The Decline of Religion in America

A frequent topic of this blog is religion, specifically Christianity, and its influence on American society and Western Civilization.  Many of the problems we face as a nation are the result not only of bad government policy or dangerous ideologies, but are metaphysical and spiritual in nature.  As Paul writes in Ephesians 6:12, “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.” (KJV)

As such, two pieces caught my eye this week, both dealing with the decline of religion in the West generally and the United States specifically.  One is from Dissident Right blogger Z Man, “Religion Versus Capitalism“; the other is a syndicated column by Daniel Davis, “America is Still Highly Religious, So Why Do We Keep Liberalizing?”  Both offer different answers to the question posed by the latter question.

For Davis, the problem is that, while Americans are more religious than our European counterparts, and that we say we want a greater role for religion in society, our theology is bad—infected (my term) by the social justice and Cultural Marxist platitudes of our age.

Americans embrace “feel-good Christianity,” what I call the “Buddy Christ” version of our faith:  Jesus was just a cool hippie who wanted everybody to love each other, man.  In this distorted version of the Gospel, sin isn’t a grave threat, but simply “missing the mark”—you’ll do better next time, kiddo.  Keep practicing sinning and eventually you’ll hit that mark!

(I’ve actually heard this argument from some Evangelical preachers, mostly of the hip, non-denominational type.  They get so caught up in the root of the word “sin” as “missing the mark” in the context of target practice, they inadvertently give blanket license to sin, as grace is abundant, so God will forgive you—an early heresy that the Apostle Paul addressed directly.  “Missing the mark” trivializes the gravity of sin, making it sound like “oops! My bad!”  If the “mark” is righteousness, then missing the mark is pretty serious.)

Davis points out the pitfalls of this “feel-good Christianity,” and our propensity to make God fit our worldview, instead of us trying to accept and embrace His:

What we have in America is a radical separation of God from “reality”—the real world that we claim to live in. It’s not that we reject “God” per se, but we reject a God who comes with a certified worldview package—a God who orders the universe, sets moral norms, defines our being, and binds our consciences to a moral code in this world—today.

We’ve kept God, but jettisoned the traditional package.

The problem is, this is almost the same as rejecting God completely. If believing in God has no impact on the way we view realities in this world—whether they be gender, marriage, or who counts as a person worthy of dignity and respect—then what God are we even worshipping?

Could it be that the atheists are right when they accuse us of worshipping a God of our own making?

Davis also links to a website, The State of Theology, which highlights the disconnect between professions of faith and what Christians—including Evangelicals!—actually believe.  Part of the problem is “feel-good” theology, but a big part is simple biblical ignorance.  Americans pay lip service, according to The State of Theology, to core precepts of Christianity, but don’t seem to understand them at a deeper level or apply them to their daily lives.

Z Man—who I believe is Catholic and Catholic-educated, though he stated in one podcast that he hasn’t been to church in years—approaches the problem from a different angle.  He argues, essentially, that the proliferation of capitalist materialism is at odds, fundamentally, with Christianity and other religions, and the West has embraced materialism as its true faith.

He also links the decline of religion to a decline in fertility rates, and notes that as nations have become more integrated in the global economy, they’ve become less religious and less fertile.  There are myriad possible explanations for declining birthrates in developed societies, but Z Man’s theory is intriguing.  As material wealth increases and the profit motive becomes the “highest good,” religiosity declines.  With the decline of traditional religious values comes less of an emphasis on family formation.

For Z Man, the problem is that we worship materialism—he argues that libertarianism is the irrational, passionate “religion” of capitalistic materialism—in place of God.  To quote his piece at length:

In a system where the highest good is a profit, then all other considerations must be secondary. Lying, for example, is no longer strictly prohibited. The seller will no longer feel obligated to disclose everything to the buyer. The seller will exaggerate his claims about his product or service. Buyers, of course, will seek to lock in sellers into one way contracts based on information unknown the other seller. The marketplace, at its most basic level, is a game of liar’s poker, where all sides hope to fool the other.

Religion, in contrast, also assumes certain things about people, but seeks to mitigate and ameliorate them. Generally speaking, religion assumes the imperfection of man and sees that imperfection as the root cause of human suffering. While those imperfections cannot be eliminated, the negative effects can be reduced through moral codes, contemplation and the full understanding of one’s nature. Religions, outside of some extreme cults, are not about altering the nature of man, but rather the acceptance of it.

I would argue that capitalism does not necessarily lead to liars—how do you build business if you gain a reputation for dishonesty?—but capitalism definitely needs the traditionalism of orthodox religion to work for long.  In the absence of the moral framework that socially and religiously conservative values supply, capitalism can easily become an orgiastic free-for-all of mendacious exchanges and swindling.

Indeed, China’s autocratic capitalism is a prime example of a state using the mechanism of capitalism in a moral vacuum to aggrandize its own power.  Wags and particularists will argue that China’s system is not true capitalism, but rather a corporatist perversion, which is certainly accurate—but the United States has its share of cronyistic arrangements.  To be clear, there is a world of difference separating China’s increasingly totalitarian brand of corporatism and America’s more mundane system of well-heeled lobbyists, but the Chinese example clearly demonstrates what happens when you value pure materialism at the expense of everything else.

While I don’t completely accept Z Man’s analysis, I do think he makes a solid point.  Christians should never subvert true faith in Christ to the false god of capitalist materialism.  Indeed, such faith is merely the more benign face of a two-sided Marxist coin.

Both unbridled libertarianism and full-throated Communism are premised on a materialist worldview that discounts the metaphysical.  The former allows religion to exist as a largely private, subjective concern, so long as it doesn’t get too insistent about its truth claims.  The latter seeks to destroy any loyalty to anything other than the state—or the “Party,” or “Dear Leader,” etc.  The former is certainly preferable to the latter, but both ultimately will leave followers unfulfilled.

The Church—Orthodox, Catholic, High Protestant, Evangelical Protestant, etc.—needs to commit itself fully to foundational biblical Truth.  We should be reading and debating Augustus and Aquinas, not to mention the Gospels and Paul’s Epistles.  Preachers need to move beyond the mega-church formula of glossy advertising campaigns, Sunday morning rock concerts, and blandly inoffensive, pop-culture-laden sermons.

Instead, unabashedly proclaim the Gospel.  Denounce abortion from the pulpit.  Call out homosexuality.  Call out radical Islamism and progressivism as the existential threats they are to Western Civilization.  Deus Vult!

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