Left leaning commentator Matthew Yglesias, who’s Jewish, tweeted today: “Think I’m becoming a Straussian/Putnamist who instrumentally wants to get everyone to go to church again.” Columnist Ross Douthat, who’s Catholic, responded: “Be the change you seek.” Yglesias retorted: “Not gonna sell out the chosen people like that! But I’m gonna go neocon and root for the Christians vs the post-Christians.”
(Political philosopher Leo Strauss is considered a father of neoconservatism. Robert Putnam wrote Bowling Alone about declining social capital and civic life in America.)
Although personal religious faith remains strong for many Americans, institutional Christianity is declining, with a minority of Americans now identifying as church members. Many Americans are now religious without church affiliation. And many Americans are still church going without identifying with or even belonging to denominations or congregations. With some exceptions, Protestant denominations and Catholicism are declining, while nondenominational Christianity is growing. Religion is increasingly individualized.
Savvy non-Christian commentators like Yglesias recognize that de-churched America or post-Christian America is not good for democratic, civic-minded America. Americans detached from traditional religious institutions are more susceptible to political extremes, to social isolation, to conspiracy mindsets, to identity politics, to apocalyptic perspectives, to fears and despair that mitigate against good citizenship.
Churches and denominations were central to building America’s democratic ethos. They civilized and socialized the early frontier. They created a wider civil society supporting politics, education, charity and community building. Regular church goers have never been a majority in America. But churches as institutions were foundations and pillars of wider society that benefitted all. Typically savvy non religious people have recognized their centrality to American culture and civic life.
In recent decades a growing secular elite has scoffed at organized religion’s social and political contributions to American life. For many of them, religion, even its progressive variants, is irrelevant, retrograde and reactionary. It merits dismissal and mockery. The decline of religious institutions should be welcomed as human progress, they think, without considering what might replace them. Societies don’t function well without culture-shaping institutions like churches.
Unfortunately, many religionists have not been helpful in response. Traditional Protestant denominations and the Catholic Church, whatever their faults, understood their historic responsibilities to shape and serve wider society. In America they saw themselves as stewards of American democracy. Their decline left a vacuum.
Nondenominational Christianity and evangelicalism often lack this long history and self-understanding as cultural stewards. They often focus more exclusively on individual faith and spiritual needs sometimes from a consumerist perspective. Sometimes their adherents see themselves more as a tribe or a subculture than as parcel to wider society with wider responsibilities.
Meanwhile, many Evangelicals and others scoff as Christian participation in civil religion as theologically and morally compromised. Progressives see civil religion as parcel to idolatrous nationalism. Many conservatives see civil religion as a dilution of authentic religion. They insist that any message not specifically evangelistic betrays the Gospel.
What critics of civil religion fail to see is that Christianity has a duty to society to help create the language and architecture for constructive civil life that benefits all. Christianity wants all to be fed, clothed, housed, provided health care, treated with dignity, given security, and equipped with the political tools to live harmoniously in peace. Christians seek the common good for all society, not just what directly benefits themselves. But this promotion of the common good certainly benefits Christians and itself witnesses to the power, grandeur and truth of the Gospel.
Conservatives Christians of today want to protect the church from social hostility. Liberal Christians want the church to be a tool for social justice. But American Christianity at its best evangelized, discipled, offered charity to all and helped build and refine American democracy in ways that pointed Zionward and in collaboration with all who shared a vision of the good society.
This comprehensive multifaceted work on behalf of the Gospel and civilization requires strong religious institutions and strong religious memberships. Atomized individuals pursuing their own spiritualities are not particularly helpful to this project. Ardently religious people disconnected from great traditions and multigenerational religious institutions generally will lack the wisdom they need to sustain healthy civic life.
So America needs to be rechurchified. Certainly we need evangelism and converts to genuine faith. But such converts may fail as believers and as citizens if they are not catechized into the wider institutional church. It’s fashionable now even among the religious to mock and disdain organized religion. Supposedly we can all access God without it.
But no branch of Christianity or any traditional monotheistic religion believes God calls His people to absolute autonomy and isolation. Traditional religion always involves a community and institutions. They often fail but no more so than do individuals.
Sustaining religious communities requires compromise, sacrifice, grace, mercy, patience, humility. And all of these qualities are needed for wider society and nation. Hence churches are nurseries and building blocks for decent and sustainable society.
So Matthew Yglesias is wise, as a non-Christian who cares about society and America, to hope more Americans go to church, to the benefit of all. Will more Christians share in this insight?
Comment by Thomas F Neagle on April 30, 2021 at 5:41 pm
A lot of our problem is not realizing that a lot (if not most) of the New Testament promises are to “you-plural.” English does not distinguish between you-plural and you-singular, and so many people reading the Bible assume the promises apply to “me.” But Greek does distinguish between the two, and it is clear that most of the promises are to “you-plural.”
Comment by betsy on April 30, 2021 at 7:21 pm
As the United Methodist Church–including the local church where I have been a long time member– comes unwound, and having spent my life being influenced by historic liturgical worship, I find myself missing something and not attracted to the non-denom/contemporary worship scene. This statement pretty much sums up what is amiss:
“Ardently religious people disconnected from great traditions and multigenerational religious institutions generally will lack the wisdom they need to sustain healthy civic life.”
