Regular readers of Free Inquiry are probably familiar with some of the basic statistics regarding unbelief. People who describe themselves as having no religion (“Nones”) are increasing, and church attendance is probably not as high as has been believed by some.* While I have had my doubts in the past, I believe that the secularization thesis best explains much of what is happening in America and in the world. I was further convinced by Steve Bruce’s Secularization: In Defence of an Unfashionable Theory (2011).
Yet, this whole discussion about whether our nation is Christian or secular is moot, or at best nebulous, unless we first ask: What does it mean to be “Christian”? When we look at what the word Christian means to self-described Christians in our nation, we find a diversity so deep and so contradictory that the whole notion becomes meaningless. Who or what is a Christian? Ultimately any particular answer to that question stands exposed as a faith-based claim.
The Bible Don’t Tell Me So
In their book The Search for Christian America, Mark A. Noll, Nathan O. Hatch, and George Marsden, all of them evangelical Christian historians, state: “We feel that a careful study of the facts of history shows that early America does not deserve to be considered uniquely, distinctly, or even predominantly Christian, if we mean by the word ‘Christian’ a state of society reflecting the ideals presented in Scripture.” I don’t necessarily agree with how Noll, Hatch, and Marsden might define “the ideals presented in Scripture,” but because I am a biblical scholar by training, my metrics for defining Christian are also more biblical than those used by most demographers studying this issue. Accordingly, I propose that the United States is not a predominantly Christian nation, if that means that most Americans are following the precepts enshrined in the New Testament and, by extension, in the book Christians call the Old Testament.
It is very difficult to find a clear definition of Christian in the New Testament, but the statements attributed to Jesus in Luke 14:26–33 might be a good place to start:
If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple . Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me, cannot be my disciple . . . . So therefore, whoever of you does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple . [All Bible quotations from the Revised Standard Version (RSV).]
Most self-described Christian Americans don’t hate their parents as Jesus instructs his followers to do, and many Christian Americans have homes, apartments, cars, watches, smartphones, and other material possessions. Most Americans don’t live as though their next minute might be their last on Earth, as Paul apparently thought was the case (1 Thessalonians 4:15–18). Paul even preferred that people not marry, because that might interfere with the paramount mission of saving souls before the apocalypse he expected in his own lifetime (1 Corinthians 7:8). In contrast, many Christian Americans have retirement accounts and hope Social Security won’t go bust before they retire.
As for following the Ten Commandments faithfully being the test of being a Christian, I certainly don’t see anyone being executed for failing to rest on the Sabbath as demanded by Exodus 31:15. Also, there is not much sacrificial blood streaming out of American temples, nor are rebellious children being stoned as prescribed by the Old Testament. Few self-described Christian Americans run to exorcists to cure their illnesses these days, but exorcism and magical healing rituals were standard for the early followers of Jesus.
Here is another biblical way to look at this issue. By some counts, the Protestant Bible has 31,173 verses. How many of those verses do you think modern American Christians actually and faithfully apply at any point during their lifetimes? Even by the flawed statistics of the 2006 Baylor University study, 21 percent of Protestants and 33 percent of Catholics “never read scripture.” And those who do read the Bible read very little of it. My best guess is that self-described American Christians live by about a dozen verses, at best. That means that they disregard roughly 99.99 percent of the Bible. How can that possibly be called Christian behavior, if being Christian means following the Bible?
Count the Issues
Demographics tell only part of the story. For another view into the decline of Christianity in America, you must look at history.
If you were living around 1919, you would see self-described Christians, especially Protestants, enjoying tremendous power to enact their theology into law all over our nation. I will call them “Christian theocrats,” regardless of their denomination. The Eighteenth Amendment, which instituted the prohibition of alcohol in the United States, was ratified on January 16, 1919. It was the work of mostly evangelical Protestant theocrats. In fact, around this time, one can count about a dozen issues through which Protestants imposed or tried to impose what they believed to be biblical mandates on significant portions of our society. These included the prohibition of alcohol, anti-sodomy laws, resistance to women’s voting rights, segregation, creationism, Sunday blue laws, and restrictions on film content.
