Christianity’s Collapse . . . or Clarification?
The number of people in the US who call themselves Christians is shrinking. And that’s a good thing. Every few years, new data shows an ongoing decline of Americans who identify as Christians and an ongoing rise in those who identify as religiously unaffiliated (“the nones”). Yet headlines announcing the death of American Christianity are misleading and premature.
“Christianity isn’t collapsing; it’s being clarified,” wrote Ed Stetzer in 2015 following the release of Pew Research data showing the Christian share of the American population declined almost eight percentage points from 2007 to 2014. Stetzer points out that the surge in “nones” is because nominal Christians are giving up the pretense of faith while convictional Christians remain committed.
The “God” of Cultural Christianity
For most of US history, to be American was to be “Christian.” National identity was conflated with religious identity in a way that produced a distorted form of Christianity, mostly about family values, Golden Rule moralism, and good citizenship. The God of this “Christianity” was first and foremost a nice guy who rewarded moral living by sanctifying the American dream: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness (i.e., a substantial 401(k), a three-car garage, and as many Instagram followers as possible). This form of Christianity—prominent in twenty-first-century America—has been aptly labeled “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism,” a faith defined by a distant, “cosmic ATM” God who only cares that we are nice to one another and feel good about ourselves.
This faux God—stripped of theological and historical specificity and closer to Santa Claus than Yahweh—began to flourish amidst the gradual “death of God” narrative advanced by philosophical, literary, artistic, and scientific elites from the Enlightenment to postmodernity. In this context, mainstream Christianity became less about truly believing in God and supernatural events like the incarnation and resurrection; it became more about the rites and rituals of Christianity-flavored morality: a convenient, comfortable, quaint system of personal and societal uplift. Thankfully, and predictably, this sort of toothless, “nice,” good-citizen Christianity is on the decline.
Why? As Terry Eagleton observes, it’s because Christianity is fundamentally disruptive rather than conciliatory to polite society and powers-that-be:
The form of life Jesus offers his followers is not one of social integration but a scandal to the priestly and political establishment. It is a question of being homeless, propertyless, peripatetic, celibate, socially marginal, disdainful of kinsfolk, averse to material possessions, a friend of outcasts and pariahs, a thorn in the side of the Establishment and a scourge of the rich and powerful.
What we are seeing in American Christianity is a healthy pruning away of the mutant and neutered forms of it that are easily abandoned when they become culturally inconvenient or unfashionable. As Russell Moore observes, “A Christianity that reflects its culture, whether that culture is Smith College or NASCAR, only lasts as long as it is useful to its host. That’s because it’s, at root, idolatry, and people turn from their idols when they stop sending rain.”
What It Means to Follow Christ
Rather than being a cause for alarm, the dying-away of cultural Christianity should be seen as an opportunity. It used to be too easy to be a Christian in America; so easy that one could adopt the label simply by being born in this “Christian nation” and going to church once or twice a year (if that), in between relentless attempts to swindle the stock market, accumulate beach properties, and build an empire of wealth and acclaim.
To be sure, and especially in contrast to much of the rest of the world, it’s still easy to be a Christian in America. But it is becoming less easy and certainly less normal. And that’s a good thing. Christianity, founded on belief in the supernatural resurrection of a first-century Jewish carpenter, has been and always will be abnormal. Again, Russell Moore:
The Book of Acts, like the Gospels before it, shows us that Christianity thrives when it is, as Kierkegaard put it, a sign of contradiction. Only a strange gospel can differentiate itself from the worlds we construct. But the strange, freakish, foolish old gospel is what God uses to save people and to resurrect churches (1 Cor. 1:20–22).
Following Christ is not one’s golden ticket to a white-picket-fence American dream. It’s an invitation to die, to pick up a cross. Christians are those who give themselves away in love and sacrifice to advance a kingdom that is not of this world (John 18:36).
As C. S. Lewis writes: “I didn’t go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that. If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.”