It’s official: America is losing its religion. According to the Pew Forum, Gallup, the General Social Survey, and several other studies in recent years, this downward trajectory in American religious belief has been the trend for decades. But since 2001, the de-Christianization of America has progressed with startling speed.
This article was originally published in the American Spectator print magazine. Click here for online access!
The September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon marked a watershed moment in the way Americans understood religion. Prior to 9/11, Americans were largely oblivious to the dangers of radical Islam. It was always something over there, far from our borders. What collapsed with the Twin Towers was the illusion that the United States was insulated from the violence of that religion as Americans came to grips with a fundamental biblical truth: evil exists.
But 9/11 brought another seismic shift in the American soul. After an initial wave of patriotic fervor that even the most ardent leftist dared not mock publicly, this unity of the American people and awakening to the true nature of Islam — both conservative impulses and thus intolerable to the liberal establishment — dissolved under the acid of cynicism as the Left devoted itself to redirecting the focus of America’s ire from outward at the terrorists and terrorist states that support them, inward to America itself. Its line of reasoning was that the United States deserved it.
What followed was much introspection and handwringing over our past sins against the Third World. Our attackers were victims of American imperialism, and, it was alleged, we had provoked these attacks. Full of loathing for what America traditionally has represented, liberal elites used this rationale to launch their own attacks against America’s fundamentally conservative institutions and ideals: sovereignty, self-reliance (that is, independence from government), marriage, suspicion of the environmental scare, and, above all, Christianity, the bedrock of American conservatism.
These were all proof of America’s arrogance and deep-seated bigotry. America, we were told, was out of step with the rest of the world and needed to be burned down Ferguson-style and rebuilt in the image of a Western European democracy: weak, her wealth pillaged and redistributed to the nations she supposedly had exploited in the first place, subject to the dictates of international bodies, and thoroughly secular. This sentiment reached its zenith with the election of Barack Obama. Obama was not, as some would have it, a socialist or a Muslim, but an anti-imperialist who believed, like his father, that America’s emergence as a great power was an accident of history and that it was his mission to weaken the aforementioned institutions and level the global playing field.
Attacking religion in all of its manifestations, and none more than Christianity, became fashionable. It is no coincidence that the years immediately following 9/11 saw the publication of a spate of anti-religious bestsellers:
• Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code (2003)
• Sam Harris’ Letter to a Christian Nation (2006)
• Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell (2006)
• Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion (2006)
• Christopher Hitchens’ God Is Not Great (2007)
Apart from Brown the novelist, the others were a new breed of aggressive, evangelical atheist — collectively known as the “New Atheists” — hell-bent on driving religion from public life. Of course, there is nothing new about atheism. This was old atheism, and these were old, outdated arguments with slick new packaging.
Each New Atheist reserved his most savage rhetoric not for Islam, as one might have reasonably thought, but for Christianity. Take for example the opening lines of Dawkins’ The God Delusion:
The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving, control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.
Soon, Christianity became the cause of all the world’s evils, and criticism of any other religion was taboo. No, it wasn’t the Amish or Methodists who flew those planes into the sides of the Twin Towers, but Christianity nevertheless was interpreted as part of the West’s colonial past and therefore a great evil. Jesus’ words, “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6), politically incorrect and demanding of exclusivity, did not fit neatly within the pluralistic model Americans were encouraged to embrace.
Christianity was also (and rightly) seen as the primary obstacle to progressives’ cultural agenda. It was Christianity, after all, that promoted the sanctity of life in opposition to abortion-on-demand; that declared marriage to be a holy, God-ordained institution between a man and a woman; that urged reliance upon God and not upon government; and that said — shiver — that all people and their governments were subject to a higher law and would be judged in the next life for their actions in this one.
