Christians May be Decreasing in Number in America, But Not Because of any ‘War’ December 30, 2015

Jay Michaelson, in The Daily Beast, proclaimed on Christmas Day that there is a decrease in the numbers and influence of Christians in America, but that the “war” on Christianity is a myth.  I’m not sure the war on Christianity is a myth, but it’s not the cause of our problems, and to the extent there is one, it is a result, not a cause, of any cultural changes.  BTW, I’m sure he didn’t write the sensational headline; Christianity is not dying in America, even if it is decreasing a bit.

Michaelson lists a number of causes of the cultural shift:

. . . greater secular education, multiculturalism, shifting social mores, the secular space of consumer capitalism and celebrity culture, the sexual revolution, legal and constitutional changes, the breakdown of the nuclear family, the decline of certain forms of family and group identification, and the association of religion in general with nonsensical and outdated dogmas.

Of course, which came first, in a lot of these cases?  Some say the breakdown of the nuclear family is partly driven by changing economics, but the Great Depression didn’t have the same effect.  The sexual revolution may be as much a result of a cause of any decline in Christian commitment.  And would we be seeing dogmas as “nonsensical and outdated” if our worldview hadn’t shifted first?

There is some discrimination against Christianity, I think, on the secular university campus.  And on the local level, religious institutions have come to be considered less desirable neighbors; this, however, is due partly to the fact that they [and not just Christian ones] have become more active community centers all week long, and frequently have people driving in from long distances – and parking!  [See Lupton, Compassion, Justice, and the Christian Life]  At the same time, residents, and not just white and wealthy ones, have tried to use land use law to control their communities far more than a century ago.  [Perhaps this can be attributed to Francis Schaeffer’s “personal peace and affluence”.]  Christians are not the only victims of this; Muslims have to fight to build mosques also, in some areas.

There is the concept, also, of the “war on Christmas”.  C. S. Lewis told us, 70 years ago, in an essay in God in the Dock, that in the English speaking world, Christmas was three simultaneous holidays; the Incarnation of the Lord, the winter solstice [or the summer one in Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa] and a season for merrymaking and festivities, and the season of cargo cultism represented by Christmas shopping and Santa Claus.  It was the last of the three that he disliked.  [Incidentally, there is, in my opinion, nothing secular about Santa Claus; he is a cargo cult deity of the most classic sort.]  And “Happy Holidays” may have begun originally as an accommodation to the Jewish people.

And those who celebrate Christmas are, in many cases, far from orthodox Christians.  Many of them hold to some ideas that Jesus is the “Son of God” but not God the Son, a view historically called Arianism; many others regard Him as merely a great moral teacher, a view that C. S. Lewis famously discouraged, but still in some sense find His birthday worth adding to the merriment and cargo cultism of the season; or at least singing gospel Christmas carols, paying no attention to how evangelical many of them are!  I, and probably many of us, grew up in an environment like this.  If anything, Christmastime is a time when Christians get away with more than we do the rest of the year, piping outrageous gospel carols into shopping malls [alongside the other kinds of Christmas music; a White Christmas is as foreign to large sections of the country as a virgin birth, and I have never seen in my whole life a “one horse open sleigh”.]  If anything, the Christmas season seems to me to have changed less since my youth than almost any other part of our culture.  When I was single, it was the time of the year that I most wished I was married.

There seems to be an ethnic factor as well.  Sixty-one percent of non-Hispanic white evangelicals, but only 37% of non-white Christians, says Michaelson, believe that religious liberty is in danger.  He “suggest[s] that what’s really happening is an erosion of white Christian hegemony; the “browning of America” goes hand in hand with the de-Christianizing of America.”  Actually, I think, they are two different processes entirely, and do not support each other.  If anything, as I have probably said before, the ethnic results of California’s famous Proposition 8 vote in 2008 indicate that the two trends may be pulling in opposite directions!  Rod Dreher, in his essay “Why Trump Matters,” quotes the sociologist Brad Wilcox arguing that white people don’t have a good culture [or, obviously, theology] of suffering; this explains the recent higher death rate among the white working class, not imitated by Latinos or blacks; and, among Christians, probably explains why whites are more likely to worry about religious liberty.  [At the same time, 37% is not zero; if that many non-whites see religious liberty as an issue, it must be an issue.]

The best book on the browning of America is William Frey’s Diversity Explosion.  Regrettably, he says little about religion in it.  I am well aware that Hindu and Chinese temples and Islamic mosques are burgeoning in our inner suburbs, but the young people leaving the church are not going there.  It was my generation, the Boomers, that had a fascination with gurus; I don’t notice Millennials flocking to them.  At the same time, most of the people leaving Christianity aren’t becoming atheists; Americans prefer the vague spiritualities described in Ross Douthat’s Bad Religion, and frequently uncovered at Christmastime; witness Gene Autry’s lyric, “Santa knows we’re all God’s children and that makes everything right!”  The Baby Jesus knows better than that.

P.S.  My wife was a religion journalist before she married me.  She quit when she married me; I probably should have encouraged her to keep writing columns.  There is a series which I would like to have seen her do. It would be about various religions, contrasting the immigrant practice of them versus the practices of American white and black converts to the same faiths; I suspect that the two often operate in different worlds. To be specific:

— the Hinduism of Indian-American immigrants versus the Hinduism of American converts to gurus, the Self-Realization Fellowship, Vedanta, Hare Krishna, and the rest;

— the Buddhism of immigrants [and even within immigrants the Japanese-American “Buddhist Church” is a very different thing from the practices of the Hsi Lai Temple in Hacienda Heights] versus the Buddhism of Hollywood, which seems to favor the Vajrayana or Tibetan school [Tibetan immigrants are not all that numerous!];

— the Islam of immigrants versus African American Islam [which, since the death of Elijah Muhammad, has been pulled closer to orthodoxy] and the few white converts.

Even within Christianity, immigrant practices may be different.  Catholicism has moved from being dominated by people of Irish descent to being increasingly Latino.  Eastern Orthodoxy has its immigrant churches but also a small but significant number of converts in the Antiochian and OCA branches.  And, as for Protestantism, many a church, as I drive by, has a sign in Korean script advertising a service; how is their Christian culture different from ours, or impacting ours?  [One impression I do get is that many Korean immigrants, with their seven-day work week, are not very good at observing the Sabbath!]  I salivate at the idea that someone would write in an intelligent way about all of this.

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