Glenn T. Stanton, director of family formation studies at Focus on the Family, writes in:
Doesn’t it always happen like this?
Here we are, getting ready for our big week, reflecting on our Savior’s death for humankind and celebrating the triumph and miracle of his resurrection, and then we get the news from Newsweek that we as a movement are now dead. Well, not quite dead, “but less of a force in U.S. politics and culture than at any other time in recent memory.” Still, quite a bummer.
In this week’s cover story, “The End of Christian America,” Jon Meacham, Newsweek’s editor, makes 3 basic points.
1. American is no longer a Christian nation
2. Christianity has less influence on American politics and culture than five years ago.
3. Items 1 and 2 are very good news indeed.
Curiously, nearly nothing in the two primary sources that Meacham draws upon—the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS 2008) or the recent and curiously named Newsweek opinion poll “A Post Christian Nation?”—would lead any honest analyst to the conclusions Meacham creates in points 1 and 2. In fact, they would lead many honest readers to the opposite conclusion
1) America is no longer a Christian nation
First, this phrase “Christian nation” is a famously confusing one. No recognized leader in the so-called “religious right” has ever called for America to be a theocracy or believed it ever was, but this is what Meacham accuses. He asks, “What then does it mean to talk of ‘Christian America’? Evangelical Christians have long believed that the United States should be a nation whose political life is based upon and governed by their interpretation of biblical and theological principles.” Well, if you talking about the biblical principles of not slandering, stealing or murdering, then, yes. But I don’t recall any of us ever proposing that it be the law of the land that everyone, say, confess their sins, one to another, or that we lock people up when they chose to forsake the assembling of ourselves together. We do however believe something close to what Meacham himself admits in his article, which he offers as a corrective to people like us. He would have us understand that,
[America's] foundational documents are the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, not the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament (though there are undeniable connections between them). This way of life is far different from what many overtly conservative Christians would like.
Well, actually not so different. We understand that Christianity had a deep impact on our nation’s founding, its guiding documents and our national growth. Deep, but not singular. We thankfully live in a country of religious freedom.
But let’s examine his case as to what he believes has changed of late.
Meacham references ARIS 2008, released last month, which is a mix of bad, good and interesting news on religion in America. But what got Meacham’s attention were two points.
First, the number of Americans who claim no religious affiliation has nearly doubled since 1990, moving from 8 percent in that year to 15 percent in 2008. ARIS refers to these as “nones.” This development is indeed stark and concerning, but doesn’t mean that all of these belong to the group called “whatevers,” who either believe nothing or everything. It is very possible the “nones” are believers of some sort who don’t want to be labeled by pollsters and shoved into their boxes.
Second, Meacham notes the percentage of self-identified Christians has declined 10% between 1990 and 2008, from 86 to 76 percent over that period. Only 1.2 percent of Americans identify as a Jewish, and Muslims accounted for 0.6 percent of our nation. Atheist and agnostics make up only 0.9 and 0.7 of our nation’s population, respectively, even though this is nearly a four-fold growth rate since 1990. Clearly, the overwhelming majority of our nation remains Christian in identification, even as the overall Christian numbers shrink relative to population growth. And what Meacham doesn’t say in his article is that his own Newsweek poll reported that 81 percent of Americans self-identify as Christian, with the largest subset being “Evangelical Protestant”. Can we really be “Post-Christian” as Meacham says we are, when 76 to 81 percent of citizens identify as Christians? What group, or marketer, would not be delighted with such numbers? But of course, how we live according to this self-identification is another matter entirely, one that Meacham doesn’t concern himself with.
Regarding the decline of Christianity, of course it is the mainline Protestant churches that have seen “a significant fall in numbers” since 2001, according to ARIS. Meacham does admit that a “notable finding” in ARIS is the rise in the preference to self-identify as ‘Born Again’ or ‘Evangelical’ rather than with any Christian tradition, church or denomination.” They continue, “The Protestant denominations, mainly composed of conservatives and sectarian groups, have grown in size and proportion . . . [which] suggests a movement towards more conservative beliefs and to a more ‘evangelical’ outlook among Christians.” The ARIS authors call this growth an “important historical trend.” I wonder how Meacham figures something is declining when it is actually growing?
