New York Times Op-Ed: The Americanization of ReligionBy Ross Douthat:
In September, the Pew Research Center modeling four potential futures for American religion, depending on the different conversion and disaffiliation rates of the nation’s religions. In three of the four projections, the Christian percentage of the US population, which hovered around 90 percent in the 1970s and 1980s, falls below 50 percent in the next half century. In two scenarios, Christian participation falls below 50 percent much sooner, sometime around 2040, and then continues to fall.
This is a potentially momentous transition, but a transition of what kind? Towards a truly secular America, with John Lennon’s “Imagine” as its national anthem? Or to a society awash in new or remixed forms of spirituality, all competing for the souls of non-practicing Catholics, Old United Methodists, unchurched wretches?
Ten years ago I published a book called “Bad Religion: How We Became A Nation Of Heretics”, which offered an interpretation of the country’s changing religious landscape, the steep decline of the post-1960s institutional faith. Before the book’s anniversary slips away, I thought I’d review the argument, to see how it stands up as a guide for our now more de-Christianized society.
What the book was proposing was that secularization was not a useful label for American religious transformation. Instead, I wrote, American culture seems “as in love with God today as ever,” still fascinated by the figure of Jesus of Nazareth, still seeking divine favor and transcendence. But it is far less likely that these interests and obsessions are channeled through churches, Protestant and Catholic, that maintain any connection to historic Christian orthodoxies. Instead, our longstanding national drive toward heresy — toward personalized revisions of Christian doctrine, Americanized updates of the Gospel — has finally completed its victory over older Christian institutions and traditions.
The result is a religious landscape dominated by popular Christian ideas that have “gone mad”, as GK Chesterton once said, “because they have been isolated from each other and wander alone”. This America has a church of self-love, with prophets like Oprah Winfrey preaching a gospel of the divine self, a “God within” spirituality that risks making a virtue of selfishness. It has a prosperity church, with figures like Joel Osteen as its bishops, who insist that God wants nothing more for his chosen than American prosperity, capitalist success. And it has churches of politics, preaching redemption through political activism: a right-wing Christian nationalism, sometimes messianic and apocalyptic, and a left-wing progressive utopianism, convinced that the arc of history is always tilted in its favor. …
When I was writing “Bad Religion,” there was still interest in the various Jesus historical projects, the scholarly reconstructions that promised to deliver a Jesus more suited to the spiritual assumptions of late-modern America. And it felt like there was a strong cultural incentive to recruit some version of the Nazarene, as Dan Brown did in “The Da Vinci Code,” for example, for his personal spiritual project, to get Jesus’ blessing for leaving orthodoxy behind. christian. .
Today, though, my sense is that Jesus himself is less culturally central, less necessary for religious entrepreneurs, as if Americans don’t want or need his blessing where they’re headed now in their post-Christian explorations.
That shift in priorities doesn’t tell us exactly where they’re headed. But suffice for now to say that the post-Christian label fits the general trend of American spirituality more than it did a decade ago.
However, that kind of change shows the unpredictability of the religious future as much as its inevitability. The Pew report, in particular, treats a hypothetical status quo scenario (no one changes religion) as its best case for the future of Christianity in America. You don’t have a scenario where Christian growth returns, where more of America is Christian in 2050 than it is today.
I wouldn’t expect a social scientist to anticipate that kind of reversal. But Advent and Christmas are not about trends that spread like before; it is about rupture, renewal, rebirth. That is what American Christianity needs now, now as always, now as in those early days when its entire future was contained in the mystery and vulnerability of mother and child.
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