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The Demise of American Christianity: Good or Bad?

If you care about the current and future state of Christianity in America and evangelicalism in particular, there has been a storm of articles and debates popping up all over the place as of late. I commented briefly upon Michael Spencer’s “Coming Evangelical Collapse” posts a couple months back.  His bleak predictions were subsequently picked up by the mainstream media and you can read a condensed version of his original posts in the Christian Science Monitor.  

coverThis past week Newsweek featured a story by Jon Meacham on “The End of Christian America” with Albert Mohler commenting significantly on the decline of Christianity in America.  This story was quite fair — which is a pleasant surprise following the pathetically uninformed and biblically ignorant story on homosexuality and the Bible appearing not long ago.  The story unmasks the great blunder of religious conservatives who have made the culture-war the main focus of evangelical Christianity.  Even Mohler admits this much: “The worst fault of evangelicals in terms of politics over the last 30 years has been an incredible naiveté about politics and politicians and parties,” says Mohler. “They invested far too much hope in a political solution to what are transpolitical issues and problems.”  

So, not only has the culture war been lost at this point.  More painfully, the reputation of Christ and his Kingdom mission has become equated with culture war issues such as keeping the Ten Commandments in court houses, prayer in the schools, anti-same sex marriage legislation, etc.  Regardless of where you might stand on these significant cultural issues — and I do have a stance — the question remains: Is this the unique Kingdom message and mission Jesus commissioned the church to spend its energy promoting?  Or has Jesus’ pure, Kingdom-centered mission taken a back seat to the hotly politicized culture war of American evangelicalism?  Meacham rightly points out that “there is much New Testament evidence to support a vision of faith and politics in which the church is truest to its core mission when it is the farthest from the entanglements of power. The Jesus of the Gospels resolutely refuses to use the means of this world—either the clash of arms or the passions of politics—to further his ends.”  

This does not mean that the church steps out of the public domain and retreats from politics altogether.  Rather, as Boyd has forcefully argued in his Myth of a Christian Nation, the church is called to be a “contrast society” influencing the culture around it not by attempting to play the power game and “Christianize” unChristian government and laws, but by embodying a radically different Jesus-shaped way of life and a strikingly unique Kingdom ethic. “Being in the world and not of it remains our charge,” says Mohler. “The church is an eternal presence in a fallen, temporal world—but we are to have influence. The Sermon on the Mount is about what we are to do—but it does not come with a political handbook.”  Spencer offers a similar sentiment in a recent podcast where he comments on the “Limbaughization of Evangelicalism.”  

Greg Boyd beat me to the punch this week and commented on both of these stories, offering his “Kingdom perspective” on whether we should lament or celebrate the so-called end of “Christian America.”  I agree wholeheartedly with his perspective and since I cannot improve upon his six points of consideration, I will leave you with them.  (Please go read his entire post “Don’t Weep for the Demise of American Christianity.”)

1. America has never been, and will never be, a “Christian” nation in any significant sense. Among other things, America, like every other fallen, demonically-oppressed nation (see Lk. 4:5-7; 2 Cor. 4:4; I Jn. 5:19; Rev. 13), is incapable of loving its enemies, doing good to those who mistreat it or blessing those who persecute it (Lk. 6:27-35). By applying the term “Christian” to America, we’ve massively watered down its meaning — which undoubedly helps explain why the vast majority of American Christians assume being “Christian” is perfectly compatible with hating and killing your national enemies if and when your earthly Commander and Chief asks you to. The sooner the label “Christian” gets divorced form this country, the better. It provides hope that someday the word “Christian” might actually mean “Christ-like” once again.

2. Related to this, there’s a good bit of research demonstrating that the majority of American’s identify themselves as “Christian” when asked by a pollster, but when asked what this label actually means in terms of core values and lifestyle choices, it becomes apparent that for the majority of them the meaning of “Christian” is basically “American.” I submit that the main problem Kingdom people confront in spreading the Kingdom in America is that a majority of people assume they are already in the Kingdom — they are “Christian” — simply by virtue of being American or because they prayed a certain prayer or go to Church once a year, or whatever.  If fewer people are identifying themselves as “Christian,” this is good, for it means there’s one less major illusion that Kingdom people have to confront and work through as they invite these folks into the Kingdom.

3. If Evangelicals lose all their political clout, we may be less tempted to lust after political power, which means we may have one less distraction from actually doing what God called us to do — namely, manifesting God’s reign by how we humbly live, love and serve.

4. As my friend Alan Hirsch demonstrates in his great book, The Forgotten Ways, the Kingdom has always thrived — and really, has only thrived — when it was on the margins of society. The Kingdom is, by its very nature, a “contrast society.” If Christians lose all their power and position in society and become marginalized, this can’t help but be good for the Kingdom. If Christians become persecuted, it likely will be even better. We’d be turning back the clock from the disaster of Constantinian triumphalist Christianity in the direction of Apostolic, servant Christianity.

5. The “Christian” element of American culture was never deeper than the thin veneer of a shared civic religion. A major problem Kingdom people have faced on the mission field of America is that the majority of people mistook the civic religion for the real thing. So it is that so many think that being “Christian” is focused on preserving the civic religion (e.g. fighting for prayer before sports events, keeping the ten commandments on government buildings, holding onto a “Christian” definition of marriage within our government, etc.). Not only this, but this veneer of Christianity causes Jesus followers not to notice the many ways foundational assumptions that permeate American culture are diametrically opposed to the values of the Kingdom. If the civic religion of Christianity were to die, Kingdom people would be less tempted to associate Christianity with symbolic civic functions and would become more aware of how the Kingdom sharply contrasts with foundational aspects of American culture.

6. Finally, and closely related to this, if Jesus followers lose all their position and power and become a minority (or better, revealed to have always been a minority) in American culture, this will expose the idol of American individualism we have bought into for far too long and perhaps help us realize that we need to cling to each other and that the Kingdom is inherently communal. We are called to manifest God’s uniquely beautiful love and bear witness to the reality of Jesus Christ by how we share our lives and serve one another (e.g. Jn. 17:20-26; Acts 2: 42-47. 4: 42-45). But its very difficult for many of us to embrace radical Kingdom community when we can get along very well (by American standards of “well”) without it.  The demise of Constantinian American Christianity would serve us well by stripping us of the privilege of individualistic living.

Other possible positive outcomes of the demise of American Christianity could be listed, but this must suffice for now. I hope it is enough to show that, from a Kingdom perspective, the demise of American Christianity is not something we should weep over. To the contrary, its actually good news. Yes, it will likely bring about cultural disarray. But, as has often been noted, the Kingdom thrives best when the broader cultural is falling apart. The God-given mandate to Kingdom people is not to keep the broader culture from falling apart, but to offer all who are hungry a radically different, far more beautiful, way of doing life. And often people will not take this offer seriously until everything else is crumbling around them.  

Let the civic religion die. And if the culture crumbles, it crumbles. Our task is to live in a way that gives people hope.

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