The recent Newsweek cover story on The Decline And Fall Of Christian America drove me up a wall because it was so badly reasoned and the analysis was both shallow and illogical. I don't have any quarrel with the claim that America is becoming increasingly less Christian. Nevada is still pre-Christian and we are doing fine. So that's not what got to me.
First, the basic fact he worked from was a survey showing a decline in people's association with any kind of faith community. It was't about a relative decline of Christiainity. He reasoned from this that the agenda of the Christian right had failed. Where did that come from? There was nothing about a decline in reactionary religion as opposed to progressive religion.
He went on to engage in sweeping generaliztions about the Chisitan social and political perspective, assuming we were all members of the Christian Coalition forces, and concluded that the decline of Christiainity will make for a freer, more just society. Hello, anybody read William Stringfellow, Daniel Berrigan, Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, Catherine de Hoek Doherty, John Sobrino, Gustavo Gutierrez. the Boff brothers. Anybody read the resolutions of our House of Bishops. Or even the pastoral letters of the American Roman Catholic bishops. We might add Amos, Jeremiah, Jesus, Paul, Wilberforce, and on and on and on. We are not all Jerry Falwell, for goodness sake. And then the unkindest cut of all, the guy who is painting us all with the Ralph Reed brush says he is an Episcopalian !!!
Finally, just to twist the knife of bad philosophy: he alludes to Augusine's statement that a people are united by their common love. Yes, true. What do American's love? Freedom, he says -- which turns out to mean the libertarian view that each of us should love whatever we want to -- there is really no common love so we are not really a people. What we want is just to be left alone -- no inconvenient moral obligations to justice, equality, beauty, mercy, any of those bothers. The author probably does not realize what he is trying to espouse is a naive and simplisitic version of the political philosophy of John Rawls. He is looking for a "thin theory of the good" -- a basic set of social goods that are necessary to actually allow us all to seek our individual vision of the good. But wait, just legalizing things doesn't make them possible. Rawls knew that -- so we have to have a floor of economic security, we need roofs over our heads, we need law enforcement, fire protection, and infrastructure. We need healthcare and education. Even Rawls' thin theory of the good turns out to be pretty thick -- and it is the view of the good supported by the social teachings of the Episcopal Church, the Catholic Church, and all the mainline Protestant Churches -- a far, far cry from what Newsweek attributes to us.
Ok, rant over. The cultural norm of conformist Chrisitainity really is in decline in America. A word from those of us here in the Wild West where cultural Chrisitainity never took hold. It's a mixed thing. The Church here is more alive, more vibrant, more authentic, because no one here is worshiping becasue their neighbors expect them to or becasue they hope to meet a business contact at Sunday School. Our people are real deal Chrisitans -- and that makes us considerably more energetic and interesting. The decline of cultural Chistiainity is a spirutal liberation for us.
The downside is for the folks outside our walls. The social indicators of despair -- suicide, alocoholism, other addictions -- are higher where the Church is weaker. There are ample medical studies showing that the unchurched are less healthy. Being a minority is not a spiritual privilege. It means we have to roll up our sleeves and spread some authentic gospel in a lonely, alienated, disempowered, despairing society. Lives are not fully lived. People do not become fully themselves. Souls are twisted and shrunk where the gospel is not shared.