Newsweek magazine's cover story, "The Decline and Fall of Christian America" [April 13, 2009] continues to evoke controversy and conversation, and much of it is illuminating. Now, Stephen Prothero of Boston University enters the fray with an incisive commentary that throws a few punches.
Writing in today's edition of USA Today, Prothero asserts that almost all the warnings about an increasingly secular America are overblown and mistaken. "Not Even Close," is the headline of his response.
Prothero is no amateur when it comes to observing religion in America. Chair of the Department of Religion at Boston University, Prothero is also author of Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know -- And Doesn't. He is one of the most informed observers of the American religious scene, and his analysis is always worth careful attention.
When it comes to the Newsweek cover story by editor Jon Meacham, Prothero goes after both the analysis and the data Meacham cites. First, Prothero suggests that most readers of the American Religious Identification Survey [ARIS] study undertaken by Trinity College in Hartford misread the data. While the most recent ARIS study does indicate a significant increase in secular Americans, Prothero insists that most of these citizens are not so secular as they appear.
Even as the trend line for Christianity may look "disturbingly like the Dow Jones of recent memory," he insists that, "The fact of the matter is that only a small portion of the "nones" is truly secular."
Prothero also takes aim at my comments as recorded in Newsweek:
Newsweek editor Jon Meacham begins his cover story with a series of quotations from R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, who offers the same sad story of Christian declension that American Christians have been telling since roughly the moment the Pilgrims first clambered over Plymouth Rock. "The most basic contours of American culture have been radically altered," Mohler says. "The so-called Judeo-Christian consensus of the last millennium has given way to a post-modern, post-Christian, post-Western cultural crisis which threatens the very heart of our culture."
Prothero then describes my comments as more "timeless rhetoric" than "timely analysis." Ouch. His earlier paragraph sets the context for this charge:
What makes this secularization angle plausible is the fact that it aligns quite well with the desires of atheists and evangelicals alike. The so-called new atheists want to see Christianity on the retreat because to them, religion is poisonous idiocy. But born-again Christians like the faith-on-the-run story, too, because it makes their centuries-old call to re-Christianize the country only more urgent.
In other words, America's (very few) atheists want Christianity to be in retreat because they see it as false, dangerous, and anti-progressive. The evangelicals, on the other hand, are always looking at America only to see it as a nation in spiritual decline.
There is more than a little truth in Prothero's observations. Atheists are suddenly very hopeful about the secular trends and evangelicals are habitually prone to jeremiads about Christianity in cultural retreat. Nevertheless, there is more to this story than Prothero allows here. He points to this himself when he writes:
What the rise of the "nones" shows us is not how American Christianity is declining but how it is changing. The data tell us that Christians are increasingly likely to describe themselves as spiritual rather than religious, that they are increasingly wary of labels and institutions, and that they identify their faith less and less with "organized religion" and more and more with the personal power of Jesus himself.
Prothero is most concerned with the cultural reality of American Christianity. When he looks to the United States, he sees a Christian nation. Not, mind you, in the sense of those who argue for a unitary Christian society, but in the sense that America certainly is Christian, rather than, say, Jewish or Buddhist. Christmas is a national holiday, not Passover, and Christianity remains "a vital political force" both on the right and the left.
In one of his keenest observations, Prothero relate that when he discusses the "Christian America" question in his classes, evangelical Christians describe America as a multicultural nation of religious diversity while non-Christian students see the nation as pervasively Christian. As he writes, "my Jewish students tell me you have to be blind (or Christian) not to see that this is a Christian country."
Well, in that sense they (and Professor Prothero) are certainly correct. American public culture is suffused with references to the Christian Bible. Most American politicians identify, in one way or another, as Christians. And, Prothero asserts, "the United States today has more Christians than any other country in human history."
So, with whom do I agree, Stephen Prothero or myself? Actually, both. I do not argue with the basics of Professor Prothero's analysis. In the sense that he speaks of the influence and presence of some form of Christianity in America, he is surely right. No one should argue that the atheists and agnostics are about to overrun or outnumber the Christians in this nation.
But my own concern is very different than that of Professor Prothero. The Newsweek article rightly quoted me on the analysis of a Post-Christian turn in the culture. I not only stand by those comments; I would gladly expand upon them. The real issue here is that I define Christianity in very different terms than those of either the ARIS study or Professor Prothero's minimalist use of the term.
My concern lies less with cultural influence than with the vitality and integrity of Christian witness. My comments may sound elegiac, and in some sense they are, but my concern is with the very trends Prothero himself identified. The transformation of American Christianity into just a Christian-branded "spirituality" is part and parcel of my concern. My central concern is evangelism, not cultural influence, and my definition of Christianity is unapologetically tied to an embrace of the faith "once for all delivered to the saints."
The doctrinal declension of Christianity in America is writ large. The great institutions of Christian learning of eras past are now largely bastions of secular worldviews, even when these institutions are still classified in some way according to a tie to Christian truth in the past. Such is also the case with mainline Protestantism, where theological liberalism has refined Christianity as something other than historic biblical Christianity.
My concern is less with a Post-Christian America as a cultural reality than with Post-Christian America as an evangelistic and missiological challenge. What Stephen Prothero sees as Christian (in some sense, at least) I see as what may best be called a "Post-Christian Christianity."
But then, my concern is that of a Christian theologian committed to the Gospel of Christ as the only message that saves sinners. Professor Prothero writes from a different perspective, at least professionally, and his concern is the fact that America sure looks Christian to non-Christians.
Stephen Prothero's contribution to the conversation about a Post-Christian America is insightful, stimulating, and timely. There are more angles to this question than we have yet seen.