Paul L. Caron

Sunday, January 29, 2023

NY Times Op-Ed: The Americanization Of Religion

New York Times Op-Ed:  The Americanization of Religion, by Ross Douthat:

In September the Pew Research Center modeled four potential futures for American religion, depending on different rates of conversion to and disaffiliation from the nation’s faiths. In three of the four projections, the Christian percentage of the U.S. population, which hovered around 90 percent in the 1970s and 1980s, drops below 50 percent within the next half-century. In two scenarios, the Christian share drops below 50 percent much sooner, sometime around 2040, and then keeps on falling.


This is a potentially epochal transition, but a transition of what kind? Toward a truly secular America, with John Lennon’s “Imagine” as its national anthem? Or toward a society awash in new or remixed forms of spirituality, all competing for the souls of lapsed Catholics, erstwhile United Methodists, the unhappily unchurched?

Ten years ago I published a book called “Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics,” which offered an interpretation of the country’s shifting religious landscape, the sharp post-1960s decline of institutional faith. Before the book’s anniversary slips away, I thought I would revisit the argument, to see how it holds up as a guide to our now more de-Christianized society.

What the book proposed was that secularization wasn’t a useful label for the American religious transformation. Instead, I wrote, American culture seems “as God-besotted today as ever” — still fascinated with the figure of Jesus of Nazareth, still in search of divine favor and transcendence. But these interests and obsessions are much less likely to be channeled through churches, Protestant and Catholic, that maintain some connection to historical Christian orthodoxies. Instead, our longtime national impulse toward heresy — toward personalized revisions of Christian doctrine, Americanized updates of the Gospel — has finally completed its victory over older Christian institutions and traditions.

The result is a religious landscape dominated by popular Christian ideas that have “gone mad,” as G.K. Chesterton once put it, “because they have been isolated from each other and are wandering alone.” This America has a church of self-love, with prophets like Oprah Winfrey preaching a gospel of the divine self, a “God within” spirituality that risks making selfishness a virtue. It has a church of prosperity, with figures like Joel Osteen as its bishops, that insists that God desires nothing more for his elect than American prosperity, capitalist success. And it has churches of politics, preaching redemption through political activism — a Christian nationalism on the right, by turns messianic and apocalyptic, and a progressive utopianism on the left, convinced that history’s arc bends always in its favor. ...

When I was writing “Bad Religion” there was still interest in the various historical-Jesus projects, the scholarly reconstructions that promised to deliver a Jesus better suited to the spiritual assumptions of a late-modern United States. And it felt as though there was a strong cultural incentive to recruit some version of the Nazarene — as Dan Brown did in “The Da Vinci Code,” for instance — for your personal spiritual project, to gain Jesus’ blessing for leaving Christian orthodoxy behind.

Today, though, my sense is that Jesus himself is less culturally central, less necessary to religious entrepreneurs — as though where Americans are going now in their post-Christian explorations, they don’t want or need his blessing.

That shift in priorities doesn’t tell us exactly where they’re going. But it’s enough for now to say that the post-Christian label fits the overall trend in American spirituality more than it did a decade ago.

That kind of shift, though, shows the unpredictability of the religious future as much as its inevitability. The Pew report, notably, treats a hypothetical status quo scenario — nobody changing religion — as its best case for Christianity’s future in America. It doesn’t have a scenario where Christian growth returns, where a larger share of America is Christian in 2050 than today.

I wouldn’t expect a social scientist to anticipate that kind of reversal. But Advent and Christmas aren’t about trends extending as before; they’re about rupture, renewal, rebirth. That’s what American Christianity needs now — now as ever, now as in those first days when its whole future was contained in the mystery and vulnerability of a mother and a child.

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