Newsweek: The End of Christian America

Posted by Kendall Harmon

It was a small detail, a point of comparison buried in the fifth paragraph on the 17th page of a 24-page summary of the 2009 American Religious Identification Survey. But as R. Albert Mohler Jr.—president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, one of the largest on earth—read over the document after its release in March, he was struck by a single sentence. For a believer like Mohler—a starched, unflinchingly conservative Christian, steeped in the theology of his particular province of the faith, devoted to producing ministers who will preach the inerrancy of the Bible and the Gospel of Jesus Christ as the only means to eternal life—the central news of the survey was troubling enough: the number of Americans who claim no religious affiliation has nearly doubled since 1990, rising from 8 to 15 percent. Then came the point he could not get out of his mind: while the unaffiliated have historically been concentrated in the Pacific Northwest, the report said, "this pattern has now changed, and the Northeast emerged in 2008 as the new stronghold of the religiously unidentified." As Mohler saw it, the historic foundation of America's religious culture was cracking.

"That really hit me hard," he told me last week. "The Northwest was never as religious, never as congregationalized, as the Northeast, which was the foundation, the home base, of American religion. To lose New England struck me as momentous."

Read it all.

Filed under: * Culture-WatchReligion & Culture* International News & CommentaryAmerica/U.S.A.

28 Comments
Posted April 6, 2009 at 11:00 am [Printer Friendly] [Print w/ comments]



1. Charming Billy wrote:

Meacham gives Mohler nearly as much space as his own opinions! This is a decided improvement on Newsweek’s recent coverage of SSM and Christianity. Meacham’s editorial stance with regard to criticism of this coverage was unbalanced. He reined himself this time (no doubt in response to my devastating rebuttal) so he deserves credit for learning from his mistakes—a rare quality these days.

April 6, 11:47 am | [comment link]
2. Bart Hall (Kansas, USA) wrote:

Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other. John Adams

Are we consequently to be surprised by politicians—of both parties, but one in particular—who thus in these times ignore, pervert, distort, and dismiss the Constitution? Because it is an impediment to their plans ...

Put not your trust in princes, nor men of power, because they will lead you astray for their own purposes. Psalm 146:2

More importantly, we must not end without a nod to Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937), the innovative Italian communist who declared it would be essential to use universities and public education to destroy Christianity in both Europe and (especially) America before the Hegelian dialectic principle (that gradual change leads to turning points at which the forces of hegemony can be overturned) could lead to the destruction of privacy, individualism, and liberty ... and therefore the capitalism which is their natural result.

Context, people. Context.

April 6, 12:34 pm | [comment link]
3. John Wilkins wrote:

A good essay.  The decline of Christianity is one of the reasons we are all fighting each other.

Bart, can you point me to where in the notebooks he discusses Christianity in this way?  And I’m curious about your conflation of capitalism and Christianity.  I’m not sure where privacy and individualism fit within christianity:  and as many conservatives note, one’s freedom is held in tension with obedience to the church.

April 6, 1:52 pm | [comment link]
4. Ralph Webb wrote:

It’s a thoughtful, balanced piece. I haven’t been happy with Newsweek’s drift from news to more of an opinion journal, but this is a fair, and even excellent in quality, example of news analysis.

April 6, 1:59 pm | [comment link]
5. Billy wrote:

John Wilkins, as a member of the Northeastern intelligensia, to what would you attribute this dwindling of the religious affiliated in the Northeast?

April 6, 2:08 pm | [comment link]
6. Steve Cavanaugh wrote:

As one filling the boots on the ground here in the Northeast, I think that the principal reason for dwindling religious affliliation here is easy to understand: You cannot serve both God and Mammon, and for many here, Mammon is king. As we have become wealthy, we have become foolish, thinking that we were responsible for our own strength.

