David French (The Office), How a great American victory shaken the American faith:
Last week I read a tweet that led me to a book that I am now devouring at record speed. the tweet it was from my friend Skye Jethani, and it was referring to a potential link between the end of the Cold War and the rise of the non-religious in America. I have been thinking about the continuing influence of the Cold War on American life for a long time. Our nation spent defined generations fighting against Soviet Communism, and that fight (along with its abrupt end) was destined to have profound effects on our national life.
The book is called Unconverted: The Making of Ex-Christian America, by a British sociologist named Stephen Bullivant. It’s not just an important book, it’s the best written and most readable work on religious sociology I’ve read in a long time.
At the risk of oversimplifying, Bullivant’s book attempts to explain the…remarkable rise of religious “no”s in the United States:
Source: Grid, A mass exodus from Christianity is underway in the United States. This is why.
… In the chart above, a different data point stands out: the sharp rise of “no” youth begins in the early 1990s. Why? That’s when the Cold War ended, and Bullivant argues convincingly that the end of the Cold War ushered in a new era of American religion.
The memory of the Cold War is fading from American life. … So it’s easy to forget that our nation’s fight against atheist Soviet communism defined our national purpose for almost 50 years. That struggle came on the heels of a cataclysmic world war waged against great powers animated by two non-Christian ideologies, Nazi fascism and Japanese imperialism.
Generations of Americans grew up in the context of an existential struggle that was also inescapably religious—more so, Bullivant points out, in the US than elsewhere. The United States was already more religious than its European allies, so Soviet atheism impacted our view of the conflict even more than elsewhere.
The national motto, “In God We Trust,” is an artifact of the Cold War, enacted in 1956 in part to distinguish the United States from the Soviet Union. The phrase “under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954also for the purpose of distinguishing the United States from its communist enemies.
There were many ways to grasp the distinctions between the United States and the Soviet Union, including the formulation as freedom versus tyranny and communism versus capitalism, but the formulation of atheism versus faith resonated with tens of millions of American hearts. The association also ran the other way: Americans often (and often mistakenly) felt the stench of communism around atheism. The social pressures against public professions of disbelief were overwhelming. …
Given those long decades in which faith was mixed with capitalism and military might in an effort to fend off the Soviets, one can see why that mix stuck with the American church, especially its more conservative corners. It certainly stuck with me: When I was younger, I decided to take my turn in the military because I wanted to defend the United States. Y because he wanted to block the expansion of an atheist empire.
Then suddenly the Soviet threat was gone. … “Very soon,” Bullivant writes, “the most pressing geopolitical threat to baseball, mom and apple pie came not from those without religion, but from those with too much of the wrong religion.” The 9/11 attacks introduced Americans to Islamic fundamentalism, and “religious extremism, in the form of radical Islamic terrorists, usurped the place in American nightmares that communist infiltrators used to occupy.”
Furthermore, our nation quite rightly and deliberately refused to turn the fight against Islamic terrorism into a religious war. Presenting US interventions in the Middle East as part of a war between Christianity and Islam was directly playing into the hands of our enemies. Instead, our first motivation was simple self-defense. Our second motivation was based more on democracy and human rights than on faith or religion. …
Do we wonder why younger Americans, including many younger American Christians, don’t see the world in the same way? Then remember 9/11 and the 20-year military struggle that followed. Indeed, as Bullivant argues, “the atrocities of 9/11 opened up the possibility of a full-throated presentation of capital-A atheism to gain an audience (and huge book sales).” …
[C]Context and culture can even shape what it means to think of ourselves as Christian or religious. Grow when religion is perceived as dangerous and fringe believers are eager to avoid religious labels. Grow when religion is perceived as a necessary part of citizenship, and fringe believers will identify with a faith even if they are not particularly devout.
But Bullivant’s end result is both provocative and important. If we want to understand why the American religious landscape has changed so much and so fast, let’s not just look at our domestic cultural conflicts, let’s also look at one of America’s greatest triumphs. Our victory in the Cold War transformed the faith of our nation.
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