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Last week I explored the potential downside of the demise of Christian influence in America. I suggested that U.S. culture continues to live on borrowed ethical capital from the Christian theological tradition, but that the fading of Christianity will likely mean this capital will eventually run out, with uncertain consequences for the moral practices of our culture.
Today I want to explore two surprising upsides of saying goodbye to Christian America.
Clearer Christian identity
In classic Christendom, pretty much everyone was a “Christian.” Especially because most Christian traditions baptized infants, to be born in a putatively Christian realm was to be baptized, and to be baptized was to be a Christian. Therefore everybody except for Jews (and woe to them) was officially Christian. Ah, the sweet smell of success!
In ye olde small town Southern United States it wasn’t really that much different. Pretty much everyone was a “Christian.” Pretty much everyone was baptized either as an infant or as an “adult,” e.g., six years old, or whenever they walked the aisle. Therefore everybody except for Jews (and a small number of other religious minorities) was officially Christian. I’ve lived in such places.
Christian leaders noticed pretty rapidly after the birth of Christendom in the 4th century that if everyone is a Christian, it is hard to tell who is really a Christian. Thus followed centuries of speculation and theologizing about how one could discern the true Christian from the false, the invisible church from the visible, the wolves in sheep’s clothing from the actual sheep of Christ’s flock. The problem was worsened in proportion to the advantages conferred on Christians by society and state. If being “Christian” is profitable, everyone wants a piece of that action. (Think of how much business has been done by those waving their Christian credentials; you know, those little Christian fishes on business cards, those car dealer-deacons.)
Movement toward a culture in which Christianity is a minority faith will have the salutary effect of clarifying Christian identity. A culture in which our various privileges, tax advantages, and business opportunities are lost will take that clarity one step further. And if the day should come in which we are persecuted/prosecuted outright for our faith, then our identity will likely be razor-sharp. There will be fewer of us, but we will know who we are.
Mission not coercion
Those of us who have spent much time in parts of America that remain culturally Christian will know that semi-official Christianity feels coercive to many people — including many Christians or post-Christians who are sick to death of the whole scene. Every Christian college has its rebels who have had quite enough of it; sent to the safe Christian school by their devout Christian parents, they want, more than anything, the chance to breathe a little free air.
The same basic reality can be seen at the national level. Christianity once did provide much of the best moral framework for western culture, including American culture. But the downside of that pervasive cultural influence is that this semi-official Christianity felt coercive to many people. Indeed, it was coercive, certainly by custom and often by law. And some of what (many) Christians understood to be absolutely vital now looks a whole lot less than vital, or even desperately wrong. Remember Prohibition? Remember white Christians defending segregation in God’s name?
A Christianity that seeks to serve as the conscience of the nation had better know what Christian ethics really demands, and had better know which precise sectors of its Christian ethics are appropriate to require of everybody else. And so often we did not. So often we do not.
Today (every day, it seems) we hear the cries of outrage as the embattled guardians of Christianity contest every scrap of cultural terrain that they perceive themselves to be losing. Increasingly unable to prevail in the broader culture, these Christians now resort to a legal defense strategy while reacting angrily against any fellow Christians whom they believe to be incorrect or even insufficiently militant in the cause du jour. But these last-gasp efforts appear to be only exacerbating Christian decline.
Eventually Christian America will be completely dead. There will be no cultural advantage to being a Christian, and perhaps considerable disadvantage. Christians will have zero capacity to achieve or certainly to coerce any policy changes they might prefer. American culture will go its own way completely.
Then the Church will return to something like its earliest position in the world. What that will mean for society is yet to be seen. What it will mean for the church is that we will have no more power. Our message will no longer be propped up by culture. We will be on our own. We will have to invite people to follow Jesus as if it is a completely new idea. If we can get over our resentment, we might learn to welcome this new-yet-ancient situation.
What may be bad for the ethics of the culture will probably be very good for the soul of the Church.