April 6, 2:40 pm | [comment link]
7. robroy wrote:

The percentage of born again Christians basically remained unchanged. What is falling is the number of “church as a social structure” pseudo-Christians. The denominations that have more of these in the pews (read: the liberal ones) are the ones that are declining significantly. The Southern Baptists lost 40,000 to their membership of 16 million (0.25%). And they are in crisis mode. In contrast, we have Ms Schori stating that everything is dandy and to go back to the deck chairs.

April 6, 2:43 pm | [comment link]
8. NewTrollObserver wrote:

In order to understand the current unpleasantness stalking New England, Mohler need only treat himself to that great friend of liberty, and foe of all things predestinational:

“I fear, wherever riches have increased, the essence of religion has decreased in the same proportion. Therefore, I do not see how it is possible, in the nature of things, for any revival of religion to continue long. For religion must necessarily produce both industry and frugality, and these cannot but produce riches. But as riches increase, so will pride, anger, and love of the world in all its branches.”

—- John Wesley (1703-1791).

April 6, 3:45 pm | [comment link]
9. jamesw wrote:

I agree with robroy’s analysis (post #7).  I would think that the huge decline in New England is due to the fact that the liberal mainlines had a higher percentage there then in other places.  I think that as Christianity becomes increasingly frowned upon by the social and cultural “elite”, there is a declining value to upwardly mobile folks to self-identify as “Christian.”

Fourteen years ago, I was looking at law positions in Canada, but wasn’t getting much interest despite very good grades.  A lawyer friend (not a Christian) reviewed my resume, and told me that he thought there were two big problems on my resume - first was that I included the full name of my high school and that it had the word “Christian” in it.  The second was that before law school I had done a two years “Master of Christian Studies” degree at a graduate theological school.  His main piece of advice was to scrub my resume clean of anything that sounded “Christian.”  I have had similar experiences since.

If Christianity isn’t that important to you, or if you figure that basically all religions are basically the same, then it would make perfect sense to stop self-identifying as a Christian.

On a side note, I think that these statistics will not bode well for the liberals in the mainline denominations (or for the mainline denominations as a whole).  I expect to see a smaller, but more robust Christianity in the future America, though I will also say that I wonder at the future viability of Western liberal democracies once they become disconnected from authentic Christianity, but that’s another story.

April 6, 3:58 pm | [comment link]
10. Bart Hall (Kansas, USA) wrote:

John—for starters, there is much in Notebook 5 (1930-32), including dependence of the state upon the Church. Remember, he’s talking in the context of Italy so there’s a Roman specificity involved. He also repeatedly invokes the faith and the church as the antithesis to “common sense,” and on multiple occasions refers to the necessity of removing barriers to “common sense.”

Furthermore, in assuming that I have conflated capitalism and Christianity you have made the error of the ‘undifferentiated middle’—roughly put as “Dogs have ears and people have ears, therefore people are dogs.”

Capitalism is not a philosophy, it is the natural result of freedom, and a description of how economies work in the presence of freedom.

Only to the extent that Christianity—in particular evangelical protestant Christianity—promotes freedom arising from “certain unalienable rights” of individuals as “endowed by their Creator” is there any sort of indirect connection between Christianity and capitalism ... which is quite some ways from a conflation on my part.

Roman Christianity has never been very solid on individual freedom. Gramsci therefore viewed it as a competing hegemony to be replaced by socialism. Tangentially, protestant Christianity with its emphasis on the individual was quite foreign to him and he seemed to believe it would crumble as the result of its apparently anarchic individualism.

It’s no accident that capitalism flowered in the non-Catholic parts of Europe, namely the Netherlands, Britain, northern Germany, and Switzerland.

April 6, 4:41 pm | [comment link]
11. Fr. Dale wrote:

Wasn’t anyone concerned by the title of the article itself?
“The End of Christian America”
It seems to me that the person who only glances at the title of the article will miss the fact that the article actually states the reverse.
“Let’s be clear: while the percentage of Christians may be shrinking, rumors of the death of Christianity are greatly exaggerated.”
This is agenda driven reporting and one reason I no longer subscribe to Newsweek.

