The United States is often referred to as a “post-Christian” nation. In one sense, that is true: The moral and cultural assumptions shaped by Christianity that used to hold sway in American society, can no longer be taken for granted. They must be defended and contended for in the public square.
But that’s not the same as saying that Americans are becoming more like Europeans when it comes to matters like church attendance or belief in a personal God. In many ways the shift in cultural assumptions I just noted is taking place in spite of what Americans believe and do, not because of them.
You would be hard-pressed to know this judging from media reports. These reports seize on any bit of evidence, however suspect, to promote the thesis that Americans are becoming more “secular.” Every few months we are told about some new study that purports to show how secularism and even atheism is on the march.
We are supposed to conclude that instead of going to church our children will spend Sunday mornings reading the holographic edition of the New York Times on their iPad 15 while sipping a latte made from coffee beans grown hydroponically in zero gravity.
It’s a tidy, convenient story. But unfortunately for its tellers, it just doesn't square with the facts.
That’s what two of my favorite researchers, Rodney Stark and Byron Johnson of Baylor, recently told the Wall Street Journal. The flip side to the media’s pouncing on any finding of our alleged drift away from religion is its “yawning” over findings to the contrary.
One such finding is a Baylor survey showing that the percentage of Americans who are atheist – 4 percent – is the same as it was in 1944. And that same survey showed that “church membership has reached an all-time high.”
Again, if all you had to go on is what you read or heard in the mainstream media, both of these facts would come as a surprise to you. The media, you see, uncritically trumpets reports that “young people under 30 are deserting the church in droves,” but they don’t go on to tell you that, “once they marry ... and especially once they have children, their attendance rates recover.”
Likewise, reports about the politics of younger evangelicals are, to put it charitably, selective in their reading of the evidence.
Neither Stark, Johnson nor I are suggesting that some kind of conspiracy is at work. What we see here is the human tendency to view evidence in ways that comport with our worldview.
Secularists, both outside and inside the media, see decreasing religiosity as the wave of the future, an inevitable byproduct of cultural refinement and evolution. So they naturally gravitate towards stories that confirm that hypothesis.
It doesn't help that the press “doesn't get religion.” Newsrooms are filled with people who don’t know believers and, thus, don’t have real-world experience with the phenomenon they assume is on the decline. They are strikingly uninformed. So much so that they’re calling orthodox Christians “theocrats,” as I've discussed in another commentary.
But, as Stark and Johnson remind us, you can’t always believe what you read in the newspapers. The reports from the real America are very encouraging. Millions of us are practicing the faith and passing it on to our children.
That’s a fact that even bad reporting won’t be able to change.
Chuck Colson's daily 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: September 8, 2011.