In the secular European model, as in the Roman Pantheon, all religious “truths” are declared to be equally valid, provided all bend the knee to the ultimate truth, the state. And just as with Rome, Christianity by its very nature subverts any government with these ambitions. One finds this rebellious spirit in the Decalogue: “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” As I explained in an interview with Fox News’ John Stossel, in the biblical worldview, the state is a temporal institution meant to serve man, an eternal being. In the progressive model, this is reversed: man, a temporal being, serves the eternal state.
Nowhere have I seen these two diametrically opposed worldviews on display more than at the National Prayer Breakfast (NPB) in 2009. It has been my privilege to attend several of these events over the years. Since the first Eisenhower administration, the sitting president of the United States has gathered with ordinary men and women, public figures, heads of state, and various other notables to pray for our country.
Joining the newly elected President Obama and first lady Michelle on the dais at the 57th NPB were Vice President Joseph Biden, Reps. Heath Shuler and Vern Ehlers, Christian band Casting Crowns, and former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Tony Blair.
If you think that an eclectic gathering of this kind might be vague when it comes to identifying the entity to whom prayers are directed, your skepticism is not altogether misplaced. The NPB, once an explicitly and unapologetically Christian event, has become, like America, pluralistic in nature. One may reasonably wonder about the price of such harmony. A unity that affirms no doctrine or creed is shallow and affirms nothing but unity for its own sake.
Tony Blair’s keynote speech, then, came as no small surprise. Blair began with the usual greetings and well wishes to the new president, but swiftly moved to matters of more significance. He warned of the dangers of radical Islam and the rising tide of “an increasingly aggressive secularism, which derides faith
as contrary to reason and defines faith by conflict.” This was a clear shot at the militant atheists — guys like Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens — who are treated like rock stars in Britain. Blair also expressed his doubts about the ability of even a moderate secularism to provide a basis for society:
I only say that there are limits to humanism and beyond those limits God and only God can work…. We can perform acts of mercy, but only God can lend them dignity. We can forgive, but only God forgives completely in the full knowledge of our sin. And only through God comes grace; and it is God’s grace that is unique. John Newton, who had been that most obnoxious of things, a slave trader, wrote the hymn “Amazing Grace”: “ ’Twas Grace that taught my heart to fear and Grace, my fears relieved.” It is through faith, by the Grace of God, that we have the courage to live as we should and die as we must.
President Obama followed Blair with what was supposed to be an account of his own conversion to Christianity. But it was clear that he did not understand Christianity at all, because there was no mention of sin, repentance, or Jesus Christ. Christianity seemed to consist of “God’s call to a higher purpose.” His was a civic religion, in which God serves as a kind of cosmic cheerleader who accommodates himself to us and our purposes, rather than we to him and his. Both men quoted from the texts of other religions, but Blair quoted them to make a Christian point, while Obama quoted them to make a secular one. The contrast was striking.
Obama, seemingly annoyed by Blair’s speech, pushed back at the former prime minister by saying that he welcomed people of all faiths and those who have no faith, suggesting that secularism was the future and faith a private matter. One might argue that a private faith is an irrelevant faith. But Obama, ever the pluralist, would have none of it. Proudly citing his own religious heritage, he said,
I was not raised in a particularly religious household. I had a father who was born a Muslim but became an atheist, grandparents who were non-practicing Methodists and Baptists, and a mother who was skeptical of organized religion, even as she was the kindest, most spiritual person I’ve ever known.
Laying aside the oxymoronic language — grandparents who were “non-practicing Methodists and Baptists” and the irreligious but deeply “spiritual” mother — Obama was positioning himself as all things to all people while affirming absolutely nothing of substance. He was the spirit of the Pantheon personified. Above all, he embraced secularism and conceded belief in God (or a god) only to the extent that he felt such a gathering required it of him, and maybe a little less than that.
It was strange that Blair sounded like the American and Obama the European. Blair sought to give teeth to the sort of address that is often full of feel-good, meaningless god- talk. He seemed to be trying to warn Obama, Congress, and America of what lay ahead if we continued down the path we were on. Blair knew what he was talking about. Aggressive secularists have defanged western Europe and the United Kingdom ideologically and spiritually. As a consequence, they have made way for radical Islam. Secularism, as we have seen, is no match for such an absolutist doctrine. Blair recognizes that the reestablishment of the Christian faith is the West’s only hope.