April 6, 5:27 pm | [comment link]
12. John Wilkins wrote:

#10 - impressive.  I appreciate your contribution, and it is helpful.  I actually agree with you, although I think a “commercial society” is a bit more accurate than a “capitalist” society.  But that is, perhaps, semantics.  Clearly, a commercial society is freer than a planned economy.  And, of course, while Gramsci may have provided an interesting exploration of power, his understanding of capitalism - like most Marxists - was a caricature. 

#5 I do believe that the Weberian paradox has shown some truth:  Christian freedom leads to the basis of a commercial society; however a commercial society undercuts the bonds that make a society recognizably Christian.  It seems that the wealthier a country is, the less religious it is.  Eventually, capitalism undermines Christianity; and perhaps social democracy - as an outgrowth of capitalism - is the final nail the coffin.

April 6, 6:25 pm | [comment link]
13. Ralph Webb wrote:

#7—Respectfully, the situation really isn’t that simple, and cannot be just dismissed as reflecting the departures of nominal Christians. Even “seeker-friendly” churches/worship services are getting the vast majority of non-Christian visitors from people with prior church backgrounds whom the Holy Spirit has brought to a place where they are open to church again. Orthodox/evangelical churches are having a very hard time reaching people with little-to-no Christian background—who now constitute the majority in younger generations.

For years, those of us who are conservatives have liked to say that orthodox churches grow while liberal ones do not. There has been some truth to that conclusion, but it lamentably masks the larger societal drift from Christianity that eventually will impact evangelical/orthodox churches negatively—the ones, that is, that haven’t yet experienced the crunch. Partly, we evangelicals have ourselves to blame; many of us from at least the time of the Jesus movement (and possibly earlier) have emphasized a personal relationship with Christ and presented the Church as a local assembly of Christians that provides a fellowship component of Christianity. That reductionist view has produced bitter fruit, leading even many committed Christians to view the Church as an optional extra.

#11—In the context of the whole article, the title makes perfect sense. Meacham argues that American is still religious and spiritual, but not specifically Christian. I think that’s been a clear trend for years now.

April 6, 6:35 pm | [comment link]
14. Billy wrote:

#12 - But does capitalism have to undermine Christianity.  Is that not where the church comes in ... if the church leaders are strong and don’t become immersed in capitalistic wealth gathering, themselves, and urge those who are gathering and do gather wealth to be charitable and maintain the Christian values they are taught as childrenm cannot Christianity (the church) be the force that softens capitalism and allows capitalism to provide for the poor, the hungry, the sick, the homeless.  Is not the church to be in the world but not of the world, the same as Christ calls all of us?  I think you let yourself, and all of us, off way too easily by blaming an economic system for the decline of Christianity.  You are basically saying that people have become way too secular because they live in a secular society.  I would also suggest to you that people lose their Christianity not just when they may be too prosperous but also when they are too poor.  The moderate middle ground is where we live best as Christians and in our secular life, in my opinion.

April 6, 6:40 pm | [comment link]
15. Sick & Tired of Nuance wrote:

I don’t think the “loss” of New England (This is news?) is because of money/affluence.  New England, according to the history books I’ve read and the mansions I’ve seen has been pretty affluent nearly from inception.  Certainly, it has been wealthy from early colonial days…whaling, textiles, waterpowered industry, proximity of New York and Boston, etc.

No.  I have given the matter a lot of thought over the years.  I think the real underlying problem in New England is pride.  It’s been here a long, long time and it’s acid has finally eaten through from the inside out. 

Just my opinion.

April 6, 6:54 pm | [comment link]
16. Fr. Dale wrote:

13. Ralph Webb,

In the context of the whole article, the title makes perfect sense. Meacham argues that American is still religious and spiritual, but not specifically Christian. I think that’s been a clear trend for years now.

