Friday, April 10, 2009

A Less Christian America - What's Good About That?

My grandfather, who preached his first sermon when he was 19 and remained a preacher until he died at the age of 101, would probably have a conniption fit if he were to read what I'm about to write here - but here it goes: I agree with Jon Meachum that what is hyperbolically referred to as the 'decline' of Christianity in America is probably a good thing. I probably don't agree with him for all of the same reasons, but I do think he's on to something.

Meacham's Newsweek magazine article, The End of Christian America, analyzes the substance behind the numbers found in the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) that reveals that fewer Americans identify themselves as Christians today than in 1990, by a margin of 86% to 76%. Also interesting is the number of people who consider themselves atheist or agnostic (over 3.5 million).

In a country as 'over-churched' as America is considered, and with evangelical Chrisianity such a strong force in American politics and culture, how could it appear to be so, well, unattractive? Even our President in his recent trip abroad, said that 'we [Americans] don't consider ourselves a Christian nation', reflects a finding in the ARIS survey. Only 62% of Americans see our country as a Christian nation in 2009 down from 69% in 2008.

The upshot of Meaham's piece is that the notion that a less Christian America does not mean a post-Christian America. The weaknesses of the American Christianity is that it has become too vested in politics as a means of addressing culture. The failure of politics to deliver on the conservative interests of evangelicals has resulted in a greater retreat and entrenchment on the right, just as political losses in the late '60's caused liberals to run even further to the left.

The article is full of important insight and ARIS' study is instructive as well. But I think it should not just stimulate discussion, it ought to be the rationale for a great deal of reflection on the part of clergy and church leaders.

Which is why I don't think the findings in the study are a bad thing.

ARIS' survey, the Pew Study on faith in America, as well other studies and books are all telling us the same thing: there is something less attractive about the faith as practiced the past 25-30 years. It is less intellectually vigorous, less spiritually challenging, less politically relevant, less socially responsible and less genuine than the more authentically consistent expressions of yesterday. At times, it seems as if there are those of us who believe that the answer to every problem, no matter how complex, is a scripture, a slogan and a wave of the American flag. In so many important ways, we give the impression of growing more out of touch by the day.

This is not an argument that the 'old time religion' is best. It is, however, my understanding that at its best religion in America has always tried to interpret the changes in our country, and help people see the hand of God in its affairs. It has been the critique of power and not companion of the power elite. It has reminded men of our responsibility to and for one another and not upheld isolationalist individualism. The great social progressive social movements of the 19th and the early 20th century, that led to public policy changes that aided the poor, fought for abolition of slavery and women's suffrage, provided sanitary living conditions and fought against the exploitation of child labor, were led by churches that were essentially conservative in their faith.

The theologians who interpreted those times have been replaced by 'media darlings' who have focused on a market based spirituality which capitalized upon the distorted free market capitalism that led to this country's economic collapse. What's more, I've seen local pastors without their charisma and savvy try and keep up with these celebrities in an effort to keep their parishioners.

The findings in this survey are a good thing, if they get those of us who lead churches to wake up and realize that what we've been doing hasn't worked. That neither shrillness, nor divisiveness are good evangelism strategies, whether you're liberal or conservative. And that while Christianity has much to say about our engagement in politics, it is not a political party. Nor is God a Democrat, Republican or a Libertarian. He transcends our ideologies and demands that those who believe in Him be shaped in the image of His Son, not vice-versa. And authenticity in this faith demands that we draw distinctions between political partisanship, ideology and the essential doctrines and disciplines of our faith. All too often we haven't done that, and this survey may be showing us the result.

Columnist Cal Thomas got it right when he said, "No country can be truly 'Christian', only people can. God is above all nations, and, in fact, Isaiah says that 'All nations are to him a drop in the bucket and less than nothing'."

Perhaps that's what that lost 10% have found out...

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