Life In Post-Christian America

I’ve enjoyed reading Newsweek’s article, “End of Christian America,” which looks at what folks in the religion business call the “post-Christian era.”

The “post-Christian” world is something we’ve talked a good bit about at my own church, not in the “ZOMG we’re all dooooooooomed” sense, but rather as a simple acknowledgment that church is no longer a defining cultural force in America. This doesn’t have to be a bad thing (and I dare say many of my readers view this as a good thing), it’s simple reality. If you don’t believe me, go to Cracker Barrel at 9 am on Sunday morning and you’ll find the place packed with folks eating breakfast, not attending worship.

Not surprisingly, as the country has steered in an increasingly secular direction, the volume on the conservative megaphone has grown louder. People like Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, Pat Robertson and James Dobson would never have been treated as legitimate opinion makers 30 years ago, trotted out on national news programs and regarded as “serious.” They’d be relegated to the loony corner of the AM radio dial and public-access TV. I see these two trends as related: post-Christian America is not necessarily post-conservative America.

Threatened by emerging secularization, the religious hierarchy has responded by turning even harder right. It’s a typical fear response which rejects change, and it worked sufficiently to bring George W. Bush to power for two terms.

Here’s Alfred Mohler of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, from the Newsweek article:

“The moral teachings of Christianity have exerted an incalculable influence on Western civilization,” Mohler says. “As those moral teachings fade into cultural memory, a secularized morality takes their place. Once Christianity is abandoned by a significant portion of the population, the moral landscape necessarily changes. For the better part of the 20th century, the nations of Western Europe led the way in the abandonment of Christian commitments. Christian moral reflexes and moral principles gave way to the loosening grip of a Christian memory. Now even that Christian memory is absent from the lives of millions.”

That message resonates with a lot of conservative, evangelical Christians, though it’s 100% wrong. For one thing, it’s incredibly arrogant to assume that Christianity is the sole source of morality in society, or that “Christian morality” is somehow better than secular morality. They fail to recognize that post-Christendom could actually signal a fulfillment of Christian morality’s influence over our culture. Everyone already knows “thou shalt not steal” and “thou shalt not kill,” you don’t need to go to church to learn that lesson, and you sure as hell don’t need to post it on the courthouse walls.

Mohler and his kind are most ignorant in their favorite tactic of using Western European countries as their warning of what’s in store for America if we don’t DO something, quick, like stop teaching evolution in public schools and outlaw abortion. These folks like to talk about how secular Western Europe is, all the tolerance for nasty things like teh gaii, but they fail to mention that many of their worst secular offenders (Scandinavian countries, for example) have a state religion!

This astonished me when I was in “secular, liberal” Norway last spring. In fact, it was just one year ago next week that the Norwegian government changed its constitution, so that the Lutheran Church is no longer the state religion.

Yes, that’s right, up until last year, every person born in “secular, liberal” Norway was automatically born a Lutheran. If you wanted to raise your kids Jewish, Muslim, Catholic, Baptist or atheist, you had to petition the government. Can you believe that?

The Norwegian government still finances the Lutheran Church, and until last year appointed church bishops. In other words, the government had authority over the church. Can you imagine? Can you imagine your tax dollars funding church salaries?

We Americans have been spoiled by our religious freedom. We have no concept of what it means to have a “state religion” or even a “state church.” People like Mohler and the wackadoodles at Renew America who keep arguing America is a “Christian nation” have no clue what that means, either, or how separation of church and state protects religion from government influence. Can you imagine the Obama Administration deciding who would run the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary? Or Bob Jones University?

Look at “secular, liberal” Norway. They’ve got gay marriage, socialized healthcare, abortion and a state religion. Of course they do. “Liberal, secular” Sweden, which last week allowed gay marriage, had a state religion until their constitution was changed in 1999.

The last thing religious leaders worried about increasing secularism in America should be doing is working to remove that wall of separation between church and state.

I think technology and increasing communication has advanced secularism more than anything else, and that bell won’t be unrung. I don’t consider it a bad thing, but then I’m not a church leader attached a denominational hierarchy whose influence has slipped away. I’m someone who grew up going to Mass with my Catholic friends, Temple with my Jewish friends, sang in the Episcopal church choir as a kid, and as an adult joined the Presbyterian (USA) church while continuing to practice the Eastern-style meditation I’d learned. This is “post-Christian” America, not devoid of religion or “godless” but in which religious authority has taken a back seat to individual liberty.

Conservative religious leaders have waged “culture wars” to fight that which they cannot stop. In so doing they’ve hastened their demise by representing the worst of religion: the fear, the authoritarianism, the anti-intellectualism. The quickest road to irrelevance is down this path.

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