. That’s your reading of the context of the whole article. There is a difference between a trend and an accomplished fact. If the title of the article was “The Decline of Christian America”, I would say it better described what he wrote. I don’t even hear him arguing that America is religious and spiritual but no longer Christian. The author’s following comment sounded rather anemic and not much of a rebuttal to Hichens strident atheism. It did sound like a liberal Episcopalian though.

As an observant (if deeply flawed) Episcopalian, I disagree with many of Hitchens’s arguments—I do not think it is productive to dismiss religious belief as superstitious and wrong.

April 6, 7:36 pm | [comment link]
17. TACit wrote:

It’s about the fifth paragraph where Meacham mentions that Roger Williams founded Rhode Island as a refuge for ‘religious dissenters’.  Actually as I recall Williams was a Baptist.  Nevertheless, it struck me that it should be no surprise New England is coming apart as a locus of Christian believing if one of its states was founded to shield some Christian believers from others! 
Many Americans have no clear concept of the Christian hegemony that characterized New England from its founding days.  We should understand better the history of the MA Puritans violently persecuting in the 1600s Quakers who tried to settle in Cape Cod, the steady flow westward from the mid-1700s of Congregationalists and their derivatives as ‘buffers’ against the Indians (e.g Susquehanna Land Grant settlers going from CT into northeast PA), along with the admixture of French Canada-based Catholics as millworkers later in the 1800s, and above all the huge egress at the Revolution of Tory Anglicans who had been a large landowning class of New Englanders.  Some of the remaining Anglicans began by the late 1700s to pervert the Trinitarian faith into the Unitarianism-with-vestments that is now regnant in the TEC (Kings Chapel in Diocese of MA for instance), and in the new nation were able to spread their brand of degenerate ‘Christian’ belief as authentic, keeping the brand-name ‘Episcopal’. Today we see the outworking of 200 years of such deterioration.  This is by the way one reason that there was an American-based Anglo-Catholic movement, to counteract the degenerate pseudo-Christianity that emanated from the (Episcopal) Kings Chapel in Boston.

April 6, 8:43 pm | [comment link]
18. Frank Fuller wrote:

Would not changes in religious loyalty in New England be largely changes from within the Roman Catholic cohort, which has comprised the majority of church members in most counties of that region for several decades? 

There are a number of possible sources for that sort of evolution that don’t necessarily track with the generalized discussion here, or even necessarily reinforce Mohler’s original point.  Loss of trust in institutions and leadership does not necessarily mean a permanent loss of faith.

More is going on among our people than our quick and easy diagnoses allow for.  Watch and pray.

April 6, 11:49 pm | [comment link]
19. Jim the Puritan wrote:

I guess I’m not sure why Dr. Mohler is so surprised about the Northeast.  New England struck me as pretty “Godless” when I was going to college there 30 years ago.  In my college town, a lot of nominal Catholics, followed by a substantial number of nominal Jews, with nominal mainline Protestants bringing up the rear.  There was not any real Christian fellowship in the town where I went to college, as far as I know.

I still remember being in a class in college where one of the women gave a presentation about living with a Southern family over the summer and how she had to get used to the family’s “fundamentalism.”  Even then I wondered really how “fundamental” they were, and how much of it was simply the absence of faith in the Northeast, especially with the narrow “there is no civilization beyond the Hudson” outlook that many in that part of the country have.

April 7, 1:04 am | [comment link]
20. TACit wrote:

Is that really true, Frank Fuller, that most counties of New England have a majority of RC rather than Protestant Christians?  Most?  I can believe some do, for example along the industrial river valleys. 
Like Jim the Puritan I attended a small NE liberal arts college, nearly 40 years ago, and at that time it was striking how the influence of Rome and all things RC on civilization was assumed to be bad, something to be shaken off, purged or ‘got over’ in order for humanity to get on with making the world in our image.  Only after a few years of confusion did I start to discern that this was the Puritan intellectual conceit to which most of the NE liberal arts institutions are dedicated.  Its ambition is no less than to restructure civilization and re-orient history’s course for its own ends.  And what may have seemed progress on God’s agenda for humanity 150-200 years ago now is clearly off the rails, with guilt-free reproductive choice, pursuit of wealth, and a re-tooled ethics to fit the increasingly technocrat-controlled society now among modern norms that are leading to a deeply narcissistic sub-culture.  TEC regrettably aspires to be the spiritual guide to that sub-culture.

