Ross Douthat (and others) on Why Christianity Has Declined in the US

I had the pleasure of reading the manuscript of Ross Douthat’s new book Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics (The Free Press, 2012), slated to be released April 17 of this year. I am going to honor the publisher’s request that I not quote or review the book until it is published because it is still being edited. Nevertheless, I want to interact with Ross’s basic ideas because I think they are provocative and because this is essential reading for all Christians seeking to understand Christianity’s relationship to culture in the U.S.

Everyone agrees that our culture has become far more secular and hostile to Christian faith over the past two generations, but what are the factors causing that change? Many in the evangelical and Reformed world see the decline starting in the early 20th century when most of the mainline denominations and their affiliated academic institutions and foundations fell into the hands of theological modernists and liberals. But it can’t be as simple as that. In his first chapter Douthat looks at four figures—Reinhold Niebuhr for powerful mainline Protestantism, Billy Graham for rising Evangelicalism, Fulton Sheen for popularly engaged Catholicism, and Martin Luther King, Jr for the prophetic African-American Church of the Civil Rights era—who at mid-20th century showed the cultural and institutional strength of nearly all branches of Christianity. But by the beginning of the 21st century all four branches of Christianity are fragmented, declining, and in disarray, while the number of Americans who say they have no religious affiliation or even belief in God steadily climbs. Robert Putnam nuances this a bit in American Grace when he argues that the mainline church began declining first, in the late 60s and 70s, while the Evangelical church began doing so by the 90s. Catholics have been battered with a different set of problems and so has the African-American church, but they are also definitely losing influence and people.

In his second chapter, Douthat attributes the change to five major social catalysts that have gained steam since the 1960s: 1) First, the political polarization that has occurred between the Left and Right drew many churches into it (mainline Protestants toward the Left, evangelicals toward the Right). This has greatly weakened the church’s credibility in the broader culture, with many viewing churches as mere appendages and pawns of political parties. 2) Second, the sexual revolution means that the Biblical sex ethic now looks unreasonable and perverse to millions of people, making Christianity appear implausible, unhealthy, and regressive. 3) Third, the era of decolonization and Third World empowerment, together with the dawn of globalization, has given the impression that Christianity was imperialistically “western” and supportive of European civilization’s record of racism, colonialism, and anti-Semitism. 4) The fourth factor has been the enormous growth in the kind of material prosperity and consumerism that always works against faith and undermines Christian community. 5) The fifth factor is—that all the other four factors had their greatest initial impact on the more educated and affluent classes, the gatekeepers of the main culture-shaping institutions such as the media, the academy, the arts, the main foundations, and much of the government and business world.

How does Ross Douthat’s analysis compare with some older thinkers? Lesslie Newbigin blames the marginalization of Christianity in the West on the outworking of the 18th century Enlightenment—which promoted the sufficiency of individual human reason without faith in God—for a great deal of the shift. In this he understands historical patterns as being caused by ideas and intellectual trends working their way out through a society’s institutions. I see no reason why Newbigin’s history-of-thought approach and Douthat’s sociology-of-knowledge approach cannot both be right. A third kind of analysis could easily find the faults within the church itself. As H. Richard Niebuhr points out in his essay, “The Independence of the Church”, the church becomes weak and even corrupt whenever it becomes successful in a culture. This is an important factor to add. For example, why did the mainline and the evangelical church get co-opted by American political parties and lose credibility? Wasn’t this due to a lack of robust, vital orthodoxy within them? If all these approaches are right and complementary, Christianity in the West has been the victim of “a perfect storm” of trends, factors, and forces.


Next blog: Ross Douthat on the Character of Christianity’s Decline