by Mark Tooley
There continues to be lots of buzz about the Pew Research Center’s new study asserting nearly 20 percent of Americans are now religiously unaffiliated. And there seems to be endless fascination with these free-spirits. Secularists and some liberals believe the unaffiliated’s rejection of organized religion validates their own critique of conservative religiosity. Traditionalists want churches to rev up for a massive new round of evangelistic outreach. Religion News Service compiled some of these quotes.
“The ‘nominals’ are becoming the ‘nones,’” Southern Baptist Ed Stetzer of Lifeway Research sensibly explained. “In other words, those who had a nominal, name only, connection to Christianity simply are not identifying themselves that way any longer.” He also pointed out that the number of evangelicals as a share of the population has remained roughly stable.
Liberal Jesuit James Martin responded: “Sadly, many young people tell me that even if they believe in God, they find organized religion not only boring and irrelevant, but corrupt and offensive.” He added: “They find houses of worship with uninspired homilies and lousy music, at the same time they’re reading about the crimes of sexual abuse and hearing some religious leaders saying hateful things about their gay and lesbian friends.” And he concluded: “The tragic result is that many young people are completely, and perhaps irrevocably, turned off to organized religion–and worse, to God.”
Conservative religion columnist Terry Mattingly, who is Orthodox, pointed out: “It’s clear that debates about moral and social issues are at the heart of this matter. In effect, the doctrines common to traditional forms of faith argue that sex outside of traditional marriage is, pure and simple, sin. That is not a message that is going to play well on Comedy Central or in the classrooms and dormitories of secular universities and, truth be told, in the dormitories of some religious colleges and universities.” True enough. But the growing part of Christianity in America is orthodox and affirming of traditional mores.
Two Mainline Protestants who commented, one a Presbyterian Church (USA) pastor and the other an ecumenical official, mostly offered sociological reasons without confessing that Mainline Protestantism’s drastic implosion is the primary culprit responsible for religious affiliation’s decline.
A Roman Catholic bishop faulted an “anti-institution attitude going back to the war in Vietnam when distrust of the government that gave false reports on casualties morphed into distrust of any institution, church included.” He also cited “growing individualism, where the value of community is in decline and people think they can go it alone, without the support that comes from a church community.”
Evangelical Hispanic leader Samuel Rodriguez declared his often repeated talking point that the “only way we can successfully engage the emerging generation with the transformative message of grace and hope is by reconciling Billy Graham’s message of salvation with Dr. Martin Luther King’s march for justice.” It’s a great sentiment though I’m dubious that quests for political change, however just and needed, significantly affect religious affiliation.
Jim Wallis implied this same point about the need for social action that ostensibly replicates the path of Jesus: “People, and especially the young, are still very drawn to Jesus and those who follow what he taught—loving their neighbors, caring for the poor, and being peacemakers in the world. But when they don’t see that in the churches, they walk away.”
The superintendent of the Assemblies of God, a Pentecostal denomination that is growing, commented: “For whatever reason, their spiritual longings have not led them to religious affiliation. Pew suggests that this may be because of a political backlash against the religious Right, which conflated Christianity and conservative politics. It may be a result of age and stage: The religiously unaffiliated are younger and more likely to be single than the general population. Or perhaps it’s because healthy, wealthy societies tend to be secular—a tendency John Wesley warned against in his sermons.”
In his blog, Southern Baptist theologian Russell Moore celebrated: “The American Protestant majority is over and to that I say, ‘good riddance.’” He added: “It’s not necessarily a bad thing that this generation of Christ-followers in the United States finds itself engaging a culture that is unfamiliar with the claims of Jesus rather than one that thinks it already knows what Christianity is about.”
I wouldn’t say “good riddance” to Protestant America. It built a great civilization unparalleled in history and provided the ethical and relational instruments that sustained American democracy. As Mainline Protestantism fades, there is no clear successor for mediating America’s public life.
Moore rightly cited the “fresh wind of orthodox Christianity whistling through the leaves — especially throughout the third world, and in some unlikely places in North America.” And he suggested: “Now let’s pray for something new — like a global Christian majority, on earth as it is in heaven.”
On a separate but related note, a new study shows that Christianity is the largest religion in Africa. According to the Church of England Newspaper, there are 500 million Christians in Africa comprising over 46 percent of the population, compared to 40 percent who are Muslim and almost 12 percent who are animists. By comparison, according to the World Christian Encyclopedia, there were 10 million Christians in Africa 100 years ago, comprising under 10 percent of the population. At that time, one third of Africans were Muslim.
Christianity is thriving around much of the world. And it’s still very much alive and well in America, though likely entering a new stage of its history here. That new stage may look different from old Protestant America, but it still has plenty of lessons to learn from it.