Christianity and Secularism at a crossroads in America
This week millions of “Chreasters” — Americans who attend church only on Christmas and Easter — will crowd into pews to sing carols and renew their vague relationship with the Christian God. This year, there may be fewer Chreasters than ever. A growing number of “nones” live in our midst: those who say they have no religious affiliation at all. An October Pew Research Center poll revealed that they now account for 20 percent of the population, up from 16 percent in 2008.
Avoiding church does not excuse Americans from marking the birth of Jesus, however. Most of us have no choice but to stay home from work or school — and if you complain about this glaring exception to the separation between church and state, you must be a scrooge with no heart for tradition. Christmas has been a federal holiday for 142 years.
Yet Christianity’s preferential place in our culture and civil law came under fire this year, and not simply because more Americans reject institutional religion. The Obama administration subtly worked to expand the scope of protected civil rights to include access to legal marriage and birth control. Catholic bishops and evangelical activists declared that Washington was running roughshod over religious liberty and abandoning the country’s founding values, while their opponents accused them of imposing one set of religious prejudices on an increasingly pluralistic population. The Christian consensus that long governed our public square is disintegrating. American secularism is at a crossroads.
The narrative on the right is this: Once upon a time, Americans honored the Lord, and he commissioned their nation to welcome all faiths while commanding them to uphold Christian values. But in recent decades, the Supreme Court ruled against prayer in public schools, and legalized abortion, while politicians declared “war on Christmas” and kowtowed to the “homosexual lobby.” Conservative activists insist that they protest these developments not to defend special privileges for Christianity, but to respect the founders’ desire for universal religious liberty — rooted, they say, in the Christian tradition…
How accurate is this story of decline into godlessness? Is America, supposedly God’s last bastion in the Western world, rejecting faith and endangering religious liberty?
The truth is that “nones” are nothing new. Religion has been a feature of human society since Neanderthal times, but so has religious indifference. Our illusions of the past as a golden age of faith tend to cloud our assessment of today’s religious landscape. We think of atheism and religious apathy as uniquely modern spiritual options, ideas that Voltaire and Hume devised in a coffee house one rainy afternoon sometime in the 18th century. Before the Enlightenment, legend has it, peasants hurried to church every week and princes bowed and scraped before priests.
Historians have yet to unearth Pew studies from the 13th century, but it is safe to say that we frequently overestimate medieval piety. Ordinary people often skipped church and had a feeble grasp of basic Christian dogma. Many priests barely understood the Latin they chanted — and many parishes lacked any priest at all. Bishops complained about towns that used their cathedrals mainly as indoor markets or granaries. Lest Protestants blame this irreverence on Catholic corruption, the evidence suggests that it continued after Martin Luther nailed his theses to the Wittenberg church door. In 1584, census takers in Antwerp discovered that the city had a larger proportion of “nones” than 21st-century America: a full third of residents claimed no religious affiliation…
Barry Lynn, the director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State (an organization that until 1972 was named, tellingly, Protestants and Other Americans United for Separation of Church and State), sees things differently. He worries about what might happen if an unpredictable Supreme Court agrees to hear conservative Christians’ challenges to the contraception mandate, or their pleas for exemptions for charities that accept federal grants but discriminate on the basis of religion in hiring…
These legal efforts are less an attempt to redefine religious liberty than a campaign to preserve Christians’ historic right to police the boundary between secular principles and religious beliefs. Only now that conservative Christians have less control over organs of public power, they cannot rely on the political process. Now that the “nones” are declaring themselves, and more Americans — including many Christians — see birth control as a medical necessity rather than a sin, Alan Sears, president of the so-called Alliance Defending Freedom, sees a stark course of action for the Catholic and evangelical business owners he represents: “Litigation is all that our clients have.” Their problem, however, is more fundamental than legal precedent. Their problem is that America’s Christian consensus is fragmenting.
And secular America in combination with who-cares-about-that-crap America is taking notice of the frequency with which they are supposed to be ordered about by people representing out-of-date ideology that is rapidly achieving out-of-fashion and out-of-respected status.
Just as angry old white guys resent losing majority demographic status, the same is happening with political Christianity just barely beginning to understand no one respects them for being past their sell-by date.
Fear of knowledge advances their fear of democracy. The next worst thing about to happen among True Believers is losing iron control over their young as dramatically as they lose political power.