Sunday, November 3, 2019
New York Times op-ed: The Overstated Collapse of American Christianity, by Ross Douthat:
Fifty years ago, many observers of American religion assumed that secularization would gradually wash traditional Christianity away. Twenty years ago, Christianity looked surprisingly resilient, and so the smart thinking changed: Maybe there was an American exception to secularizing trends, or maybe a secularized Europe was the exception and the modernity-equals-secularization thesis was altogether wrong.
Now the wheel has turned again, and the new consensus is that secularization was actually just delayed, and with the swift 21st-century collapse of Christian affiliation, a more European destination for American religiosity has belatedly arrived. “In U.S., Decline of Christianity Continues at Rapid Pace” ran the headline on a new Pew Research Center survey of American religion this month, summing up a consensus shared by pessimistic religious conservatives, eager anticlericalists and the regretfully unbelieving sort of journalist who suspects that we may miss organized religion when it’s gone.
The trends that have inspired this perspective are real, but the swings in the consensus over a relatively short period should inspire caution in interpretation. One important qualifier, appropriate to the week of Halloween, is that the decline of Christian institutions and the weakening of Christian affiliation may be clearing space for post-Christian spiritualities — pantheist, gnostic, syncretist, pagan — rather than a New Atheist sort of godlessness. ...
But the post-Christian possibilities aren’t the only reason to qualify a narrative of secularization. Here are three points more specific to American Christianity that should be considered alongside the stark declinist story in the Pew data.
- Lukewarm Christianity may be declining much more dramatically than intense religiosity. ... [T]he recent decline of institutional religion is entirely a function of the formerly weakly affiliated ceasing to identify with religious bodies entirely; for the strongly affiliated (just over a third of the American population), the trend between 1990 and the present is a flat line, their numbers neither growing nor collapsing but holding steady across an era of supposedly dramatic religious change. ... The possible resilience of piety and zeal connects to the second qualifier in the story of decline.
- The waning of Christianity may be still as much a baby-boomer story as a millennial one. Measured by religious affiliation, yes, the millennial generation is the most secular in modern American history. Measured by religious attendance, they are the least churched of American adults. That much of the “secular young people” story is true. But religious attendance ebbs and then flows across the life cycle, falling when you leave home and then increasing with child rearing and with the encroachment of mortality. ... Finally, the third qualifier …
- There’s a strong case that any crisis facing Christian institutions is a more Catholic crisis than a Protestant one. ... [D]ivide American Christianity along Catholic-Protestant lines, rather than into a Mainline-Evangelical-Catholic troika, and you can tell a different story — where evangelicalism gained at the Mainline churches’ expense, keeping the broader Protestant position constant, while Catholicism was saved from a Mainline-style decline only by Hispanic immigration.