Surveys prove the decline of religion in America is real – depending on how you define “religion.”
Weekly church attendance is falling, as is self-identification with a formal denomination, religion, or belief system. Meanwhile, the rise of the “Nones” seems to be steadily replacing the religious-cultural standards and norms of old with a modern milieu of “personal spiritualties” based on any number of humanistic priorities – from humanitarianism and political activism to the exultation of garden-variety hedonism, materialism, and egotism. All these replacement faiths claim they promote the lofty goal of “progress.”
We’re mistaken if we believe that the collapse of Christianity in America has led to a decline in religion.
Yet in a striking essay in New York Magazine on this phenomenon and its deleterious effects, Andrew Sullivan writes, “We’re mistaken if we believe that the collapse of Christianity in America has led to a decline in religion.” Rather, the vacuum of a robust religious and moral imagination in the culture has led to an over-spiritualization of other aspects of life, especially politics – on the Left, the Right, and the center. “Like almost all new cultish impulses, they see no boundary between politics and their religion,” he writes. “And both cults really do minimize the importance of the individual in favor of either the oppressed group or the leader.”
As a result, Sullivan argues, the Great Awakening has been replaced by a “Great Awokening” of sorts, populated by competing visions of collective identity and an aggressive political exuberance. On the Left, we see the growth of an identitarian culture rooted in self-loathing that pursues “social justice” and “fairness” as its supposed ends. Those who violate its dogmas are deemed heretics, to be dealt with only by coercions into “public demonstrations of shame” or outright cultural banishment. Sullivan holds that, likewise, the Right elevates a narrow nationalism and isolationism to religious heights, conflating Christian witness with political control – and purging those who disagree.
In each case, political orthodoxies assert themselves much like they always have. However, since there is a religious vacuum to be filled, they now masquerade as causes “bigger than ourselves.” Ironically, these movements still place ourselves firmly in the forefront.
Prosperity and modernity have amplified the struggle. Though they are not primary drivers, they have introduced new temptations which, in a culture without the proper spiritual foundations or moral constraints, hold significant sway:
Seduced by scientism, distracted by materialism, insulated, like no humans before us, from the vicissitudes of sickness and the ubiquity of early death, the post-Christian West believes instead in something we have called progress – a gradual ascent of mankind toward reason, peace, and prosperity – as a substitute in many ways for our previous monotheism. … Our ability to extend this material bonanza to more and more people is how we define progress; and progress is what we call meaning.
But none of this material progress beckons humans to a way of life beyond the mere satisfaction of our wants and needs.
And this matters. We are a meaning-seeking species.
All of this is more than a bit peculiar coming from Sullivan who, as Samuel James aptly summarizes, “spent the better part of his public life rigorously advocating for a Christianity that reinvents itself in the image of modern gods.” Whether this essay is a sign of inconsistency or intellectual sea change, it seems as though Sullivan understands the value of Christianity to the culture and what we will lose in its absence. He writes:
It is Christianity that came to champion the individual conscience against the collective, which paved the way for individual rights. It is in Christianity that the seeds of Western religious toleration were first sown. Christianity is the only monotheism that seeks no sway over Caesar, that is content with the ultimate truth over the immediate satisfaction of power. It was Christianity that gave us successive social movements, which enabled more people to be included in the liberal project, thus renewing it. It was on these foundations that liberalism was built, and it is by these foundations it has endured. The question we face in contemporary times is whether a political system built upon such a religion can endure when belief in that religion has become a shadow of its future self. Will the house still stand when its ramparts are taken away? I’m beginning to suspect it can’t. And won’t.
Sullivan concludes by lamenting the lack of leadership in each political party, asking, “Where is our Churchill?” But as important as strong and virtuous leadership may be, Sullivan’s longing for a Churchillian national deliverer strikes me as another political non-solution to a non-political problem.
Fortunately, we need not wait for political persons or powers to begin repairing what has been broken, holding the light amidst the darkness and confusion. The Great Awakening of old was not the cause of a particular leader’s charisma or cunning, but of a profound and organic ground swell of authentic, culture-level witness to the truth and goodness of God. It was a popular partnership with the divine that led to restoration and redemption in every arena of life, both individually and collectively.
If we are to overcome our political tribalism and its corresponding swells of politico-religious fanaticism, it must begin the same way.