April 7, 2:14 am | [comment link]
21. Bart Hall (Kansas, USA) wrote:

TACit: almost. Most counties in New England have an RC plurality. In fact every single one of them does, with the exception of Orange County, Vermont. Furthermore, every county in both New York and New Jersey has a plurality of RCs. Quite a few counties in Massachusetts are majority RC, as are a few elsewhere in New England.

The RC plurality thing is a bit artificial because there are so many flavors of protestant, each of which is too small to form a plurality on its own.

If you like maps, this one has a nationwide county-by-county breakdown of religious plurality and majority.

April 7, 8:37 am | [comment link]
22. TACit wrote:

Thanks for that map link, Bart Hall - very interesting.  Had no idea there could be so many places with a plurality of Methodists!
So technically Frank Fuller was correct about New England, yet it could be there is a plurality of Protestants in places we can’t see it for the denominations.

April 7, 9:24 am | [comment link]
23. John Wilkins wrote:

#12 - “But does capitalism have to undermine Christianity.”

No, of course not.  But since capitalists are sinners, like most people, generally they can’t be trusted to run the show themselves.  this is why most of the church fathers were ambivalent about aquisitiveness.  It is also why the church respected State authority.

“If the church leaders are strong and don’t become immersed in capitalistic wealth gathering, themselves, and urge those who are gathering and do gather wealth to be charitable and maintain the Christian values they are taught as childrenm cannot Christianity (the church) be the force that softens capitalism and allows capitalism to provide for the poor, the hungry, the sick, the homeless.”

I agree with this sentiment.  But I am pessimistic about human depravity, and think that even people who think they are saved and generous don’t, in fact, give enough.

“Is not the church to be in the world but not of the world, the same as Christ calls all of us?  I think you let yourself, and all of us, off way too easily by blaming an economic system for the decline of Christianity.  You are basically saying that people have become way too secular because they live in a secular society.”

This isn’t a precise rereading of my comment.  I’m saying that the good things capitalism gives us weakens the bonds of affection that undergird the Christianity we value. 

“I would also suggest to you that people lose their Christianity not just when they may be too prosperous but also when they are too poor.”

this is an interesting theory, that should be tested.  What is the empirical evidence you have for this?

“The moderate middle ground is where we live best as Christians and in our secular life, in my opinion.”

well, perhaps.  I’m an agnostic about the middle.  I think some rich people are generous, charitble and live holy lives, as do the poor.  However, the wealthy are, perhaps, more responsible precisely because they have been given much.  Their depravity is no different than the impoverished, 

billy, believe in capitalism from a very pragmatic perspective:  it represents human freedom.  I do think that people tend to fetishize it, idolize it, and think that somehow a utopian “capitalist” society is possible.  I’m a bit more pessimistic.  Capitalism, by and large, has won the battle.  But it will come at the expense of churches.

April 8, 12:18 pm | [comment link]
24. Jeffersonian wrote:

But since capitalists are sinners, like most people, generally they can’t be trusted to run the show themselves.

I’m relieved that you have a reservoir of sinless individuals at hand, John.  Can you let us know who these earthbound angels might be so we can put them in charge at the first opportunity?

April 8, 12:55 pm | [comment link]
25. Fr. Dale wrote:

#23.

this is why most of the church fathers were ambivalent about a[c]quisitiveness.

Acquisitiveness is generally understood to mean greed. I think the church and Christ Himself have not been ambivalent about it.

