A few years ago, sociologist Christian Smith told us that many young Christians hold a decidedly sub-Christian view of their faith, what he called a kind of “moralistic therapeutic deism.” A few years later he told us what happens when moralistic therapeutic deists grow up: They become relativists — both morally and spiritually.
Now a new survey from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life reveals where this heresy leads on a societal level. For the first time in American history, fewer than half of all American adults — 48 percent — now call themselves Protestants. And it’s not because of a growth in committed Catholics or Orthodox believers.
“Among the reasons for the change,” Pew says, “are the growth in nondenominational Christians who can no longer be categorized as Protestant, and a spike in the number of American adults who say they have no religion at all.” In fact, “20 percent of Americans say they have no religious affiliation, an increase from 15 percent in the last five years.”
Wow! We’ve been seeing huge swings in political polls, but nothing like this. This dethroning of Protestantism is due to both the growth of the nonreligious and the religiously unaffiliated — often called “the nones,” as well as those who say they follow Christ but fail to commit to His church — the “just-me-and-Jesus” crowd.
Our friend, the late Chuck Colson, liked to say that if Christianity is only about “me and Jesus,” the result would be disastrous for both church and society.
The decline of Protestantism in America and the growth of the “nones” are the logical conclusion of a thoroughly privatized approach to religion, in which faith is a matter of personal opinion. It’s the result of our failure to understand issues of faith in public and ultimate terms.
This study tells us that more dangerous than militant atheism and other religions is the overall perceived irrelevance of matters of faith — what some have referred to as “apathyism.” We need to let the old truth sink in that ideas have consequences, and ultimate ideas have ultimate consequences — just as I discuss today on my "Two-Minute Warning," which I invite you to watch at ColsonCenter.org.
Competing ideas about faith offer competing answers to life’s most important questions: about where we come from, the identity and worth of human beings, what gives life meaning and purpose, the source of morality, and where we’re headed — what our destiny is.
People act on their answers to these ultimate questions, whether they’re good or bad. What we believe makes all the difference in the world. As the great Christian writer G.K. Chesterton once noted, “the most practical and important thing about a man is still his view of the universe. ... We think that for a landlady considering a lodger, it is important to know his income, but still more important to know his philosophy.”
Well, the philosophy that has won the day — both in our churches and in the larger society — is that God, if He exists at all, is a personal, private reality. Faith is reduced to being all about us and our needs; it may be personally meaningful but it doesn’t reflect in any sense public truth, or in Francis Schaeffer’s words “true truth.”
With these beliefs embedded in our minds, it’s no wonder spiritual tourism without commitment is growing. We’re so busy making the Christian religion comfortable and accessible, tailoring the Gospel to fit our preferences, we no longer see the need to actually commit to spiritual truth or to the body of Christ.
Christianity is so much more than “Jesus and me.” It's a claim on all of reality, and on us.
John Stonestreet, as the host of The Point, a daily national radio program, provides thought-provoking commentaries on current events and life issues from a biblical worldview. John holds degrees from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (IL) and Bryan College (TN), and is the co-author of Making Sense of Your World: A Biblical Worldview.
BreakPoint commentary airs each weekday on more than one thousand outlets with an estimated listening audience of one million people. BreakPoint provides a Christian perspective on today's news and trends via radio, interactive media, and print.
Publication date: October 11, 2012