Ross Douthat on the Character of Christianity’s Decline, Part 1

Ross Douthat's new book,  Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics , is very helpful for Christians seeking to understand why the Church is in decline in the U.S. Before the book's publication I gave a high-level look at  its basic theses . In These next posts, I'll share more details of Ross's Proposals and Interact With His somewhat materials.

Ross Douthat speaks of "five major catalysts" for the decline. First, I have points to the political polarization Between Left and Right That drew many churches into it. Mainline Protestants and some Catholics Were pulled into Line with the political positions of liberalism, while the evangelical churches (and again, some Catholics) Became instruments of conservative political policy. I writes: ". Issues That Were swiftly turned to partisan ends by politicians in parties ... Both churches divided against one another as controversies not had since slavery" As Robert Putnam has Demonstrated in  American Grace , This has Greatly Weakened the credibility of Christianity in the culture. Since so many parts of the Christian church are now Strongly tied to one end of the political spectrum or the other, it means each branch of Christianity can be dismissed by a majority of the population (moderates and Those on the other end of the spectrum) partisan as pawns. It has-been Particularly damaging to see white evangelicals voting overwhelmingly in the opposite way as black evangelicals. This has all Given rise to a perception held Broadly That religion is not really about God and the Bible but acerca politics.

We Should keep in mind That in the 1950s, the two great enemies of Hitler Were the fascism and the Communism of Stalin and Mao-both movements had severely Persecuted That Their national churches. Marxism was of course intensely atheist. And so in the average American's mind, religion and Christianity Were Associated with freedom and democracy while secularism and atheism Were not. Today, post 9-11, That has-been completely reversed. In the average American's mind religion and fundamentalism are Associated with political extremism and terrorism. They are now seen as the enemies of pluralistic, western society.

Second, I have points to the sexual revolution and the birth control pill That made it possible. "Before the sexual revolution," Douthat writes, "a Rigorous ethic of chastity and monogamy had self-evidently Seemed even commonsensical to many non-Christians." Why? The fear of "illegitimacy, abandonment, and disease." But the pill changed all this. "Over the course of a decade or so, a large swath of America DECIDED That two millennia of Christian teaching on sexuality and marriage Were simply out of date." The arguments against the traditional ethic had been around for centuries, but the hard reality was produced babies That sex and so the only safe sex was really married sex. The pill That argument swept away. Now far more people wanted (and Were free) to believe these arguments for extra-marital sex Because of "the new sexual possibilities" that the birth control pill afforded.

: The Importance of the sexual revolution for the loss of Christianity's credibility can not be over-Estimated. For centuries Justified and rationalized Individuals have sex outside of marriage, had never But This occurred on a culture-wide basis now as it did in the West. Today there are enormous numbers of Professing Christians, including card-carrying evangelical believers, Who Have simply stopped practicing the Christian sex ethic. It is seen as unrealistic and even perverse By Thousands of people who identify identity identity identity as believers. This is massively discrediting Biblical faith and makes implausible to Hundreds of millions Both inside and outside the church.

The sexual new view of the world is one of the main barriers today to belief in historic Christianity. Most apologetics books (including mine!) Give a chapter to each of the main objections to the faith, and yet few address what is almost the number 1 "defeater" for young skeptics-the supposedly unrealistic regressive and Christian view of sex and homosexuality.

The third factor has-been the dawn of globalization and the impression That Christianity was imperialistically "western". After World War II, the "Third World" de-colonialized-dozens of former Western colonies Were Given Their freedom. "To celebrate the overall new civilization was to celebrate the eclipse of European dominance ... [and] to cast a cold eye across the many sins of Western civilization." This occurred During the 1960s through the 1980s With the rise of academic studies of colonialism and western imperialism, through books about U.S. genocide Toward Native Americans (eg Dee Brown's  Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee ), through discovery of southern white churches' resistance to Civil Rights (eg The 1988 film  Mississippi Burning ), and to the uncovering of the history of the church's support of European anti-Semitism in the wake of the Nazi Holocaust. Meanwhile "the more the imperial world was swept up in the drama of decolonialization and Third World empowerment, the more tainted by Christianity Seemed centuries of its association with the now-discredited projects of the European West." Out of "Christian guilt" over all This, the number of Professing Christians Who were willing to Say That Their faith is the one, true faith plummeted. Globalization has support Those Who Seemed to attack Christianity's claims to uniqueness.

The fourth factor in Christianity's decline, According to Douthat, is the enormous growth in the kind of materials prosperity Generally That works against faith. This explanation was striking to me personally. Most religious and Cultural Analysts do not go here, but I found this argument persuasive. John Wesley was famous for his insistence That Whenever a society (or a portion of society) Becomes more wealthy, Christianity loses its power. Why? One reason for the decline in the quality and quantity of underrated Those pursuing the ministry as a vocation is That Provide other professions now far more wealth and status (Peak Gust did not 50 years ago). Another Biblical Christianity Is that actually contains a very trenchant, powerful critique of greed and acquisition, as it does of sexual immorality. Just as the sexual revolution makes it hard for people to stomach one part of Biblical wisdom, with a highly materialistic society makes it so hard to stomach the other. In Addition, the consumerism of our culture is so pervasive and powerful That it has shaped American Christians' attitude Toward the church-Namely, it makes the church irrelevant. Americans are conditioned to think of Themselves as customers of goods and services, and churches as vendors That can be used or discarded on the basis of cost-benefit analysis. That adds Douthat in a materialistic society people are extremely mobile and They outstretch to commute long-distances to work. "Religious harder to sustain in the community proved Please Please Please new commuter society than it had been in. .. An America of small towns and urban neighborhoods." That's right. In a society of Increase Increase increase increasing wealth, human community Becomes less important for sustaining your life. Both church and neighborhood Becomes superfluous.

The fifth and final factor in Christianity's decline is the loss of the elites and the academic and Cultural Institutions They control. In some ways all of the other four factors had no idea what Most Powerful Their impact on what Christopher Lasch called the "knowledge classes"-The most educated and affluent, and this in turn magnifies secularization, Because this class controls the media, newspapers, and networks, the academy, publishing, the arts, the Most Powerful and rich foundations, and much of the government and business world. Here Ross sounds a lot like Lasch ( The Revolt of the Elites: And the Betrayal of Democracy ) or James Hunter's  To Change the World . I Argues That the educated and affluent have "Gained the Most from the new sexual freedoms and ... Suffered The Least From their darker Repercussions." They Were more cosmopolitan, multi-cultural, and well-traveled, and So They held more intensely to the religion That view was narrow and culturally imperialistic. The result is the Cultural That Have Not Merely elites "rejected" the faith. ". Orthodoxy was rejected less than dismissed, reflexively, as something unworthy of an educated person's intellect and interest" 
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All quotes taken from Ross Douthat, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics  (Free Press, 2012) pp.65- 81 

 

Next blog:  Ross Douthat on the Character of Christianity's Decline, Part 2