Meacham, in his case for a shrinking Christianity also recognizes “the popularity of Pentecostalism,” which he describes as “a rapidly growing Christian milieu in the United States and globally . . .” (emphasis mine). In the same sentence, he admits, “there is no doubt that the nation remains vibrantly religious—far more so, for instance, than Europe.” But he could have accurately used the phrase “remains vibrantly Christian” in this statement because it is not generic religions that are growing notably, but the conservative, Pentecostal and evangelical forms of Christianity, although at slower rates than the “nones” and the agnostics and atheists of late. But doing so would have cut into his thesis.
2) Christianity has less influence on American politics and culture than five years ago.
Interestingly, Meacham offers only one data point for this consequential statement: “Two-thirds of the public (68 percent) now say religion is ‘losing influence’ in American society.” You would think that since this is an article on the declining influence of Christian conservatives, and that Meacham employs this figure in his story, that respondents are saying these Christian conservatives are losing influence, but the poll question asked more widely about “religion as a whole” losing influence in American life. However, conclusions from the poll tell a much different story, which Meacham didn’t share with his readers. This Newsweek poll found that 74 percent of Americans who think religion is gaining influence believe this a “good thing” and 81 percent of Americans who believe religion is losing influence feel this is a “bad thing.” Did Meacham not think that was an important tidbit to share with us? Additionally, this poll specifically asked whether “Evangelical Christian conservatives” have greater or lesser influence on American politics in recent years. The responses were essentially evenly divided (26 and 25 percent, respectively) while 37 percent of Americans believe evangelical influence has essentially stayed the same. Also, 74 percent (!) of the public told Newsweek‘s pollsters they have “old-fashioned values about marriage and family” a question so poisoned from its phrasing that it is stunning it got such a strong positive response.
Interestingly, Meacham does explain that fewer people believe “the United States is a Christian Nation” today than when George W. Bush was President, but fails to explain that more believe this today than did the first year the question was asked in this poll, 1996. Meacham, as the magazine’s editor, can’t claim that all this critical information was in his original draft, but his editor scrapped it.
And if evangelical influence and “Christian America” is waning, someone should explain how our nation passed 43 state laws in the past few years protecting marriage from same-sex redefinition, as well as 30 state constitutional amendments, no small legislative feat. And wasn’t it an evangelical pastor that single-handedly hosted, according to most reviews, last year’s most thoughtful presidential debate and offered an unapologetically Christian prayer, launching one of our nation’s most significant Presidential Inaugurations? Find anyone, besides Newsweek, who would pooh-pooh such influence?
3) Items 1 and 2 are very good news indeed.
Even though items 1 and 2 are demonstrably untrue, they would in fact not be good news for those of any political stripe who desire a vibrant, participatory democracy. Princeton University Press has just published an important new book by Claremont McKenna professor Jon Shields entitled, The Democratic Virtues of the Christian Right, which explains,
The Christian Right has therefore helped to reinvigorate American democracy and eliminate the end-of-ideology politics that the New Left held in such contempt . . . [and] as the ink dried on Robert Putnam’s now famous ‘bowling-alone’ thesis, conservative Christians were turning out to vote in record numbers.
Newsweek, who has seen their own actual and significant declines in both circulation and newsstand sales, seem to be of the David Byrne school of thought who sang, “facts just twist the truth around.” But if, as FOLIO magazine reported last December, Newsweek is interested in transitioning “from a newsmagazine to ‘thought-leader,’ something more akin to the Economist,” it won’t be able to do so by continuing to place the process of actually thinking at contradictory angles with those nagging things called “facts.”