April 8, 4:30 pm | [comment link]
26. Alta Californian wrote:

Some things never change.  People have been kvetching about the decline of New England Christianity since the Half-Way Covenant in the 17th century.  Then as now, the primary villain was said to be avarice.

TACit, say what you will about Boston Episcopalianism (and you could say much), but King’s Chapel is formally associated with the UU.  The story of how they formed the idiosyncratic liturgical unitarianism they did is certainly fascinating.  And indeed, it could be considered emblematic of the Enlightenment deism that overtook much of colonial Anglicanism (and parts of New England congregationalism) in the 18th century.  Nevertheless, strictly speaking it is not “Episcopalian” and never was, having been Unitarian since the Revolution. 

Sick and Tired, it may be a minor historical point, but New England wasn’t always considered so wealthy.  It actually suffered a long economic slump through the mid 19th century, beginning with the War of 1812 (the British nearly destroyed New England shipping by attack, blockade and loss of British trade) and continuing with the expansion in dominance of New York (the Erie Canal ensured the wealth of the West would flow through the Empire State, not New England).  It is actually one of the reasons Boston and other New England towns (and those mansions you mention) are so well preserved while places like NYC are not. One of the ironies of historic preservation is that it traditionally has required economic stagnation to ensure that people could not afford to continuously rebuild their environment (mind you it can’t be complete economic collapse - they have to have to be able to afford to maintain and not abandon that environment).  Now whether that economic slowdown prevented further decline in New England spirituality throughout the 19th century, I’ll leave for others to determine.

April 8, 5:35 pm | [comment link]
27. TACit wrote:

I quote below in a condensed form the beginning of the Wikipedia entry on King’s Chapel:
“King’s Chapel was founded by Royal Governor Andros in 1686 as the first Anglican Church in New England during the reign of King James II…....situated on the public burying ground because no resident would sell land for a non-Puritan church…...During the American Revolution, the chapel sat vacant….....The loyalist families left for Canada, and those who remained reopened the church in 1782. It became Unitarian under the ministry of James Freeman, who revised the Book of Common Prayer along Unitarian lines in 1785. Although Freeman still considered King’s Chapel to be Episcopalian, the Anglican Church refused to ordain him. The church still follows its own Anglican/Unitarian hybrid liturgy today. It is a member of Unitarian Universalists Association.”

There it is, a BCP revision just after the Revolutionary War ended by someone who sought to have his new religion pass as orthodox Christianity (Anglicanism).  That is the point I wanted to make in previous comment, that UU typically slips into the religious consciousness by dissembling that it is in fact a (Trinitarian) Christian belief going by the name of Anglican or Episcopal.  It’s a highly sophisticated form of ‘sheep-stealing’, in a sense.
The rest of my point was that this laid groundwork for the dissembling to infiltrate the intellectual life of religious New England which underpinned post-secondary education in the many colleges and universities all over that region.  And it got its start well over 200 years ago.  Lacking discernment, which is a gift of the Holy Spirit, increasingly provincial Americans who attended these institutions have sometimes been taken in by the ‘progressive’ teaching.

April 8, 8:02 pm | [comment link]
28. John Wilkins wrote:

Jefferson, you didn’t understand my comment.  I’m saying we are all sinners.  To expect that those who have wealth are somehow better or more rational than others, or are better Christians, or are even good entrepreneurs, is a utopian belief. 

Freedom tends to originate not from a blank slate but from different competing interests, empirically.  Capitalism, to be fair, as a system of cooperation, based upon implicitly and explicitly agreed upon standards of commerce, enforced by the state, has given us an immense amount.  But it is the same cooperation, in fact, that undermines the complexity of the social bonds that make churches possible. 

Capitalism socially liberates desire.  It allows us to buy and experience all sorts of things we would have never considered.  Culturally, it means that women, gays, and all sorts of people whose roles were bound previously by culture, tradition and affection now have the luxury of living freer lives.  I submit, one of the benefits of capitalism is the liberation of sexuality from the chains of the church.

April 9, 11:05 am | [comment link]
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