evidence constitutes a needlessly self-inflicted wound. When Orange County megachurch pastor Rick Warren, author of the best-selling The Purpose Driven Life and invited to give the invocation at Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration, claimed in a 2007 Newsweek-sponsored debate that although he knew “metaphorical terms are used,” he didn’t believe in evolution because “I do believe Genesis is literal,” he arguably turned as many people away from Christianity as he’d drawn to the faith during all his preceding years writing and preaching.
Conservatives are similarly boxed in — and increasingly regarded as hypocritical, polls show — on sexual and economic issues. I’m a religion reporter, and I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve interviewed conservative pastors who inform me of the Bible’s inflexible position on homosexuality even as their own churches violate explicit biblical prohibitions against divorce by employing divorced clergy or offering ministries to help couples get through their own divorces. Mark Driscoll denounces America’s recent embrace of same-sex relationships as evidence of the nation’s departure from biblical values. But, apart from a coy acknowledgment that “the Bible is far more direct on prohibitions against homosexuality than it is on polygamy,” Driscoll conspicuously ignores the fact that Scripture, with its numerous prominent figures with multiple wives and its alternating endorsements of virginity, chastity, and traditional marriage, is in no way univocal on the issue of sexuality. Driscoll is similarly silent about the fact that evangelicals have been among the most enthusiastic political supporters of economic policies that are in part to blame for the litany of social dysfunction he cites in his book.
It doesn’t have to be this way. And, increasingly, it’s not. Lately, in my reporting on Christianity, I’ve noticed that many younger evangelicals are quietly abandoning their elders’ strict view of Scripture and embracing a more inclusive vision of their faith. Catholic laypeople, priests, and even some bishops are welcoming gays into their congregations and turning their attention to issues such as immigration and economic inequality, issues that matter more to parishioners. Throughout its history, Christianity has cycled through periods of accommodation and conflict with the larger culture. In America, a new period of conflict, or at least divergence, appears underway. For some conservative Christians, this newfound antagonism is cause for dismay and a frantic search for a new formula to bring back the good old days. For other Christians, the demise of Christianity’s cozy relationship with the forces of American politics and capitalism is seen as more of an opportunity. What comes of that opportunity — new growth or a decline into irrelevance — remains to be seen.
Books consulted for this essay:
Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, by Ross Douthat, Free Press, 2012.
The Great Evangelical Recession: Six Factors That Will Crash the American Church … and How to Prepare, by John Dickerson, Baker Books, 2013.
A Call to Resurgence: Will Christianity Have a Funeral or a Future?, by Mark Driscoll, Tyndale, 2013.
The Book of Common Prayer, A Biography, by Alan Jacobs, Princeton University Press, 2013.
UnChristian: What the New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity…And Why It Matters, by David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons, The Barna Group, 2007.
The Fall of the Evangelical Nation: The Surprising Crisis Inside the Church, by Christine Wicker, HarperOne, 2008.
The American Church in Crisis, by David T. Olson, Zondervan, 2008.