America's Religious Future: Dechristianization (Not Secularization)

What is this country coming to? Anyone who pays attention to religion in America can see monumental changes and conflicts affecting the present and looming in the future.
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What is this country coming to? Anyone who pays attention to religion in America can see monumental changes and conflicts affecting the present and looming in the future. And anyone with a smidgen of historical awareness knows that religion has always been at the core of American society.

Americans are divided over the theological meanings bound up in the recent not guilty verdict in the Trayvon Martin trial... Americans can't decide if gay marriage is a sacred vow or a heinous sin... Americans are increasingly following the path of SBNR ("spiritual but not religious") in their pursuit of the sacred.... Americans still believe in God but they surely do not agree about how to define and understand God...

What does all this turmoil and contestation, argumentation and confusion say about the state of religion and its place in American society?

For some social scientists and armchair philosophers, the increasing fragmentation of religion is a sign of secularization. All religions are losing their influence and a more secular frame of mind, anchored by natural sciences, economics, political science, and self-interest, rules the day in American culture. With the loss of social power and cultural authority, however, come forms of religious extremism and more public contestations -- the dangerous mixture of religion and politics that we see so frequently today.

For some religious folks and true believers, America is a battlefield and the future of its very soul will depend on the outcome of a war. More conservative to orthodox leaning Jews, Catholics, and Protestants are on one side, "liberals" are on the other, an enemy that includes nonbelievers, secular humanists, pagans, "nones" with no affiliation, individual's who claim to be Jews, Catholics, and Protestants, and all the other "others." Religious conflicts are so pervasive because the stakes are so high -- do we uphold American ideals about justice, democracy, freedom, or let them rot because we fail to fulfill our sacred national obligations?

For some pluralists and other humanists, we must let a hundred flowers bloom -- religious diversity is a good thing and enriches society, so Americans should be transparent about their sacred commitments and religious identities. But the old saying only goes so far, as many of you already know -- let a hundred flowers bloom but no flower can haul off and kill another flower. A primary value here is no tolerance for intolerance. The fact that Americans can't agree on the right religious values for any particular issue is a good thing, a signal of greater social and cultural diversity.

My own sense is that parts of each of these are correct, though all three refuse to name an obvious truth about recent history: religion in general is not diminishing its social impact, but Christianity specifically is losing its authoritative power across society. What we are witnessing today, and what has been especially visible in the past for some time now, is a process of dechristianization (not secularization).

While it has always been riven with controversies and heresies, internal challenges and divisions, Christianity has through most of its history in the West played a central role in politics and economics, moral education and social rituals. From Constantine in the fourth century to Kennedy in the twentieth, Christianity in private or in public was in a position to influence private decisions and shape public values.

In America of course, this process is playing itself out in terms of Protestant history -- Christianity as filtered through Luther and Calvin, Locke and Wesley, Edwards and Jefferson. Very European based, very male, and all white, Protestantism in its myriad of forms established Christianity as the bedrock of American society and culture, and demographically composed the majorities who made the laws and norms Americans followed.

Diversity and the rise of science have chipped away at the cultural and political predominance of white Protestantism from the Civil War to the Civil Rights era, but this religious culture remained firmly entrenched in the corridors of power and as the primary arbiter of moral distinctions between right and wrong. What really made an impact and turned the tables, I think, has been the growing power of popular and entertainment cultures to provide what Christianity no longer can -- meaning and fulfillment, pathways for transcendence and ideals to live up to, satisfactory explanations for death and a true, revelatory sense of personal identity.

From the 1960s on, Protestant Christianity has taken a beating, has indeed been under siege by cultural forces, by non-Christian religious forces but also a dramatically changing global Christianity brought with immigrants especially from Mexico and southern and central America, that are continuing to undermine its authority for and relevancy to the most significant and meaningful issues of the day. The rise of the Religious Right in the 1970s, its dominance in the last few decades, and its current political flailing and failures, is only a symptom of this long-term, historically slow moving and deep-rooted devitalization of Christianity in American society.

Christianity though does not equal religion. As the Protestant Christian tradition loses coherence and sway in American society, religious life flourishes, and religious cultures infuse communities with new ideas about what is sacred and what is not, who to revere and who to demonize, why we live and why we die. As Christianity loses its centralizing grip, will the nation fragment and crumble into chaos -- a time when "anarchy is loosed upon the world" in the words of Yeats? Or will religious diversity and more equal terms for the varieties of religious experience strengthen the bonds that hold Americans together and contribute to negotiating successfully the most pressing moral and legal questions we must face?

The future is unwritten, but the signs of the times suggest profound religious changes are ahead, whether we like it or not.

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