Can America Survive as a Post-Christian Nation?

An American flag flies outside a church in Queens, N.Y. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)
We’re giving man back to his human nature.

If I had to pick one of the most under-appreciated and under-reported stories of 2017, it would be that a post-Christian America is a more vicious America, and that the triumph of secularists is rendering America more polarized, not less. Remove from the public square biblical admonitions such as “love your enemies” and the hatred has more room to grow. When the fruits of the Spirit — love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control — wither, then the culture is far more coarse.

Not everyone’s missing the story, of course. Both Ross Douthat and The Atlantic’s Peter Beinart have written powerfully on the topic, with Beinart noting how the rise of a post-Christian Left has mirrored the rise of a post-Christian Right. Beinart’s conclusion is correct:

For years, political commentators dreamed that the culture war over religious morality that began in the 1960s and ’70s would fade. It has. And the more secular, more ferociously national and racial culture war that has followed is worse.

In spite of these alarms, much of the elite media celebrates religious decline without seriously and realistically grappling with the consequences. There is so much underlying ignorance of and hostility toward orthodox Christianity in elite media circles that I fear they’re still trapped in the false belief that less Christianity means a better America.

Much of this ignorance and hostility is rooted in the idea that Christianity itself is the source of contemporary cultural conflict. In reality, a propensity toward division and conflict is deeply embedded in human nature. Tribalism reigns in the human heart. Religious differences can of course be a source of conflict, but a common Judeo-Christian culture also serves the invaluable purpose of providing rules and norms for controlling that conflict and creating the conditions for reconciliation.

Flannery O’Connor once wrote that the South wasn’t “Christ-centered,” it was “Christ-haunted.” “The Southerner . . . is very much afraid that he may have been formed in the image and likeness of God.” Ghosts, she said, “can be very fierce and instructive.” While the South may be the most Christ-haunted American region, I’d argue that our entire nation has been so Christ-haunted that it has provided our common moral language, a moral language that has time and again proven “fierce and instructive” in political and cultural debate.

For example, as Beinart notes, the civil-rights movement was not only firmly located within the Christian church, it consistently (constantly, even) made explicitly Christian appeals to the larger American culture — appeals to moral norms that Americans were supposed to share. The great civil-rights leaders weren’t inventing a new morality; they were calling Americans to live by the moral norms they were already supposed to uphold.

Younger Millennial activists — such as the leaders of Black Lives Matter — are much less likely to make explicit religious appeals and increasingly operate outside the church. Part of this is the natural byproduct of the fact that today’s young Americans attend church far less frequently than their parents or grandparents did. In addition, explicitly religious appeals have less purchase in a society that increasingly lacks a common set of religious views.

As countless commenters have noted, modern politicians often focus more on mobilization than on persuasion. While divisive, this approach represents the path of least resistance. It’s far easier to energize people who share your worldview than it is to persuade men and women who often don’t share your starting presumptions, don’t believe your faith, and construct their personal morality in substantially different ways.

Some would argue that American Christian culture is being replaced by a separate, feel-good faith called Moralistic Therapeutic Deism — a vague belief that while God exists, he’s not particularly involved in human affairs and mainly wants people to be nice and happy. It’s a common moral code that applies to the conduct of one’s personal affairs; it is utterly inadequate, however, when it comes to addressing real human conflict and substantial cultural clashes. It provides no systematic moral worldview, and it ultimately leaves judgment of right and wrong to the individual conscience. Indeed, one of the hallmarks of Millennial culture is that the failure to be “nice” is often met with the most brutal of reprisals. It’s okay — mandatory, even — to be cruel to the cruel and intolerant of the intolerant.

In fact, it’s becoming plain that even some of our churches are becoming less “Christ-haunted,” to say nothing of “Christ-centered.” It’s a simple fact that our pews have long been filled with non-believers. Christ himself noted that the wheat and tares grow up together, and the non-believers in the pews are a reflection of a secularizing culture. Thus the rise of “ends justifies the means” political combat and the stunning lack of faith that motivated so many self-described Evangelicals’ belief that the church itself faced mortal danger in the 2016 presidential election.

When a nation lacks a common moral language and common religious culture, it frequently devolves into tribalism.

When a nation lacks a common moral language and common religious culture, it frequently devolves into tribalism. Secular progressives have long seemed to assume that as Christianity receded, their own worldview would advance: Post-Christian America would look like post-Christian Europe, where it seemed that a particular worldview had largely prevailed. Yet America has always been different from Europe, and post-Christian America will evolve in its own distinct way, with Right and Left, urban and rural filling the moral and spiritual vacuum, often in ways that their cultural competitors view with loathing and contempt.

Moreover, Europe hardly represents the secular ideal that many progressives imagine. It faces a strong challenge from Islam, and it’s seeing the reemergence of separatist forces that were once thought long vanquished. The Brexit vote captured the international imagination, but it’s easy to forget that less than two years before, Britain faced a referendum that threatened to divide a union older than our own.

In short, America is in the process of replacing a general worldview that prioritized love, hope, and truth with an individualized moral buffet that prioritizes personal satisfaction. We’re giving man back to his human nature — a nature beset by original sin and prone to tribalism. No one should assume that America can survive the change.


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