A recently-released report from Pew suggests that the de-Christianization of America is accelerating, with substantial declines in Christian self-identification in just seven years. Catholics are the biggest losers here, alongside mainline Protestants; irreligious and indifferentists are the big winners. Evangelical Protestants shrank in terms of proportion of representation in the population, even though they grew in absolute numbers.
Russell Moore suggests, correctly, that this is largely due to nominal Christians jettisoning a label they never really believed in strongly now that it is socially acceptable to do so. He also suggests, incorrectly, that this is a good thing. To wit:
Bible Belt near-Christianity is teetering. I say let it fall. For much of the twentieth century, especially in the South and parts of the Midwest, one had to at least claim to be a Christian to be “normal.” During the Cold War, that meant distinguishing oneself from atheistic Communism. At other times, it has meant seeing churchgoing as a way to be seen as a good parent, a good neighbor, and a regular person. It took courage to be an atheist, because explicit unbelief meant social marginalization. Rising rates of secularization, along with individualism, means that those days are over—and good riddance to them.
Again, this means some bad things for the American social compact. In the Bible Belt of, say, the 1940s, there were people who didn’t, for example, divorce, even though they wanted out of their marriages. In many of these cases, the motive wasn’t obedience to Jesus’ command on marriage but instead because they knew that a divorce would marginalize them from their communities. In that sense, their “traditional family values” were motivated by the same thing that motivated the religious leaders who rejected Jesus—fear of being “put out of the synagogue.” Now, to be sure, that kept some children in intact families. But that’s hardly revival.
Secularization in America means that we have fewer incognito atheists. Those who don’t believe can say so—and still find spouses, get jobs, volunteer with the PTA, and even run for office. This is good news because the kind of “Christianity” that is a means to an end—even if that end is “traditional family values”—is what J. Gresham Machen rightly called “liberalism,” and it is an entirely different religion from the apostolic faith handed down by Jesus Christ.
In other words, we once lived in a society that encouraged virtue and piety to such an extent that the unvirtuous and impious felt compelled to conform their lives to Christ, at least superficially. Now, the currents of modernity are sweeping the weak-willed, ignorant, and impressionable souls into apostasy and captivity to their own passions. I suppose this is a good thing if you’re more interested in being part of a small, pure Church than in the salvation of souls, but it’s definitely not a good thing if you’re one of those weak-willed, ignorant, impressionable souls. Is it a good thing that our social order makes it difficult for the weakest to live virtuous lives and so to have at least a shot at salvation?
Not that I’m deriding the value of having a small, pure Church, mind you, but ironically, people leaving will worsen that trend, rather than make it easier. It is harder even for you and me to practice virtuous lives when the surrounding society is debased to the point of madness, and when our co-religionists are carried off by the zeitgeist. It is harder for a young person to say no to a boyfriend or girlfriend who offers their body when “everyone else is doing it.” It is harder for troubled couple to persevere in a difficult marriage when the justice system promises easy, consequence-free divorce, or for a frightened rape victim to carry her innocent child to term when a shot of solution can make her worries disappear. It is harder for anyone to suffer for the sake of Christ, when Christ is ignored or derided by everyone around them. The body suffers when its members fail, and our body is now suffering terribly.
The future of Christianity is bright. I don’t know that from surveys and polls, but from a word Someone spoke one day back at Caesarea Philippi. The gates of hell haven’t gotten any stronger, and the Light that drives out the darkness is enough to counter every rival gospel, even those gospels that describe themselves as “none.”
Which is virtually identical to the argument to which Catholic liturgical traditionalists are subjected any time they suggest that things aren’t all rosy: take heart, you ignorant Pharisee! The gates of Hell can’t prevail against the Church!
Of course the gates of Hell cannot prevail against the Church: that much is simply divine revelation. But they can prevail against your mother and your father, against your brother and your sister, against your husband or wife and against your children — yes, even against you. That much, too, is divine revelation. The Church will win out in the end, and that may mean that everyone you love in the world will go to Hell. You have to be ready for that (Our Lord Himself told us as much when He said that whoever loves his family more than Him is unworthy of Him); but are you okay with it?