The current Protestant landscape has become too obsessed with either new theology that embraces the culture or the open endedness of contemporary worship which reflects the culture of the moment. Christianity has become about us right here and right now!
Comment by Jim Radford on May 1, 2021 at 6:13 am
“Rechurched?” Good article, and, sadly, it points out many of the problems in contemporary Christianity. We all talk past each other, that is, so-called “Evangelicals” and so-called “Progressives.” So what if we actually become “rechurched?” What will that mean? Which “flavor” will be put forward as the “right” one? Will the “rechurched” version not see Christianity as synonymous with American nationalism? As synonymous with “Western” values and views? I keep harping on the fact that this coming split is offensive to me because the supporters of the split seem to think–naively– that this “rechurched” version is going to work, and that it is going to be better than the one it is leaving. We don’t need “rechurching.” We need a genuine revival from an outpouring of the Spirit of the Risen Christ Jesus that will cut across denominational and doctrinal barriers. I’m tired of fighting with fellow Christians. But I am going to continue to press on the boundaries of those who think that THEIR way is THE way.
Comment by David on May 1, 2021 at 6:56 am
What has belatedly happened in the US has already happened in Western Europe.
Comment by Gary Werley on May 1, 2021 at 10:00 am
Jim Redford is correct, we need to walk in the power of the Spirit, take a step if faith and tell someone about your conversion and what God has done to you as one of His new creations. Be biblical not a demonization.
Comment by Gary Werley on May 1, 2021 at 10:01 am
We need to walk in the power of the Spirit, take a step if faith and tell someone about your conversion and what God has done to you as one of His new creations. Be biblical not a demonization.
Comment by Jakki Staat MCDONALD on May 1, 2021 at 10:59 am
Jesus came to save sinners. As Believers all we do is an outpouring of the Holy Spirit . Social maladies are due to the fall. The first step to changing our world is changing our hearts. That comes through faith in Jesus. The Church is to build up the body of believers and in so doing we will reach out to others as a result. Jesus first, actions secondary.
Comment by Gary Bebop on May 1, 2021 at 1:12 pm
Rechurching America is certainly a worthy project, and perhaps Mark Tooley has WCA’s current objective in mind in writing this. The ’50s was a kind of Golden Age for church building. It was a churched age. But it did not save America from cultural disintegration, a process accelerating at a breathtaking pace. It’s a problem without a nimble solution.
Cultural disintegration races forward spurred by technology. Rechurching requires decades.
Comment by David Mu on May 2, 2021 at 11:21 am
Don’t bet the farm on this. People have had the chance to see what truly fills the pews in the modern church – and few have any interest in the smell rushing back at them from these ‘special’ ones.
Comment by td on May 2, 2021 at 12:51 pm
Betsy- i completely agree with you. But UMC leaders do not. And most certainly the new traditional MC will not recommend or encourage the historical liturgy- they, at least culturally, are in the praise band and charismatic camp.
It’s unfortunate, but if you want traditional liturgy, your choices are anglican, catholic, or episcopal. The UMC has pretty much fallen off that list. The UMC may have that traditional liturgy recommmended in their book of worship and the hymnal, but i have yet to meet a clergy person in the last 20 years who doesn’t loathe the thought of using it.
Comment by Jon Lindgren on May 3, 2021 at 10:30 am
Are Christianity and church attendance necessary for people to join together in some concept of a common good? Mr. Tooley treats this as a known fact. It is instead something we might call conventional wisdom, maybe even a myth. Equally probable is that Christianity destroys the concept of a common good. When I watch Christians shout their prayers at women entering abortion clinics I’m remined these Christians do not realize what our society would be like if all citizens shouted their religious beliefs in front of every business. Christianity did not create our culture. Europe, which has left Christianity behind has no more nor no less sense of the common good than the U. S. The desire to have a civil society comes from the culture itself which is separate from whatever the dominant religion happens to be.
Comment by Douglas Ehrhardt on May 3, 2021 at 12:55 pm
Jon ,this is a Christian site. Europe is going Islamic. Check France . Check out the Mayflower compact. I don’t know what your agenda is but it is surely confused.
Comment by Marla Hughes on May 20, 2021 at 9:31 am
On point and Biblical.
Hebrews 10:25, KJV: “Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching.”
We serve each other in our service to Christ.
Comment by The Rev. Dr. Lee D. Cary (UMC ret.) on June 22, 2021 at 10:45 pm
“Americans detached from traditional religious institutions are more susceptible to political extremes, to social isolation, to conspiracy mindsets, to identity politics, to apocalyptic perspectives, to fears and despair that mitigate against good citizenship.”
This was, for me, an appropriate place to stop reading the article. The premise is incorrect.
“Traditional religious institutions” (TRCs) are not on the decline because of political extremes etc. TRCs were replete in Nazi Germany, once the land of extremes. There was even a Reich Bishop on the gov’t payroll. You don’t get more traditional that that.
The truth is that TRCs have declined from about the mid-20th Century on, because churches in America lost sight of their mission. Complacency set in. Biblical theology weakened, in intensity and scholarship, both in the academe and in the pulpit.
The affluent society and pop culture united to capture the allegiance of new generations, and left many without a moral compass..
Comment by L. Cary on June 24, 2021 at 9:51 am
Is this a contributing factor to the ‘progressive’ agenda of the LGBTQAI+ movement that has fractionalized the UMC?