Politico ran a big article headlined “Religion is Disappearing. That’s Great for Politics,” by Michael Shermer the other day. It is inspired by a recent survey by the Pew Research Center showing a surge in the number of “religiously unaffiliated” Americans.
The Pew study generated intense reaction, both defensive and triumphant. I want to look at some of the implications of the study, but let’s first dispatch Mr. Shermer’s ill-informed triumphalism.
He begins with a bang – “Before the rise of the religious right in the 1980s, most politicians kept their faith to themselves.” For evidence he quotes Harry Truman saying that he isn’t impressed by people who “publicly parade their religious beliefs,” Dwight Eisenhower being irritated by a Pastor who was bragging that the President was attending his church, and LBJ expressing support for the separation of church and state.
Apparently he missed FDR’s prayer for the D-Day invasion of Europe that included these words, “And, O Lord, give us Faith. Give us Faith in Thee; Faith in our sons; Faith in each other; Faith in our united crusade” and ended with, “Thy will be done, Almighty God.”
Or that Eisenhower began his first inaugural speech with a prayer —
“Almighty God, as we stand here at this moment my future associates in the Executive branch of Government join me in beseeching that Thou will make full and complete our dedication to the service of the people in this throng, and their fellow citizens everywhere.
“Give us, we pray, the power to discern clearly right from wrong, and allow all our words and actions to be governed thereby, and by the laws of this land. Especially we pray that our concern shall be for all the people regardless of station, race or calling.
“May cooperation be permitted and be the mutual aim of those who, under the concepts of our Constitution, hold to differing political faiths; so that all may work for the good of our beloved country and Thy glory. Amen.”
Shermer is gratified that religious affiliation has dropped somewhat since the 1990s, noting that the Pew survey finds that the religiously unaffiliated has grown from the single digits to the “now respectable two-digit 23 percent of adults of all ages, up from 16 percent just since 2007.” But he seems ignorant of the fact that the post-war era in the United States was an anomaly in many ways. After the war the U.S. had the only viable industrial economy in the world, which led to an era of incredible prosperity and economic dominance. And the primary threat was “Godless Communism” which led to an extraordinary attachment to the church. Indeed, the Eisenhower archives reports that church membership grew from 43% of the population in 1920 to a peak of 69% in 1960. Church involvement has been slackening ever since the peak in 1960. What we are seeing today is a good old-fashioned “reversion to the mean.”
Indeed, two years ago Pew found that 37% of American adults attend church services weekly. This proportion had held steady over the prior decade, suggesting that todays’ commitment to organized religion is not much different than it was in the 1920s.
So Shermer gets his recent history wrong, but he is no better on ancient history. He says, “The rules made up and enshrined by the various religions over the millennia did not have as their goal the expansion of the moral sphere to include more and more people.” He notes that Moses did not come down from the mountain with a mandate to convert the Canaanites to Judaism. But he completely skips over Jesus’ Great Commission –
“And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age. ‘” (Matthew 28: 18-20)
Shermer is also a big fan of the Enlightenment, missing the idea that the Reformation had a lot to do with Enlightenment thinking. For one thing, the Reformers strongly believed that everyone should read the Bible for themselves, which advanced printing dramatically and lead to mass literacy. Enlightenment concepts like the separation of church and state were intended to keep government out of the business of the church, not the other way around. Many Enlightenment thinkers, like Isaac Newton, were devout Christians. Shermer likes the Enlightenment ideas of “equal treatment under the law,” “the equality of women and minorities,” and so on, without realizing that Scripture was preaching those principles some 1500 years before – as Paul wrote in Galatians 3:28 “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
But, still, there are some disturbing things going on within Christianity in America today, though it isn’t what Shermer thinks. For one thing, Americans who decline any religious affiliation aren’t necessarily non-believers. Pew identifies 22.8% of the population as “unaffiliated,” but of that only 3.1% are atheists, 4.0% agnostic, and the rest simply don’t identify with any particular church.
But even those who self-identify as Christian may not really be Christian in any meaningful sense of the word. In 1985, Robert Bellah identified the predominant religion in America as “Sheilaism.” In his book, “Habits of the Heart,” he writes –
Sheila Larson is a young nurse who has received a good deal of therapy and describes her faith as “Sheilaism.” This suggests the logical possibility of more than 235 million American religions, one for each of us. “I believe in God,” Sheila says. “I am not a religious fanatic. [Notice at once that in our culture any strong statement of belief seems to imply fanaticism so you have to offset that.] I can’t remember the last time I went to church. My faith has carried me a long way. It’s Sheilaism. Just my own little voice.” Sheila’s faith has some tenets beyond belief in God, though not many. In defining what she calls “my own Sheilaism,” she said: “It’s just try to love yourself and be gentle with yourself. You know, I guess, take care of each other. I think God would want us to take care of each other.”
