The Future of Christianity in America, Part II
In the first part of this series, I briefly examined the demographic reality of Christianity in America. I concluded that the majority of America is at least nominally Christian, though perhaps only a minority have a committed relationship to the divine Jesus Christ. In any case, both Christianity and Judaism are viewed warmly by the majority of the country, while atheism and Islam do not share such favor. I called America a “Christian-friendly nation,” and admitted that perhaps even “Christian nation” is appropriate. The numbers, it seems, render problematic the narrative that the faith is persecuted or repressed in the United States.
The narrative must come from somewhere, however. American Christians have long been engaged in what are now called the culture wars: abolition, the temperance movement, the Civil Rights movement, abortion, and birth control have been in the front lines of that war. Today we argue about the place of religion in the public square, the shape of marriage, and sexual ethics. The topics are endless, though I want to focus upon two in particular: The closure or fining of Christian businesses for refusing to cater to same-sex marriage ceremonies, and the dissolution of Christian student groups at several universities that refused to allow non-Christians into leadership positions. (For more on the latter, see my critique of Bowdoin’s policy, an Anglican priest’s experience with Vanderbilt’s Orwellian dismantlement of the local InterVarsity chapter, and Ed Stetzer on the California State system’s decision to follow suit.)
It’s difficult to point to these incidents and declare that Christianity specifically is under fire. Take the case of Christian business owners clashing with the non-discrimination laws over wedding-related services. While the legal consequences of those businesses rejecting clients were unfortunate, the fact remains that a business serving the general public must, in fact, serve the general public. Discrimination does not necessarily mean malicious intent; here, it means selectively picking who you do and do not serve. Public accommodation laws, though they vary by state, generally do not grant businesses the right to discriminate by identity, whether it be race, religion, gender, or orientation. If an individual or group wants to provide specific religious services (e.g., a wedding) specifically for religious purposes, they cannot operate under the guise of a public business.1 While I do see this as problematic, I can’t attribute enforcement of public accommodation laws as a strike against believers.
Next, the spate of universities forcing out noncompliant Christian student groups is also alarming. However, I wouldn’t classify it as a specifically anti-Christian movement per se. Similar to the case of discriminating wedding services, this is a problem of technicalities pursued to a destructive extreme. The thrust is this: the university requires all student organizations and student positions to be open to all students. Christian groups refuse to open leadership to non-Christians. The organizations are then “derecognized,” or effectively forced out. Christians are still welcome on campus; they simply cannot form a recognized organization that discriminates (picks and chooses) who may apply for leadership.
I don’t see either cases as directly anti-Christian. I see no campaign against the faith, except perhaps incidentally. I do see the elevation of a very different sort of religion altogether. That religion is individualism. Emma Green, writing for the Atlantic, argues that the sensationalized culture wars are waged by elites and that, in general, Americans really desire one thing: to be left alone.
“…America’s most fascinating pluralistic challenges seem to be aligned along a different axis these days: How should the way I want to live my life affect your life, and vice versa? These are battles over private lives, not public communities, which might be a sign of Americans’ growing tolerance of others’ beliefs—or a retreat from intellectual diversity, a crystallization of the social and economic boundaries between those who see the world differently. The latter seems more likely: From the firing of Brendan Eich to the protests against eating at Chick-fil-A to the cake-baking controversies in Arizona and Colorado and Oregon, some Americans seem to want to go about their private work and lives without exposure to opposing worldviews.”2
If secular nationalism is the hallmark of French identity, then individualism is the hallmark of American identity. The alarmist headlines in conservative circles are a red herring; there is no widespread opposition to Christian belief in this country. The majority of us aren’t waging culture wars. We are content with our bubbles. To be who we want to be is our sacred right as Americans. This is both a blessing and a curse; we American Christians enjoy our bubbles, but it is also our religious duty to pop bubbles. In one sense, individualism allows us to practice our faith. In another, it forbids it. We are inherently in tension with individualism.
Individualism means, in its ultimate form, that we must regard all people as black boxes. We are not allowed to inspect the contents. The contents are irrelevant. We may not treat a person according to the contents. We must treat each person as a black box. That is, we must treat each person as if his or her black box contained no contents at all, as if they had no identity to begin with. In a perverted twist, individualism annihilates the individual. This is the essence behind the rulings against Christian business owners and Christian student groups. These rebellious individuals refused to hide the contents of their soul. They would not be black boxes, and they would not treat others as such. They transgressed the rule of individualism.
Christianity isn’t being forced out; individualism simply leaves no room for anything else. We are allowed to be whoever we want, as long as that being is only a spectre, a ghost that cannot interact with others in a meaningful way. Some in this country call such a thing liberty—I call it Hell, for this is precisely the sort of world C.S. Lewis describes in The Great Divorce. The denizens of Hell are without physical or intellectual substance, intent on only chasing their own fancies. In Heaven, that is, reality, they are helpless. The grass is too painfully real to walk upon, and flowers and even leaves are too heavy to lift. Such is the world individualism desires: a landscape of liberated phantasms unable to interact with the real world. In such a world our beliefs cannot have weight, meaning, or consequence.
I’m skeptical that the future of Christianity in America will be a battle between secular and sacred. When individualism reigns, there will be no one who cares enough to fight. True, these cases are currently met with plenty of outcry, particularly from conservative outlets, yet the responses are still largely framed as questions of individual rights. The question cannot be about whose individual rights trump whose, but this: how do we preserve the dignity and agency of human beings in a society that increasingly frowns upon meaningful interpersonal action?
That most of America considers itself Christian—and has warm attitudes towards the Christian religion—will ultimately matter very little if most of America believes people should not act upon convictions. We are satisfied with preserving free speech, because today speech is so free it affects very little. Free exercise of religion, however, breaks individualism’s taboos.
Evangelism means we treat every person not as a black box but as a fellow image-bearer of God. This means we will pop bubbles along the way. Sometimes, we will have to inform someone that they are wrong—and dangerously so. We will not cater to every demand that comes our way, or even every wedding. Doing so will not make us popular in a society of individuals. Fortunately, popularity is not a requirement to get into Heaven.
1. I do find pursuing legal action against these business owners extremely petty, however. There are many ways to protest. Litigation is not protest—it is revenge.
2. Emma Green, “Taming Christian Rage,” The Atlantic. January 6, 2015. http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/01/taming-christian-culture-war-rage/383908/