Acton Institute Powerblog

A Quick Response to the Christianity Trailing Off Thesis

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I recently received a request from a reporter to respond to the recent spate of studies and stories positing a decline in American Christianity. Here’s how I answered:

Broadly speaking, it is silly to think of secularization as a linear process. The prominence of the Christian faith waxes and wanes during different historical periods. As Rodney Stark has pointed out, the old golden age of faith picture of antiquity is not nearly as strong as many believe. There is, however, always a solid and motivated core.

What differs over time is the overall number of people who want to associate themselves with the basic project of the church. Sometimes, that seems advantageous and people do it for reasons of social respectability or advancement. At other times there is little to be gained from it and many turn to spending Sundays on the golf course or with the New York Times.

We happen to be in one of the periods when there is not a lot of social prestige or other benefit to being in the church and thus nominal members are dropping out. They have no desire to meet even modest demands of the church when they see no compensatory benefit.

The drop off in the number of nominal Christians also results from the ascendancy of conservative Christianity in the United States. The more intensely the church stands for something, the less likely it is that people with low commitment will associate themselves with the church. This has always been the church’s dilemma. Should it be a comprehensive church that baptizes babies and includes everyone in a Christendom model? Or should it concentrate on voluntary, adult decisions for a strict faith that actively excludes those not with the program. While mega-churches are often criticized for trying to be all things to all people, doctrinally speaking they are actually pretty orthodox and tilt more in the direction of believers with some commitment.

What has happened in the last fifty years is that the mainline churches which had seemed to prevail during the fundamentalist-modernist controversy actually lost by becoming increasingly liberal. They became so liberal that their membership had nothing to attach themselves too other than being against conservative Christianity. They can do that just as easily on their own as they can in a liberal church. They end up in the “other” or “none” category when religionists are counted.

In summary, the disappearance of the middle option of a semi-orthodox mainline Protestantism and the corresponding rise of conservative Protestantism is the best explanation for the results we see in the ARIS survey and other observances which claim a future of religious decline.

Hunter Baker Hunter Baker, J.D., Ph.D. serves as contributing editor to The City and to Salvo Magazine. In addition, he has written for The American Spectator, American Outlook, National Review Online, Christianity Today, Human Events.com, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and a number of other outlets. His scholarly work has appeared in the Journal of Law and Religion (“Competing Orthodoxies in the Public Square: Postmodernism’s Effect on Church-State Separation”), the Regent University Law Review (“Storming the Gates of a Massive Cultural Investment: Reconsidering Roe in Light of its Flawed Foundation and Undesirable Consequences”), and the Journal of Church and State. In 2007, he contributed a chapter “The Struggle for Baylor’s Soul” to the edited collection The Baylor Project, published by St. Augustine’s Press. He has also been a guest on a variety of television and radio programs, including Prime Time America and Kresta in the Afternoon. As a law student in the late 1990s, Hunter Baker worked for The Rutherford Institute and Prison Fellowship Ministries where he focused primarily on defending the constitutional principle of religious liberty. Prior to beginning doctoral studies in religion and politics at Baylor University in 2003, he served as director of public policy for the Georgia Family Council. While at Baylor, Baker served as a graduate assistant to the philosopher Francis Beckwith and the historian Barry Hankins. He assisted Beckwith in the editing of his landmark book Defending Life which has now been published by Cambridge University Press. He also provided research assistance to Hankins in his forthcoming biography of Francis Schaeffer. Baker currently serves on the political science faculty at Union University and is an associate dean in the college of arts and sciences. He is married to Ruth Elaine Baker, M.D. They have a son, Andrew, and a daughter, Grace.

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