The decline of religion in America is real—that is, depending on how you define “religion.”
Weekly church attendance is in decline, as is self-identification with a formal religion, denomination, or belief system. Meanwhile, the rise of the “nones” seems increasingly steady in speed, replacing religious-cultural standards and norms of old with a modern menu of “personal spiritualties” based on any number of humanistic priorities—from humanitarianism to political activism to self-helpism to the garden-variety exultations of hedonism, materialism, and comfortability.
But not to worry. These replacements all have a lofty, clear-eyed goal: “progress.”
In a striking essay for New York Magazine, Andrew Sullivan explores the phenomenon and its deleterious effects, reminding us that the decline in Western Christianity has not meant a decline in “religiosity” after all. Rather, the vacuum of a robust religious and moral imagination in the culture has led to an over-amplification and -spiritualization of much else, especially the political—on the left, on the right, and everywhere in between.
“We’re mistaken if we believe that the collapse of Christianity in America has led to a decline in religion,” Sullivan writes. ”It has merely led to religious impulses being expressed by political cults. Like almost all new cultish impulses, they see no boundary between politics and their religion. 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As a result, Sullivan argues, the Great Awakening of America’s past has been replaced by a “Great Awokening” of sorts, occupied by competing visions of collective identity and an aggressive political exuberance. On the left, we see the growth of an identitarian shame culture, with “social justice” and “fairness” as its supposed ends. Those who violate its dogmas are deemed heretics, dealt with only by coercions into “public demonstrations of shame” or outright cultural banishment. Likewise, on the Right, we see a vigorous opposition that opts for the same sort of intellectual overreach, elevating a narrow nationalism and isolationism to religious heights, conflating Christian witness with political control, and purging those who disagree.
In each case, we see political orthodoxies asserting themselves much like they always have. This time, however, there’s a religious vacuum to be filled, allowing them to masquerade as causes “bigger than ourselves.” Unfortunately, and quite ironically, our selves are still firmly at the forefront.
On this, prosperity and modernity have amplified the struggle. Though not primary drivers, they have introduced new temptations that, without the proper spiritual foundations and 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. We have constructed a capitalist system that turns individual selfishness into a collective asset and showers us with earthly goods; we have leveraged science for our own health and comfort. Our ability to extend this material bonanza to more and more people is how we define progress; and progress is what we call meaning. In this respect, Steven Pinker is one of the most religious writers I’ve ever admired. His faith in reason is as complete as any fundamentalist’s belief in God.
But none of this material progress beckons humans to a way of life beyond 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.”
Regardless, whether a sign of inconsistency or intellectual sea change, it seems as though Sullivan understands the value of Christianity to the culture, and what we’ll lose in its absence.
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 such 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’s been broken, holding the light amid the darkness and confusion. If Christianity was truly a fountainhead for civilization, let’s move forward as such.
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 whole-life restoration and redemption, both individually and collectively.
If we are to overcome our political tribalism and its corresponding swells of political-religious fanaticism, reigniting the flames of truth of justice, it’ll begin with much of the same.