By the late 1940s, however, the number of national issues that theocrats could decisively influence had begun to decline. Today, theocratic Christians are down to about three issues where they still exert palpable influence: abortion, gay rights, and creationism. And even here, their power is limited: abortion is still legal, even if it is in jeopardy or attenuated in some states. Creationism has been moribund, at least at the federal level, since the famous Dover intelligent design decision of 2005. Others might add a preference for capitalism, homeschooling, and lax environmental regulations to the theocratic agenda. Yet, there are also so-called New Evangelicals who are environmentally friendly and believe they should be more attentive to the needs of the poor.
Why has the playing field for Christian theocrats contracted in this way? George Barna, the evangelical Christian founder of the Barna Group, tracks the religious beliefs of Americans. Years ago, Barna began noticing the widening generational gap between older self-described evangelicals and the so-called “Born-again Busters,” who range in age from twenty-three to forty-one. In Unchristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity, a book authored by David Kinnaman and published by the Barna Group in 2007, we find that 59 percent of Born-again Busters believe it is morally acceptable for unmarried couples to cohabitate. More significantly, 28 percent of Born-again Busters believe it is morally acceptable to have a sexual relationship with someone of the same sex, and 32 percent believe that abortion is morally acceptable. As these Born-again Busters become leaders within their churches, their positions may become the norm.
In 2011, Gallup reported for the first time that the majority of Americans favored gay marriage. So it won’t be long before Christian theocrats have to live nationally with that situation, too. It remains true that theocratic-minded churches still have millions of members who vote and billions of dollars at their disposal. Still, the point remains that even with all that people-power and all those monetary resources, the theocrats should have been much more influential than they have in fact been. Their agendas should
have been waxing, not waning.
So, yes, Christian theocrats still have some influence in a few important issues, but nowhere near the level that they had in 1919. Let these theocrats attempt to use biblical grounds to deny women the right to vote or serve in government, and you’ll see what happens.
UnChristians for President
If we evaluated the candidates running for president according to biblical standards, it is extremely doubtful that any would measure up. For example, no American president would fit the definition of a disciple of Christ mentioned in Luke 14:26–33. Biblical standards are just too diverse and contradictory to ever allow one person to fulfill them all. Indeed, presidential politics in the last thirty years witnessed a major decline in the power of self-described Christian conservatives, especially those who are Protestant.
Consider 1987, when televangelist Pat Robertson won the Republican straw poll in Iowa. He then won four states in the presidential primaries of 1988. But as of this writing, we don’t have a single Protestant theocrat running for president. Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry, two candidates identified as Christian evangelical champions, crashed and burned by January of 2012. Ron Paul, a Baptist, is the closest thing we have to a Protestant theocrat, but he is not usually perceived to be your traditional evangelical at all, in that (for example) he supports prostitution rights and relaxed drug laws. Mitt Romney is a Mormon, and Mormonism is regarded as a cult by many Protestant Christians. The fact that Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich, touted by some as “conservatives,” enjoyed some success in the GOP primaries only illustrates how poorly Protestant theocrats are faring in this country. After all, Newt Gingrich is a Roman Catholic. The thrice-married and twice-divorced Gingrich is hardly the paragon of family values that evangelical Christians say they cherish. Yet during the run-up to the Iowa caucuses, Gingrich was one of four candidates considered for an endorsement by The Family Leader, a “family values” Christian organization in Iowa. Yes, in a country of over three hundred million inhabitants, these Christian conservatives were admitting that Gingrich was the best they could do. The fact that Santorum, a Catholic, became viewed as a champion of Christian evangelicals shows how far evangelical Protestant power has declined.