Some have questioned the sincerity of Blair’s remarks, suggesting that he was simply playing the politician and giving his American audience what they wanted. Perhaps. In that setting, however, I can think of easier ways to do it. Besides, whatever capital he earned with the audience was immediately lost on a British press that wasted no time in condemning his speech. Obama, certainly, was in no mood to accept Blair’s counsel. He seemed to regard himself as a new and better future, as one who is an oracle unto himself. Power breeds arrogance. All the more so when he who wields it dismisses all received wisdom and instead believes that truth is an island that he alone occupies.
At this point in our discussion, it seems appropriate to discuss the first chapter of the Apostle Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. I will not quote it here in full, but verses 18 through 32 outline the progression of depravity a society, any society, will follow once it “suppresses the truth” about God:
For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.
Paul argues in this chapter that once we suppress belief in the transcendent, we sever our ties with absolute truth — with reality, in other words — and become, in effect, all sail and no anchor. We then pervert the truth and ultimately pervert life itself. This pattern progresses through three distinct phases: the worship of nature and elevation of animal life (verses 23-25); homosexuality (26-27); and, finally, an utterly “debased mind” (28-32). In so doing, he says, we “exchange the truth of God for a lie.”
Sound familiar? Indeed, so relevant is this passage that it sounds like Paul wrote it last week. And he wrote this without the benefit of meeting, as I have, Princeton bioethicist Peter Singer. Atheism’s current vanguard, having inhaled so deeply of a Christian ethos that serves to restrain their actions if not their words, is fast being replaced by the children of their anti-religious revolution, and if the current cultural climate is any indicator, they will be all too willing to do what the New Atheists themselves would not do: take atheism to its logical conclusions.
For an idea of what that will look like, we need only consider Singer, who is, quite possibly, the most influential philosopher of the second half of the 20th century and beyond. In 1975, he published Animal Liberation, which gave rise to the modern animal rights movement. (Once, when dining with Singer in his hometown of Melbourne, Australia, I listened as he explained his animal rights philosophy. A vegetarian for obvious reasons, he ordered gnocchi. I ordered kangaroo. I’m not sure what compelled me to do it. (Well, maybe I am.) He is the most philosophically consistent atheist I have ever met.
Dangerously so. Journalist Kevin Toolis writes of Singer, “[W]hat is legitimate for Singer is just plain murder for other people.” It is Singer’s view that man is an animal like any other and that he deserves no special status among the various species. That thinking is, he argues, the residue of Christian thought. Worse, he has argued that parents should get 28 days with a newborn child to determine if they want to keep it or euthanize it.
This is where atheism, pushed to its natural outcome, takes you. This is Atheism 101. As Fyodor Dostoevsky so eloquently put it, “If there is no immortality, there can be no virtue, and all things are permissible.” If you think that philosophy hasn’t permeated our society, consider Planned Parenthood’s annihilation of the unborn, the push for live abortions, and the selling of baby parts. If this isn’t evidence of debased minds, I don’t know what is.
In his commentary on the above passage from Romans, the medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas put it something like this: God made the angels all spirit and no flesh. He made the animals all flesh and no spirit. Man he made a composite of both spirit and flesh. As a consequence, man can either ascend to the higher or descend to the lower. We are presently descending to the lower — the animal.
What atheists can point to are secular societies that are still running off their accumulated Christian capital.
Proponents of a society free from religious influence can point to no nation or civilization founded upon atheism that we might call even remotely good. The story of those regimes is well documented and may be summarized in a word: murderous. The secular regimes of the 20th century killed more than 125 million people. That is more than all religious wars from all previous centuries combined.
No, what atheists can point to are secular societies that are still running off their accumulated Christian capital. But beware. When the fumes in that tank run out, tyranny cannot be far away.
