Religious apologists treat the decline of Christianity as a natural phenomenon, like weather. They don't want to admit that their own choices are the cause.
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Christianity is dwindling, and all forms of nonbelief are rising. The trend has gathered so much momentum that even conservative religious outlets can no longer ignore it.
“The Three Worlds of Evangelicalism,” by Aaron Renn in First Things, is an essay coming to terms with this decline. He forthrightly admits that Christianity is on a downhill slide. However, it’s more noteworthy not for what it says, but for what it doesn’t say.
Renn defines “the positive world” as everything before 1994, the era when “being a Christian is a status-enhancer” and “Christian moral norms are the basic moral norms of society.” He says that some Christians in this era founded the religious right, taking up the banner of culture war. Others practiced a friendlier, more outwardly appealing “seeker-sensitive” strategy, which took for granted that people who didn’t belong to a church were looking for one.
The “neutral world,” which he defines from as 1994 to 2014, was when “Christianity no longer has privileged status” in America (ha!) “but is not disfavored.” He says that the dominant strategy of this era was “cultural engagement,” when Christian evangelists engaged with a secular and pluralistic culture on its own terms.
Everything since then is the “negative world,” when “Christian morality is expressly repudiated and seen as a threat to the public good.” Renn suggests that the best response is something like Rod Dreher’s “Benedict Option” of Christians withdrawing from the wider world and retreating into their own closed-off enclaves. However, he says that most Christians are denying reality and refusing to admit the situation they face.
These dates seem more than a little arbitrary, but that’s not the main point I want to make.
In all of his analysis, there’s one massive question that Renn never attempts to answer: Why has Christianity fallen off its pedestal? Why has its standing gone from positive to neutral to negative?
It’s remarkable that he doesn’t even gesture toward an answer for this. He treats this transition as if it were a natural phenomenon, like weather, requiring no deeper explanation. It’s an absence that casts a shadow over the entire essay.
Nevertheless, readers who don’t share Renn’s blind spot may be left wondering. How did Christianity shift—in just twenty years!—from “We are the Moral Majority, America is a Christian nation populated by godly people” to “Woe is us, we are an outcast and despised minority, everyone hates us”? There’s a pretty huge step missing there!
The missing step
We can reframe this three-worlds model to be more descriptive of the real causes behind Christianity’s decline. I’d define the eras as follows:
First is the dominant world: the era that characterizes most of American history, when Christianity reigned supreme. During this time, Christians were the majority and held largely-unquestioned political and cultural power.
The religious right and its culture-war strategy, which was born in this era, was an expression of confidence. Militant Christians, especially fundamentalists, believed that they were unstoppable, and thus had no need to compromise, share power or be tolerant. They believed they could reshape America in their own image, excluding all competing beliefs. However, this proved to be disastrous overconfidence.
The second era I’d call the embattled world. However, I’d locate its beginning not in 1994, but 2001.
Although Christianity was still the reigning hegemon in America, this is the first time it faced viable competition. It was the first time Christian belief was expected to justify itself, rather than simply state its claims and have everyone fall in line (this alone was a rude shock to many evangelicals). It was also when nonbelief emerged into the marketplace of ideas as a legitimate alternative choice.
There are two main reasons why Christianity lost its dominant status. One was the emerging backlash to the religious right, especially during the presidency of George W. Bush, who appealed to them as a central plank of his governing strategy. Millions of Americans found this a distasteful overreach and rebelled against it. It turns out that people who had attended church of their own free will found it a very different proposition when conservatives proposed to force religion on them through legislation.
The other reason was 9/11. For Westerners who grew up in the post-war era, it was a sharp reminder that religion could be dangerous. The New Atheist movement arose in response to this epoch-defining act of violence to argue for the supremacy of reason over faith.
And now, we’re in the declining world. The Christian right waged all-out war against evolution, LGBTQ rights, marriage equality, and other progressive causes; but it lost those battles, and tainted its own reputation in the process. Now Christianity is paying the price of its hubris.
The nonreligious are surging, and each generation is less religious than the last. There’s widespread agreement that religious belief isn’t necessary to lead a moral life, and may actually be a hindrance. Existing congregations are greying and shrinking, and churches are closing and being sold off.
Their own hubris did them in
This framing better reflects the causality at work. Renn treats Christianity’s decline as a brute given that doesn’t need an explanation. The truth is that Christianity is in decline because of choices made by Christians.
They had vast cultural influence and power, but they weren’t satisfied with that. The religious right wanted to take it a step further by making their beliefs the law of the land which everyone was required to follow. The loss of status they’ve suffered stems from a completely understandable backlash to that domineering agenda.
Meanwhile, Renn starts from the presumption that Christianity is entitled to rule the country and to make its beliefs into law. This is something he takes so completely for granted that he can’t see it’s the problem.
For example, he writes that the Obergefell Supreme Court decision, which legalized marriage equality, “institutionalized Christianity’s new low status.” But Christian churches were never required to perform or recognize same-sex marriage! What Obergefell represented was the end of an era where they could impose their sexual morals on others, even people who weren’t Christian.
You could say that, along with the loss of legal power, Christian churches lost status in that they’ve come to be seen as bigoted institutions opposed to human rights and moral progress. That may well be true. But I doubt the churches would have fared so badly if they hadn’t fought so ferociously, for so many years, to prevent LGBTQ people from gaining equal rights.
This is a microcosm of most culture-war issues. In each one, the churches cast themselves as despised, persecuted victims because they’re losing their ability to impose their will on unconsenting outsiders. No one is trying to deny Christians the right to live the way they want. What people object to, rightly, is when they try to force their views on others. That will remain true, even if evangelicals with an ax to grind refuse to permit themselves to see it.