There are many, many people, even in the pews on Sunday, who believe that God just wants us to be nice, and if we are we get to go to Heaven. Popularity is the most important value – kind of like joining a sorority.
But there is nothing new about any of this. In an essay, “Your Own Personal Jesus,” Michael Horton writes –
(Alexis de Tocqueville) concluded, “So each man is narrowly shut up in himself and from that basis makes the pretension to judge the world.” Americans do not need books or any other external authorities in order to find the truth, “having found it in themselves.” American Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) announced that “whatever hold the public worship held on us is gone or going,” prophesying the day when Americans would recognize that they are “part and parcel of God,” requiring no mediator or ecclesiastical means of grace. Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” captured the unabashed narcissism of American romanticism that plagues our culture from talk shows to the church.
Horton identifies this as a form of Gnosticism –,
In the American Religion, as in ancient Gnosticism, there is almost no sense of God’s difference from us — in other words, his majesty, sovereignty, self-existence, and holiness. God is my buddy or my inmost experience, or the power-source for living my best life now. God is not strange (i.e., holy) – and is certainly not a judge. He does not evoke fear, awe, or a sense of terrifying and disorienting beauty. Furthermore, all the focus on making atonement through a bloody sacrifice seems crude and unspiritual to Gnostics when, after all, the point of salvation is to escape the physical realm.
Again, nothing new. In his “Institutes of the Christian Religion,” John Calvin said there is “an immense flood of error with which the whole world is overflowed. Every individual mind is a kind of labyrinth, it is not wonderful, not only that each nation has adopted a variety of fictions, but that almost every man has his own god…. There is scarcely an individual to be found without some idol or phantom as a substitute for Deity.” He worries about “the small number of those who believe,” and notes that many “ask how do we know that Moses and the prophets wrote the books which now bear their names? Nay, they even dare to question whether there ever was a Moses. Were anyone to question whether there ever was a Plato, or an Aristotle, or a Cicero, would not the rod of the whip be deemed the fit chastisement of such folly?”
This was in Geneva in 1536. Christianity has always been a minority religion. Humans have always elevated their own immediate concerns above God. Sure, there have been times when people dutifully paraded to church. Perhaps it was when there was a state religion, or when it made sense for a person in business to go in order to make business contacts (like the Rotary Club), or perhaps a crisis like 9/11 drove people to church for comfort. But how many people have actually believed that God himself became a man and walked the earth? Or that on the third day, Jesus rose from the dead? It is all contained in the Apostles Creed, which is supposed to be the unifying statement all Christians can subscribe to –
I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary. He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried; he descended to hell. The third day he rose again from the dead. He ascended to heaven and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty. From there he will come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.
People may recite this in church, but how many actually believe it, compared to how many treat it as some magical incantation they are expected to repeat? I don’t know the answer, but I’m pretty sure it is less than half, maybe far less. Even in seminaries, I am told future pastors are often taught to avoid anything that is supernatural and scholars search for natural explanations of miracles – Jesus didn’t really die, he must have just been in a state of shock. Paul didn’t really encounter the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus, he just had an hallucination brought on by the scorching sun or perhaps feelings of guilt. No wonder these “church leaders” are unable to convert nonbelievers, they don’t themselves believe in much. A Congregational pastor in Maine once told me that if I smile when the sun comes up I am a Christian. I thought what the hell kind of religion is that? What would I need your church for?
The truth is that people are not “converted” until God calls them. Missionaries know this. It isn’t the power of persuasion by the missionary that brings people to Christ, but the Holy Spirit. Still, believers can have an enormous impact on their societies, no matter their numbers. The faithfulness of persecuted Christians in the Middle East has opened the eyes and hearts of a number of Muslims. In ancient Rome, the joy of Polycarp and other Christians in their martyrdom had a profound effect on their persecutors, which eventually resulted in the entire Roman Empire adopting Christianity.
American Christians are blessed with wealth and comfort. We are not persecuted, though we may be mocked and scorned. That is not much of a burden to bear. And if mockery drives pseudo-Christians from the church, that may not be such a bad thing.