Three reasons for the decline of American Christianity
Pew Research Center estimates that Christians could make up a minority of Americans by 2070. According to sociology professor Stephen Bullivant, a practicing Catholic who teaches in London and Sydney, there are three main reasons for this decline in religious commitment and the concomitant rise of the nonreligious: the Cold War, 9/11, and the internet.
The Cold War pitted Christian America against godless communism in the eyes of many Americans. However, in response to 9/11, a “new atheism” rose to prominence: public figures such as Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Richard Dawkins claimed that religion produces terrorists and gave intellectual respectability to religious skepticism. Along the way, the internet has provided support for people who are questioning their faith by offering community with fellow doubters.
Bullivant admits that cultural issues such as abortion and gay marriage have played a factor in the current exodus from the church, but he notes that denominations such as the Episcopal Church have adopted progressive theological positions but still lost members in droves.
His analysis aligns with a narrative we have seen in the decades following the collapse of the Soviet Union: the USSR gave the US an external enemy that united our disparate cultural blocs in a common cause. Confronting the existential threat of nuclear annihilation forced our political parties to work together in ways we have not since the USSR fell. Apart from a brief moment of patriotism after 9/11, we have not experienced such unity for decades.
If, in fact, our unity was based on external enemies more than internal cohesion, it’s hard to see what could unify us again apart from a cataclysmic crisis.
How the world changes
Architect, writer, and inventor Buckminster Fuller observed, “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”
From the printing press to the iPhone, cultural history has proven him right. But Fuller’s thesis was never more powerfully demonstrated than it was twenty centuries ago in a manger in a tiny town south of Jerusalem.
The world into which Jesus was born was as divided and divisive as ours. While the “Pax Romana” prevailed through military force and subjugation to the Empire, the culture of the first century was conflicted and confused in the extreme.
A plethora of religions and worldviews competed with each other, including Greek and Roman mythology, mystery cults, Judaism, and philosophical schools such as neo-Platonism, Aristotelianism, Stoicism, Epicureanism, Cynicism, and Skepticism. Jewish society was divided into supporters of Rome such as the Sadducees, zealots plotting to overthrow the Empire, legalists like the Pharisees, and those who were caught in the midst of their conflicts.
Into this dark and divided culture came the “light of the world” (John 9:5). His movement transcended the cultural and spiritual divides of his day with a new hope unlike any the world could offer. He promised his followers, “Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12).
Of course, the key is to “follow” Jesus.
The only path to true peace
St. Ambrose (340–397) was one of the greatest theologians in Christian history and a seminal contributor to the conversion of St. Augustine. Referring to our bodies as God’s temple, he urged us to “maintain this house, sweep out its secret recesses until it becomes immaculate and rises as a spiritual temple for a holy priesthood, firmly secured by Christ, the cornerstone.”
Ambrose also noted: “Christ is the image of God and so any good or religious act that a soul performs magnifies that image of God in that soul, the God in whose likeness the soul itself was made. And thus the soul itself has some share in its greatness and is ennobled.”
Billy Graham made the same point more simply but no less profoundly: “In the same proportion that the world has trusted Christ, it has peace.”
Is your heart at peace today?
If not, why not?