The Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD) recently made available an address Fr. Richard John Neuhaus first delivered in 1995. In reflecting on the role of IRD, Fr. Neuhaus provides some particularly intriguing and provocative thoughts on the role of religion in America:
If you go back and survey research which begins in the early 1920’s that moves into the great Middletown Study and up to the present, one of the most striking things – as far as you can tell by that kind of research – about religion in America has been the constancy, the stability of religious belief and practice. Of course, this doesn’t receive much attention in the news media because the news media is about what’s new and what’s different. The remarkable thing is that Americans have stubbornly, incorrigibly, frequently mindlessly, let it be admitted, thought of themselves as a Christian people. And all of the current chatter about the “New American pluralism,” et cetera, and the role of Islam and Buddhism and the other Eastern religions have changed that picture very, very little. 80-87% of Americans identify themselves as Christian. The totality of non-Christian identified religionists in America is certainly less than 4% of the general population, including a little under 2% Jewish and then the rest of a whole amalgam. There are many Christians, including evangelical Christians – Christianity Today is prone to this – of saying that we live in a post-Christian society. And by that they’ll either buy into Harvard’s Diana Eck business about how, you know, there’s this burgeoning of Eastern and Muslim and other religions, which is statistically false. Or they will say it’s post-Christian in that the great majority of Americans, while nominally saying they’re Christian, in fact have embraced Harold Bloom’s American Gnosticism, et cetera.
My own view is that it’s a self-serving cop-out on the part of Christians to pretend that this is not continuingly, incorrigibly, confusedly a Christian nation. It’s easy for us to say, whether on the conservative side, the evangelical side as Christianity Today does, or on the left as Stanley Hauerwas, a very influential theologian and a dear friend of mine, says from the left that America is post-Christian, that the church is now in some sense in exile. I don’t believe that. And I think it’s an abdication of responsibility. We have to accept the fact that, however embarrassing the state of American Christianity may be – and it is deeply embarrassing – this is the community of which we are part and for which we bear an important measure of responsibility in terms of defining the relationship of the community that says, “Jesus Christ is Lord,” to the continuing American experiment.