In his farewell address in September 1796, George Washington offered a warning to his fellow countrymen:
And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds
of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.
Washington was not simply playing to the masses by tossing them this morsel of religious rhetoric. He was referring to a dangerous European experiment named the French Revolution, which sought the destruction of the Church and the institutionalization of atheism. The experiment was a failure. What followed was regicide, civil war, and the Reign of Terror. Deciding that belief in something beyond oneself might, after all, be a good idea, the clever social engineers of France’s Committee of Public Safety (a misnomer if ever there was one) responded with a half-measure, creating the ridiculous “Cult of Supreme Being” in 1794. It, too, was a failure. Washington recognized the pitiless nature of a godless society.
The naïveté of our modern social engineers is no less profound. On the one hand, they want to kick out the Christian underpinnings of Western civilization; on the other, they think they can maintain all that Christianity has given us: science, art, law, literature.
In his 1949 book Christianity and Culture, T. S. Eliot put the problem this way:
It is in Christianity that our arts have developed; it is in Christianity that the laws of Europe — until recently — have been rooted. It is against a background of Christianity that all of our thought has significance. An individual European may not believe that the Christian faith is true, and yet what he says, and makes, and does, will all spring out of his heritage of Christian culture and depend upon that culture for its meaning…. I do not believe the culture of Europe could survive the complete disappearance of the Christian faith. And I am convinced of that, not merely because I am a Christian myself, but as a student of social biology. If Christianity goes, the whole of our culture goes.
To put it another way, you can’t go over a waterfall only halfway. Eliot is right to say that Christianity has given rise to the West and to the very framework of our thoughts, ideals, and who we are as a people, even if we do not know or acknowledge it. I recall Indian scholar Vishal Mangalwadi telling me some years ago that the line “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal” makes not a bit of sense in anything other than a Western context. That is because nowhere but in the West is man’s equality understood to be spiritual — rather than physical, material, or social — in nature, and that, he says, is entirely due to Christianity’s ennobling influence.
In his magnum opus, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon put Christianity in the dock and blamed it for the fall of Rome. Its principal ethics of love and forgiveness, he maintained, had sapped the Romans of their fighting virtues. This seems a heavy and questionable indictment against Christianity, especially when one considers that the Roman empire was already rotten to the core and but a century from collapse when in A.D. 313 Constantine issued the Edict of Milan, making Christianity a tolerated religion. Regardless, I am inclined to employ Gibbon’s thesis here — but in reverse. It seems the decline of Christian virtue is sapping America — no, the whole of Western civilization — of her virtues, and, yes, even of her fighting virtues.
I have given a grim, perhaps even depressing, account of how we arrived at this pivotal point in our history and where we are likely to go next. Our culture, once such a safe place for Christians, has become increasingly hostile to them. Almost everywhere they look they see their views mocked, forced from the public sphere, or terminated by judicial fiat. They see public schools that are corrosive to the faith of their children. They see universities that are incubators of radicalism. They see the disintegration of the rule of law. And they see a political party that has more than hinted at its desire to dismantle the last remaining legal barrier that has protected Christians in this country for so long: religious liberty.
The evangelical strategy of the last half-century — a largely political strategy — has failed. The Great Commission, Christ’s command that his disciples should “go into all the world and preach the Gospel,” was understood in mostly political terms. Thus, top-down programs for cultural change, such as those championed by the Moral Majority and the Conservative Coalition, came to embody it. Jesus was recast as a Republican activist, and WWJD — What Would Jesus Do? — was reduced to political initiatives rather than changing the culture from the bottom up, one heart and soul at a time, as Jesus and the early Church had done it. As a consequence, Christians became insular and their influence minimal.
Jesus was recast as a Republican activist, and WWJD — What Would Jesus Do? — was reduced to political initiatives rather than changing the culture from the bottom up, one heart and soul at a time, as Jesus and the early Church had done it.
