Max Boot’s latest Washington Post column chides U.S. Attorney General William Barr’s warning about the moral impact of religion’s decline in America.
Boot points out that in Barr’s lifetime America has improved in many ways, becoming wealthier, healthier, more educated and less racist. Over the last few decades crime and abortion rates have dropped. More recently, divorce rates have dropped, while illegitimacy is no longer rising. All good news, which myopic declinists on the right, including conservative Christians, often ignore.
Unmentioned by Boot, left-wing declinists have their own myopia, typically warning of environmental apocalypse and claiming increasing economic injustice. In fact, by many measures the environment is better protected today than ever before. Wealthier societies have more capacity for conservation. And the standard of living for poor people globally continues to rise.
Of course, both right and left have legitimate concerns. In the West, family disintegration facilitated by still historically high rates of divorce, cohabitation and illegitimacy enact terrible costs on society, especially children. These pathologies feed social instability, loneliness, addictions, crime and poverty, as Barr rightly complained. The transgender fad is not helpful. The retreat of traditional religious influence enables these pathologies.
And of course, global poverty even amid global economic growth keeps hundreds of millions of people living near subsistence levels, amid malnutrition, epidemics and high child mortality, though these rates are thankfully falling. Environmental degradation is often extreme in poor societies who lack the luxury of protecting rivers and meadows when people are barely surviving. Yet overall trends are positive globally.
Religion for the poorest societies, where religious practice is highest, provides not only emotional consolation but also community solidarity. Where government services are corrupt, inept or nonexistent, religious groups provide counsel, food, housing and health care to the neediest. Christianity often stimulates economic growth, encouraging thrift, delayed gratification, work, entrepreneurship and respect for law and property, while challenging nepotism, tribalism and corruption.
Boot doesn’t mention religion’s positive influence in these areas though undoubtedly he would agree if pressed. Where he’s confused is his conflation of secularism with prosperity and freedom. Western Europe, Canada, New Zealand and Australia have low rates of religious practice while enjoying prosperity, democracy and political stability. By this superficial formula, secularism equals successful societies. He ignores the historical background of these societies, which was Christian, which also means Hebraic. And he omits that their religious practice has only imploded in recent decades, accompanied by slower economic growth, political inertia, plunging birth rates, fractious debates over immigration, and increasingly destabilizing social pathologies.
The West as a collection of wealthy democracies that in theory affirm human dignity did not drop out of the sky. It is the legacy of Christendom, which across two millennia developed, however haphazardly, a civilization premised on each person bearing God’s image. The consequence was limited government, rule of law, property protections and human rights. Most Swedes, Canadians and Austrians may rarely darken a church door, but they are still operating on social premises based on centuries of accumulated spiritual capital. That capital may not be inexhaustible. But neither are these societies predestined to ongoing secularization.
America stands between Europe and the rest of the world in its religiosity. Loyalty to religious institutions is plummeting. But as Boot notes, church attendance is about the same as in 1940. And the percentage of Americans who identify as “born again” is increasing, now at 41%. Americans are not secularizing so much as they are individualizing, disconnecting from historic churches to align with post-denominational Christianity, in person or online, or practice their own form of pop-spirituality loosely based on Christianity. This new American religiosity because it’s often divorced from traditional community can be lonely and lack discipline, enabling social pathologies that Attorney General Barr described.
What’s important to ponder is that societies once transformed by Christianity, unless the church is physically eradicated by invasion or repression, are forever changed, even if they may appear secular. Secularism itself, in which persons operate freely according to conscience and choice, is itself a Christian production.
Boot avoids addressing the West’s Christian origins in favor of conflating all religious influences into a single category. But Iran’s mullahs, the Taliban, Hindu and Buddhist nationalists could not and will not create societies similar to the West, where the individual person is invested with personal rights against state or societal coercion. The rise of dynamic Global South Christianity, in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, involving hundreds of millions of people, will have profound political, economic and social implications that Boot may not realize.
Christianity proposes that the world is terribly fallen while at the same time being redeemed. We rightly lament and challenge ongoing evils in every time and culture. But we don’t despair. God is active and paramount in the world. His work is always visible. Human progress is chimeric, but providential progress is certain. So we are always called to confident hope, even amid human depravity and suffering.
Boot offers hope but based on a false narrative of secularization. Here’s Boot’s confused final paragraph:
Fundamentalists may be unhappy that religious observance has declined over the decades, but the data shows that, by most measurements, life has gotten much better for most people. There is little evidence that a decline in religiosity leads to a decline in society — or that high levels of religiosity strengthen society. (Remember, Rome fell after it converted to Christianity.) If anything, the evidence suggests that too much religion is bad for a country.
Whether religion is bad for a society depends on the nature of the religion in question. The societies Boot rightly commends for prosperity, democracy and lawfulness would not exist without Mount Sinai and the Sermon on the Mount. Recalling these origins is essential to retaining and expanding the best of what we have, and to correcting our failures, for a better future where all can benefit.