The long-heralded death of God has finally hit America.
So argues an ex-Jewish law professor from Western Pennsylvania who I consider one of the most interesting thinkers in the secular sphere. Bruce Ledewitz, a faculty member at Duquesne and author of the new book The Universe Is on Our Side, sees the deity’s death “coming home to roost” in American culture right now in ways more far-reaching and profound—and disruptive—than anything the country has previously seen.
Deep distrust in institutions and information, citizens at each other’s throats, a shocking attempt to overthrow a presidential election, the conspicuous absence of large-scale religious crusades to pray away the pandemic—in these ways and more, the Nietzschean prophecy has become manifest in what has been the most pious country in the Western world.
Whether or not we ever believed in God, we are all ensnarled in a cultural turmoil that will continue to rage until we complete the transition to the next paradigm.
As a long-time observer and chronicler of American religion, what strikes me is the recent lack of faithfulness in the provinces of American Christianity that brand themselves as the ones that take God-belief most seriously, or at least most literally. Evangelical America’s faithlessness takes many forms. But one of the biggest, and the one that might be the least noticed by the punditocracy, is the utterly unchristian surrender to fear and anxiety.
Their savior teaches against worry, against fear- and anxiety-based responses to life’s threats and challenges. Yet the Trump wing of American evangelicalism (the far-and-away majority wing) has rejected those teachings in recent years. It has instead gone all-in on fight or flight: a fight against the domestic enemies they perceive, and a flight from facts and democratic norms.
In the words of Russell Moore, former head of the public affairs arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, “We now see young evangelicals walking away from evangelicalism not because they do not believe what the church teaches, but because they believe that the church itself does not believe what the church teaches.”
Divinity school graduate and onetime ministry practitioner Zack Hunt put it in even more trenchant terms in a recent piece for Baptist News Global. Noting the utter lack of good news from the evangelical, i.e. ‘good news’ branch of American religion—mostly just reactionary right-wing politics—Hunt declared, “Evangelicalism isn’t dying. It’s already dead.”
Evangelicalism is not the whole of American religion, obviously. But if faith is evading even the evangelicals, you know something is afoot.
Over here on the secular side of the tracks, all this might seem like the real good news. Doesn’t religion’s continued decline take us closer to the world we want? One in which secular values prevail?
Maybe. But this in-between period is hell. The recession in American religion is creating a widening vacuum, or something akin to the low-pressure systems that we know from meteorology. And you know what happens when there’s a major low-pressure system.
Here comes Ledewitz. He argues—correctly, in my view—that American public life cannot regain its health until we coalesce around a new story to replace the old one about a beneficent reality shaped by a reliable god.
Ledewitz is on the right track in arguing that we can begin to write that new story by first asking a question: Is the universe on our side? He thinks it is. Not in the sense that it’s sentient and cares about us the way our dearest friends and family do. But in the sense that it’s composed of materials and structures and decipherable patterns and laws that spawned life as we know it and that continue to support that life.
I have argued much the same. Not about the universe, per se, but about the deep, shared purpose we can find in life itself—life that is as mind-blowingly amazing as it is fragile and threatened.
To Ledewitz, though, the question itself is the key step in filling the hole in our culture left by God’s departure from the scene—whichever way you respond to the question. Answer “no,” à la Carl Sagan, and you’ve basically just said it’s on us to take care of each other and our planet. Best get to it. Answer “yes” and you have the basis for a robust secular spirituality with the power to quell the culture’s deep anxiety and lead us back to collective sanity.
The old story is over. We need a new one for a culture that no longer acts as if God is real. What will it be?