Simply put, the culture that evangelicals set themselves against politically began making more converts than they were. And with so much of the cultural space dominated by the Left, why wouldn’t it? It is true that Christianity has been driven from many aspects of public life, but Christians have unwittingly accelerated that process by retreating from it and limiting their civic engagement to voting and InstaTwitFace posts.
The proof of Christianity’s retreat is difficult to refute. According to a 2015 Pew Forum survey, membership is declining in both Protestant and Catholic churches across America. Protestant evangelical denominations have remained the most stable — a loss of less than 1 percent in the last seven years — but that is hardly good news. This data means that the megachurch phenomenon is chiefly one of transfer of membership rather than one of conversion. Worse, according to LifeWay Research, seven in 10 Protestant children currently in the Church will leave it by age 23.
But there is hope. While Europe, with fewer people in churches on Sunday than in the city of Seoul, seems a lost cause, I hold out great hope for America. That is because the American Church’s influence in American society is disproportionate to its size. Consider the numbers: according to Pew Forum, evangelicals number an incredible 26 percent of the U.S. population, while those who follow another strain of Christianity account for an additional 50 percent of Americans. My optimism only increases with the recollection that Jesus changed an empire with 12.
The American Church is a sleeping giant. But it cannot afford to slumber much longer. America must find its voice and its courage. And I want to put special emphasis on that last word, because courage, it seems to me, is what is most lacking among Christians. We have become what C. S. Lewis called “men without chests.” To paraphrase a line from the Westminster Shorter Catechism, we have come to think that safety and material well-being are the chief end of man. That is a secular, not a Christian, understanding of life. And that secular influence upon Christians has instilled in us a desire for the safety of our Family Life Centers and the comfort of our homes rather than a conviction that we must engage the world beyond our doors.
That must change. We are confronted with people intoxicated with their own revolutionary idealism who really believe that society can be a tabula rasa upon which they can create heaven on earth. But this vision is not inspired by the Christian conception of heaven; it is one without God, without any virtues beyond those which the state gives it, and without human dignity.
On the west side of the campus of my undergraduate alma mater, Samford University, there is a building called the Rotunda. To the casual observer, it has an attractive if otherwise undistinguished edifice, constructed as it is, like the rest of the university, in the Georgian style. Visitors who enter from the north side, however, are treated to the work of an artist of sublime skill. Gracing the walls are four oil paintings depicting miracles from the Bible: Moses brings forth water from a rock to quench the thirst of the Israelites, Jesus gives sight to a blind man, Peter and John mend the broken form of a lame beggar, and Jesus heals a paralytic. Of these, the fourth struck me most powerfully when first I saw it as a student. The man is withered, his body cold and colorless — except for his arm. It is there that Jesus touches him, and the flesh in the Master’s grip is warm and pink. The artist has rendered the scene so skillfully that one imagines the whole body will soon be likewise restored.
Since the fall of man, there has never been a Christian nation. Instead, there have been nations with varying degrees of Christian influence. In the parts of those societies touched by Christ, the blood courses, fortifying, revitalizing, and sweeping away contaminants as it goes. At the cold and colorless extremities are those places the healing power of his Church has not yet reached. Here one finds cruelty, injustice, and indifference.
As militant secularists rush to banish Christianity from American public life, I have sought to give you a picture of what this country will look like should they succeed. For grasping the other arm of America is the hand of unbelief. Its effect is exactly the opposite of Christ’s. What it touches, it destroys. That it has already done so to a large degree is evident in the blight of abortion, a creeping socialism that many mistake for Christian charity, the breakdown of the family, a rapid rise in crime, a decline in education, and suicides on a scale hitherto unknown. American society itself stands to be orphaned, cut off from its rich Christian heritage. Mercifully, Jesus Christ has not yet relinquished his grip.
If he does? As Eliot said, “The whole of our culture goes.”
This article was originally published in The American Spectator’s fall 2019 print magazine. Click here for online access!