This week the April 13 cover story of NEWSWEEK is entitled “The End of Christian America.” The story reminds me of Mark Twain’s famous comment made to the New York Journal in 1897 after it mistook his deathly sick cousin, James Ross Clemens, for Samuel Langhorn Clemens, a.k.a. Mark Twain. Twain wrote them a note saying, “This report of my death was an exaggeration!” Similarly, the report of Christianity’s demise is greatly exaggerated.
On what grounds does NEWSWEEK stake its claim? First, the number of Americans who claim no religious affiliation has grown from 8-15% since 1990. And second, the number of self identified Christians has fallen from 86% to 76% since 1990. Dip? Yes. Death? Certainly not.
Evidence to the contrary
One suspects NEWSWEEK’s cover story is positioned to sell magazines, and perhaps reveals the editor’s own secret hope that Christian influence is losing ground. Seems like some wishful thinking is going on here. Besides, a major Christian holiday is just around the corner, remember? The TIME, NEWSWEEK, US NEWS trio always get a bit sensational just before Easter and Christmas. However, the article itself is much more nuanced than its splashy headline.
For instance, it goes on to say that America is not only remarkably religious for a developed nation, but that it is still way more “Christian” than other nations (i.e. it has the largest Christian population of any other nation). Even with the current dip, that three quarters of Americans still call themselves Christians in 2009 is highly significant.
The article also talks about the continued growth of conservative and evangelical churches. It adds that the rising number of Hispanic immigrants is bolstering the Catholic church. Unlike Europe, whose cheap labor is largely coming from Islamic nations, the majority of immigrants to America (legal and illegal) have at least a nominal connection (and sometimes much more) with Christianity.
And what about the continued growth of Pentecostal churches? NEWSWEEK says nothing. Nor does it mention the worldwide growth of Christianity in places like China, South America and Africa that makes it a global faith.
In fact, the article concludes by saying that America is certainly not a post-religious society. Nor is it even a post-Christian society. It is, however, a somewhat less Christian society. And here, they have a point.
Cause for concern
While we are not post-Christian numerically, we have become post-Christian structurally in some striking ways. Since the middle of last century our public schools have not only distanced themselves from their Christian roots, but the NEA agenda seems decidedly anti-Christian at times. The university system which was to a great degree birthed by Christian impulses, has to a great extent abandoned its heritage and embraced a secular outlook. Our entertainment industry was preferential towards Christianity in the 1950s, but has now grown antagonistic. The same appears to be happening in the courts. Will it all continue on this trajectory? This is clearly what is happening in Europe. Pope Benedict recently said that Europe is now not only post-Christian, but growing anti-Christian.
The Awakening factor
However, one fact that NEWSWEEK seems to forget is that the history of American Christianity has had numerous ebbs and flows. Spiritual declension has been followed by stunning awakenings. Such declines characterized the early 1700s, which was then followed by the First Great Awakening. After the American Revolution, there was another decline. But then came the Second Great Awakening. Many say that the same thing happened in the early 20th century as well, but that it was followed by what some have called a Third Great Awakening during the post-war evangelical boom.
So what is next? Inevitable decline? It is always possible. There is no iron law that requires God to reawaken his church each century. The light of Christian witness has gone out in some lands. But the repeated Christian revivals in America have been, so to speak, the joker in the deck. It should make doomsayers cautious about prematurely announcing the funeral of Christianity in America.