Today I was reading a recent USA Today editorial piece, which examines the much discussed, recently announced “decline and fall of Christian America.” This op-ed was mostly a critique of the Newsweek thesis, that the recent ARIS survey showed a clear decline in Christian influence on American life. Basically, Stephen Prothero points out that even though the percentage of Americans claiming a particular religion (or denomination thereof) has decreased since the study began in 1990, much of those within that group still claim to believe in “a personal god.”
While it does seem clear this lessens the idea that atheism is greatly on the rise in America, this statistic does not at all reduce the idea that Christianity is losing influence on American culture. Prothero’s point would be correct if a belief in a personal god was equivalent to Christianity, but that is no more true than liking hamburgers makes one a frequent customer of McDonalds. It may be argued that those who are true burger aficionados would be less likely to enjoy Mc-Ds, in the same way that those Prothero is discussing, would not be the people we would find frequenting the local Baptist church.
This exposes a critical question in this discussion: Is belief in a personal god outside the constructs of Christianity beneficial to a “Christian America”? My answer is an unequivocal “no!” In fact, I would argue that this is more dangerous to American Christianity than atheism itself.
[See Should we be a Christian Nation? For more on this issue]
The problem that this creates is that many Americans (even many who claim to be Christian) are taking a smorgasbord approach to faith. In the paradoxical rules of post-modernity, all faith is good, and therefore any aspect of any faith can be replaced with any other faith. It is the community property of math at work in the realm of religion. One can grab a little Hindu here, a little Islam there, and oh, how about some teachings of Jesus for good measure. As a pastor, I see this often when I meet people. In fact, I had an experience this weekend that illustrates it well.
This weekend I went Hobie sailing with a good friend. On shore, I talked to one of the club members who was generously running the barbeque. We had a great time talking, and pretty soon he asked what it was that I do. When I told him, he asked me about our church’s worship. He said that they were attending a church with a very stogy worship style, and he might like to visit. In the same breath, he told me how he believed that all religions are good, and he didn’t believe in committing to any one of them.
People seem not to understand that comments like that could not be more offensive to me (they dismiss my whole career and life’s work), though I try to be gracious when I encounter this. But inside it is troubling, because when people look at Christianity as a salad-bar item they are devaluing it far more than by rejecting it outright.
When a person says “I reject Christ,” although they are refusing an allegiance to Him, they are doing nothing to damage or devalue Christianity. That is not to say that they aren’t trying to work against Him, but in doing so they are still defining themselves by Him. This is the reason why Christians actually have very little to fear from Atheist bus ads and Darwin-fish car bumper stickers. The statement they are making, in effect, “I don’t believe in God, and I hate Him,” is less damaging to God, than it is to the atheist cause.
In the case of the barbequing Hobie-enthusiast, he is not rejecting Christ outright, but accepting a warped version of who Christ is. This isn’t new in history (see most of the Old Testament narrative and several of Paul’s letters in the New Testament), but is on the rapid increase in America. When this version of the gospel becomes the common understanding, as it rapidly is becoming, then its essence is completely destroyed. It is an easy step to go from that to saying that Christianity has nothing special to offer humanity at all, and there will be few left with the ability to make a case otherwise.
It should be the main goal for American Christians to stop worrying about whether we have the influence over culture and policy that we might have once had, but instead focus on making clear the true Jesus in our land, in a way that people hear and understand. -Ryan