The Roman historian Tacitus described Emperor Nero’s persecution of Christians: “In their very deaths they were made the subjects of sport: for they were covered with the hides of wild beasts, and torn to death by dogs, or nailed to crosses, or set fire to, and when the day waned, burned to serve for the evening lights.”
In spite of what you may have read or heard, the recent Pew Research Center report “America’s Changing Religious Landscape” was better news for Christians than this. “Is Christianity in America Doomed?” asked one headline, about a faith with which 71 percent of Americans still identify.
Most of the actual decline in believers from 2007 to 2014 was concentrated among Roman Catholics and the Protestant mainline, and among those most loosely tethered to religious faith. Evangelical Christians held pretty steady, which set up an odd chain of reactions. Secularists were pleased about the decline of Christianity. Some conservative Christians were pleased about the decline of theological liberalism. The latter is evidence of an old grudge.
At the beginning of the 20th century, the Protestant mainline decisively won the battle for cultural preeminence — triumphing in public battles such as the Scopes Trial and leaving fundamentalists to retreat into a subculture. So the mainline’s comeuppance is met with uncharitable satisfaction in some conservative circles — call it William Jennings Bryan’s revenge. The language of “decline,” however, is imprecise. The mainline has not so much declined as faded into the broader culture. “Liberals have learned that it’s difficult for the church to survive,” says historian George Marsden, “if there’s nothing that makes the church distinct from culture.”
And this is what the Pew study is describing: the advance, particularly among the young, of an appealing, powerful culture that has its own standards and values (expressive individualism, moral relativism, lifestyle liberalism) but no longer presupposes religious belief and finds traditionalism to be repressive. For much of the post-World War II period, saying you were a Christian was another way of saying you weren’t a Jew (those being the two available options). This left a large number of Americans identifying with a religious tradition they did not practice. The assumption of faith has gradually — now more rapidly — fallen away. There may or may not be a decline in Christian practice. But we are certainly seeing the collapse of casual Christianity and of religious belief as a civic assumption.
The media are focused on the implications of these changes for family structure and sexual mores. Many reporters and commentators seem pleased and surprised that the values they absorbed at Sarah Lawrence College or Brown University have gained sudden cultural traction.
For conservative Christians, a psychological adjustment is taking place. In a de-Christianized culture, it becomes harder to imagine yourself part of a “moral majority.” This was never quite true, but now, with the decline of casual Christianity, it is incredible. So how do 62 million evangelical Christians and other theological conservatives — not a majority but a significant minority — view themselves and their cultural role?
One option, clearly, is for conservative Christians to imagine themselves as an aggrieved and repressed remnant. This attitude is expressed as stridency, but it is really the fear of lost social position. America, once viewed as the New Israel, becomes the new Babylon. The church engages the world to diagnose decadence and defend its own rights.
There is, however, another option being explored. Jim Daly, the president of Focus on the Family — once mission control for the family-values side of the culture war — calls Christians to be “a joyful minority.” “We are no longer effective at persuasion because we lack humility,” says Daly. “Some in the faith community are losing legitimacy among younger people because many Christians only speak truth and fail to do truth.”
And “doing truth” leads back to the personalism at the heart of Christian faith — a belief that every human being is valuable, and broken, and in need of grace. “We must always consider the person,” says Pope Francis, a heavy influence on evangelicals seeking a new model of social engagement.
A faith characterized by humility and considering the person would be busy enough. The prevailing culture counts both virtues and victims. The broad decline of institutions leaves many people betrayed, lonely and broken — not only unaffiliated with religion but unaffiliated with family, with community and with all the commitments that give meaning to freedom.
And this social role is difficult to play with an angry and anxious public face.