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Post-Christian America?

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Reports have been building over the last several months that the United States is entering a post-Christian phase, perhaps even an anti-Christian one. Let’s review some of them.

The worst fears of believers are voiced in a Christian Science Monitor story, The coming evangelical collapse. Writer Michael Spencer predicts that millions of evangelicals will drop out, money for ministries will dry up, and even “aggressively evangelistic fundamentalist churches” will wither.

“Intolerance of Christianity will rise to levels many of us have not believed possible in our lifetimes, and public policy will become hostile toward evangelical Christianity, seeing it as the opponent of the common good,” Spencer writes.

shadowHe says the movement has had it coming, by stressing cultural war issues like abortion and homosexuality. Meanwhile, Spencer says, Christian youths haven’t been taught theological basics of the faith to “survive the secular onslaught.”

He offers no stats or even examples, but others do. In March, the American Religious Identification Survey said 10 percent fewer people were calling themselves Christians than in 1990, and nearly twice the percentage — 15 percent — said they had no religious preference.

Religious influence also seemed to wane in everyday life: 30 percent of Americans didn’t have a religious wedding, and 27 didn’t want a religious funeral. Self-labeled nondenominational Christians leapt from 0.1 percent in 1990 to 3.5 percent, showing shrinking mainline influence.

One surprise, though: 18 percent of Catholics and nearly 39 percent of mainline Protestants called themselves evangelicals.

Based partly on the ARIS study, Newsweek magazine prophesied The End of Christian America. Although writer Jon Meacham acknowledges that religion lies at the nation’s foundations, he says — probably correctly — that “explicitly Christian” movements carry less political weight than even five years ago. “Many conservative Christians believe they have lost the battles over issues such as abortion, school prayer and even same-sex marriage, and that the country has now entered a post-Christian phase.”

He considers this a good thing, because personal commitments last longer than political victories — and because freedom of conscience has laced both politics and religion. “The decline and fall of the modern religious right’s notion of a Christian America creates a calmer political environment and, for many believers, may help open the way for a more theologically serious religious life.”

The magazine added results of its own poll, with fewer people calling America a Christian nation, and more saying religion was losing influence. The poll also showed that more evangelicals called themselves Democrats than Republicans — probably a welcome result for Obama’s White House.

A counterpoint appeared in a guest article in the Wall Street Journal. Written by two editors of the English newspaper The Economist, the piece hits a few familiar points: America is still the most religious western nation, separating church and state actually energized religion, and churches help people cope with social change.

The writers also make fresher observations. They note that conservative Christians, including Pentecostals, are increasing along with skeptics, so that American spirituality is polarizing. They note also that Americans are exporting their faith, with Pentecostals surging in Latin America and megachurches increasing in South Korea — and perhaps 100 million churchgoers live in China, outnumbering the country’s Communist Party.

“Betting against American religion has always proved to be a fool’s game,” the writers say.

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Written by Jim Davis

August 2, 2009 at 4:04 am

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