So, the Pew Religious Landscape Survey is out and the media is busy telling us that Christianity is in “steep decline” in the United States. I have not had much time to get into the details of the numbers, but I will say that while the decline in Christian affiliation is obvious, “steep” may be an exaggeration and 70% of the nation still makes this, by a wide margin, a majority Christian nation. The reason I question the “steep” characterization is that while a drop of 8% in 7 years is alarming at first glance, it is accounted for almost entirely in a rise in the “unaffiliated.” The unaffiliated may not claim a church, but a significant number of them will undoubtedly claim a Christian outlook if not spirituality. Something is happening, that cannot be doubted, but it is way to early to be able to declare just exactly what is happening.
Nonetheless, these numbers do not bode well for Christianity as a cultural and political force. Cultural and political influence requires affiliation, and while many of the unaffiliated may be, and probably are, Christ followers, they cannot have much influence outside of their immediate circle of relationships. This does mark a continued trend in the sequestration of faith and faith expressions to Sunday morning services. Kathryn Jean Lopez took important note of this trend in reviewing Jeb Bush’s Liberty University commencement address.
What are the causes of the trend? How do we reverse it? Should we even be trying to reverse it? These are important questions and they also help account for the problem. Take a look at Appendix B of the survey just to get a flavor of how many different Christian churches there are in the United States. We may be a majority Christian nation, but that is a bit like saying Buskin-Robbins is an ice cream store – you still have to pick a flavor when you walk through the door. Each of the different flavors will answer each of those questions differently – which means that effectively they never get answered. And so the trend continues unabated – and our cultural and political influence declines.
That does not bode well for the nation. As the recent riots and discussions over policing and incarceration rates reveal there is a balance between the carrot and stick approach to building a decent society. Too much carrot and one kind of chaos ensues; too much stick and a whole different kind of chaos shows itself. Government is the stick and religion is that which keeps the carrot of freedom from turning into some sort of libertine excess.
Christians in America need to figure this one out. Christianity will survive, it has for 2000 years as nations and empires have come and gone. But America is very much at stake. America at its heart needs Christianity to stem the tide of libertine excess that felled Rome and so many others. Christianity holds little more important than the good of the other. To allow ourselves solace in our survival while allowing the nation that has done more good for the world than any other to waste away is to violate that principle of wanting good for the other.