It used to be that Catholicism was repeatedly identified with the Antichrist by Protestant evangelicals and nativists such as the Ku Klux Klan, but the Catholic barrier in presidential politics was breached by John F. Kennedy in 1960. Therefore, anti-Catholic Protestants are now seen as outside of the mainstream, even in the Republican Party. More inclusive “Christian coalitions” consisting of Protestants and Catholics have arisen precisely because Protestant theocrats can’t accomplish what they used to be able to do alone. Indeed, President Barack Obama would never have been elected in 2008 if these theocrats had a decisive influence on the American populace.
If Romney wins the Republican nomination, then the prejudice against Mormonism will shatter just as did the bigotry regarding Kennedy’s Catholicism in 1960. Mormons will henceforth be regarded as Christians without regard for the fact that mainstream Christians have considered them anti-Christian cultists for much of the last century.
In order to work cooperatively and join forces, these generic Christians must marginalize their differences. After all, if Southern Baptists and Catholics still hated each other because one denomination baptizes its members by immersion while the other merely sprinkles water on them, then they would never be able to cooperate as well as they have on abortion and gay marriage. On these two issues, of course, they now display firm agreement.
As denominational distinctions become evermore marginal, Christianity will become more diluted, nebulous, and amorphous than ever. On most social issues, self-described Christians have already become nearly indistinguishable from their completely secular counterparts. In fact, most self-described Christians are operationally secular and Christian in name only. The effort to mass-market Christianity has meant diluting it and its Bible.
The longer view of history shows that what is happening in America is quite normal. Similar trends have been seen in every major world religion that I have studied. The more members of a religion start to be ostracized by the world around them, the more they may accommodate their theology to fit that world, especially when they lack the support of a coercive government. It’s an impulse literally as old as Christianity itself. Some historians suggest that the religion may have begun, in part, when groups of Jews wanted to eat the foods that they saw Romans enjoying. These Jews were trying to be more accepted in the Greco-Roman world and so developed a more ethnically inclusive theology to fit those needs.
It is difficult to say if the United States is a Christian nation because it is difficult to discern what is a “Christian” today, at least by the standards of the first- and second-century New Testament authors. In fact, those biblical authors often didn’t agree among themselves as to the proper definition of a Christian. More important, their mindset is so different and so foreign from that of today’s believers that modern Christians might well not recognize it.
Today, most American Christians don’t want to be different from the secular world in their sexual practices or in their liberties to eat and drink what they wish. Just like biological species, religious groups adapt, conquer, or die.
What we still do have are masses of self-described Christians who wish to impose what they believe to be biblical values on others. Religious thinking can still wield a disproportionate amount of power in this country.
So while the longer historical trend is toward secularization, secular humanists cannot relax quite yet. Theocrats can still impose their theology on our government in the few issues where they retain their strength. That influence can still affect millions of our citizens—and even life on the planet itself.
* For an excellent summary of such studies, see Tom Flynn, “Who Are These Doubters Anyway?: A Look Back at the Demographics of Unbelief,” Free Inquiry 32, no. 2 (February/March 2012): 24–30.
- Avalos, Hector. 1999. Health Care and the Rise of Christianity. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Press.
- Bader, Christopher, et al. 2006. American Piety in the 21st Century: New Insights into the Depth and Complexity of Religion in the U.S. Waco, Texas: Baylor University Institute for Studies of Religion.
- Beal, Timothy. 2011. The Rise and Fall of the Bible: The Unexpected History of an Accidental Book. Boston/New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
- Bruce, Steve. 2011. Secularization: In Defence of an Unfashionable Theory. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Jacobs, A.J. 2007. The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible. New York: Simon & Schuster.
- Kinnaman, David, and Gabe Lyons. 2007. UnChristian: What a New Generation Thinks about Christianity . . . and Why it Matters. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books.
- Noll, Mark A., Nathan O. Hatch, and George Marsden. 1983. The Search for Christian America. Westchester, Ill.: Crossway Books.
- Pally, Marcia. 2011. The New Evangelicals: Expanding the Vision of the Common Good. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans.