A reader in New England passes along this commentary from the International Herald Tribune, discussing the ongoing collapse within the Church of England. Excerpt:

That contrast between the congregants’ modesty and the issues of gender and sexuality absorbing church leaders seems to underline a sense that the Anglican elite and the rank-and-file churchgoers have, like the scriptural Magi after visiting with the infant Jesus, left by different routes.

It could be argued that the congregants themselves are in a kind of denial, reciting their prayers by rote in search of redemption and turning away from themes inspired by Britain’s changing society.

But no one should be in denial about the statistics unveiled last month in the 2011 census for England and Wales.

While Christianity remained the dominant faith, the percentage of the 56 million population calling itself Christian fell to 59.3 percent from 71.7 percent over a decade, while other religions, particularly Islam, burgeoned. And the proportion of people professing no religious faith at all increased to 25.1 percent from 14.8 percent.

Millions of people, in other words, dropped out of Christianity and embraced atheism or agnosticism — surely a more ominous trend than the gender or sexuality of any of them.

My correspondent adds:

The last sentence resonated with me as I have been having thoughts lately about why things seem so bleak in our society and what we can do about it.  The thread about black-on-black crime contributed to it, as well as some recent sermons in our church and the fact that I am reading Francis Spufford’s Unapologetic.

What if all of the social disintegration we are seeing has nothing to do with poverty, or single motherhood, or the sexual revolution, or the  breakdown of the middle class? What if all of these are symptoms of something much bigger—the wholesale abandonment of Christian practices by western society?  I won’t say belief, because I’m pretty confident that there were just as many agnostics and atheists in the past, but due to social pressure they shuffled off to church semi-regularly and kept their mouths shut about their real beliefs.

Really, what kept all of our bad behavior in check? Could it have been that as long as a critical mass of people tried to follow (imperfectly, but stay with me on this) a set of rules about how to treat others that it mitigated the worst tendencies of people to hurt each other?

Is what we are seeing just a tipping point? If enough people quit ACTING like Christians, then you see the kind of dysfunction that we are seeing today? I realize people have always behaved badly, but in the past there was some social pressure to at least pretend that you were following the rules.  Now nobody cares.

I realize that by historical standards, we have vastly lower rates of violence and brutality, but compared to the postwar era, people do seem to be less concerned about right behavior as defined by traditional western Christian teachings.   There is no longer the consequence of social embarrassment or ostracism to keep behavior in check.  There is no longer general consensus on what constitutes right behavior.  But it seems to me that the reason for that is that we no longer expect people to have even a passing familiarity with the most basic Christian teachings: Do Unto Others, forgiveness, generosity.  Once that is no longer expected, it opens the door for extremely egocentric behavior being seen as OK rather than regrettable or even sinful. It’s like we are a culture of toddlers.  If your neighbor has the block you want to finish building your tower, it is fine to knock him over the head with a truck and take his block.  There’s no society now to step in and admonish the toddler to share or to consider how he would feel if he were the one getting hit over the head.

I think the reader’s distinction between belief and practice is a critically important one.

From my childhood, I recall that only some people were churchgoers. My family certainly did not regularly frequent the church. Yet aside from irregular churchgoing, we lived like Christians without thinking about it. There was no question but that what Christianity taught about how to behave was true, and authoritative. All of us fell short of the Christian standard, and most of us, I think, knew that we did, and how we did. The point is, there was a widely shared standard by which to judge our conduct.

When I was a teenager and suddenly all skeptical and righteous, I used the distance between what we said we believed, and the way we behaved, to challenge my father. He told 17 year old me to go to church on Easter with my mom and my sister. Oh yeah? said I. If it’s so important to go to church on Easter, why are you going turkey hunting instead? 

He went turkey hunting after all, and let me stay home, if I promised to read the Bible. I promised, and I made good on it, but boy, was I satisfied that I had exposed the hypocrisy of the adult world.

No big surprise, then, that encountering Soren Kierkegaard in college lit my brain on fire, and brought me to an adult faith in Christianity. I especially adored his Attack Upon Christendom, which was SK’s vicious broadside against the state Lutheran church in Denmark. His point was that when Christianity is reduced to bourgeois morality, and when we are considered Christians only by virtue of nominal membership in a community, then true Christianity ceases to exist. I thought then that he was correct, and though I have a slightly different take on it now, I think the radical Protestant SK was far, far more right than wrong.

He was right that “Christendom,” in his formulation, can serve as an inoculation against the kind of commitment true Christianity demands. I have known people who rarely bothered to check their own beliefs and behavior against a Gospel standard, because they assumed that because they were baptized and behaved respectably, that they were Christians in good standing. I have been that person. Still am to a great degree, but I’m working on it.

Put aside the theology, and consider the matter sociologically. We have lived through, and are living through, the de-Christianization of the West. It is very far advanced in Europe, and advancing here. An orthodox Kierkegaardian might say that this is a good thing, because though it will result in a widespread falling away from formal adherence to the Christian faith, it will increase the quality of those who do believe, because it will have been a conscious choice — a choice that, in many places, will have been made in full awareness that to be a Christian is to stand outside of one’s own culture, and even against it. I can see why this would appear preferable, from a theological angle, to a Christian culture of lukewarmness and conformity.

From a sociological point of view, though, I think the news is very bad indeed, and for the reasons the New England reader brings up. However imperfect and flawed Christians have been over the cultures and centuries, Christianity has been, in my view, on balance a very good thing for us. The book to read is Paul Among The People, by the classics scholar Sarah Ruden. Ruden is a young progressive Quaker who defends St. Paul from his many modern critics. I interviewed Sarah on my old Beliefnet blog, but you might also want to check out this Christianity Today piece. Ruden’s view is that we read St. Paul today and compare him unfavorably to the way we see the world, especially on matters related to feminism and homosexuality. When you read Paul alongside pagan literature of the period, a very, very different image of him emerges. Paul actually comes across as a radical opponent of some extremely ugly normative practices in Roman society and culture. For example, male homosexuality in his day was almost entirely about powerful Roman men enslaving and raping boys — something that was widely accepted. Paul stood against that, Ruden shows. And Paul also defended the dignity of women in a classical world that devalued them. Her main point is that taken in historical context, Paul’s views are actually far more in line with what we believe today than with what was mainstream in the Greco-Roman world. It was the faith Paul preached and did more than anyone else save Jesus Christ to define that gave us most of what is particularly good about Western civilization.

This is not to say that we ever lived in a Golden Age. I was reading just this week a testimony by a close comrade of St. Louis, King of France, in which he recounted in plausible detail the holiness of the king. And he casually mentioned that the great and pious king so hated blasphemy that he would do terrible things to blasphemers. I am very glad indeed that we don’t have monarchs who torture blasphemers today, even as I wish we had monarchs who lived and practiced as St. Louis did in other ways. The point is that Christianity gave us a set of standards around which to measure our conduct, and our progress toward moral goodness, in the same way Islam has done for the Islamic world, and other creeds and schools of thought (e.g., Confucianism) have done for other civilizations.

Back in 1989, in The Atlantic, Glenn Tinder wrote an essay about the political meaning of Christianity, titled, “Can We Be Good Without God?”. His point was that the loss of Christianity was bound to have effects on our civilization that many people only dimly see, if at all. Here’s how it begins:

We are so used to thinking of spirituality as withdrawal from the world and human affairs that it is hard to think of it as political. Spirituality is personal and private, we assume, while politics is public. But such a dichotomy drastically diminishes spirituality construing it as a relationship to God without implications for one’s relationship to the surrounding world. The God of Christian faith (I shall focus on Christianity although the God of the New Testament is also the God of the Old Testament) created the world and is deeply engaged in the affairs of the world. The notion that we can be related to God and not to the world—that we can practice a spirituality that is not political—is in conflict with the Christian understanding of God.

And if spirituality is properly political, the converse also is true, however distant it may be from prevailing assumptions: politics is properly spiritual. The spirituality of politics was affirmed by Plato at the very beginnings of Western political philosophy and was a commonplace of medieval political thought. Only in modern times has it come to be taken for granted that politics is entirely secular. The inevitable result is the demoralization of politics. Politics loses its moral structure and purpose, and turns into an affair of group interest and personal ambition. Government comes to the aid of only the well organized and influential, and it is limited only where it is checked by countervailing forces. Politics ceases to be understood as a pre-eminently human activity and is left to those who find it profitable, pleasurable, or in some other way useful to themselves. Political action thus comes to be carried out purely for the sake of power and privilege.

It will be my purpose in this essay to try to connect the severed realms of the spiritual and the political. In view of the fervent secularism of many Americans today, some will assume this to be the opening salvo of a fundamentalist attack on “pluralism.” Ironically, as I will argue, many of the undoubted virtues of pluralism—respect for the individual and a belief in the essential equality of all human beings, to cite just two—have strong roots in the union of the spiritual and the political achieved in the vision of Christianity. The question that secularists have to answer is whether these values can survive without these particular roots. In short, can we be good without God? Can we affirm the dignity and equality of individual persons—values we ordinarily regard as secular—without giving them transcendental backing? Today these values are honored more in the breach than in the observance; Manhattan Island alone, with its extremes of sybaritic wealth on the one hand and Calcuttan poverty on the other, is testimony to how little equality really counts for in contemporary America. To renew these indispensable values, I shall argue, we must rediscover their primal spiritual grounds.

Many will disagree with my argument, and I cannot pretend there are no respectable reasons for doing so. Some may disagree, however, because of misunderstandings. A few words at the outset may help to prevent this. First, although I dwell on Christianity I do not mean thus to slight Judaism or its contribution to Western values. It is arguable that every major value affirmed in Christianity originated with the ancient Hebrews. Jewish sensitivities on this matter are understandable. Christians sometimes speak as though unaware of the elemental facts that Jesus was a Jew, that he died before even the earliest parts of the New Testament were written, and that his scriptural matrix was not Paul’s Letter to the Romans or the Gospel of John but the Old Testament. Christianity diverged from Judaism in answering one question: Who was Jesus? For Christians, he was the anticipated Messiah, whereas for traditional Jews (Paul and the first Christians were of course also Jews), he was not. This divergence has given Christianity its own distinctive character, even though it remains in a sense a Jewish faith.

The most adamant opposition to my argument is likely to come from protagonists of secular reason—a cause represented preeminently by the Enlightenment. Locke and Jefferson, it will be asserted, not Jesus and Paul, created our moral universe. Here I cannot be as disarming as I hope I was in the paragraph above, for underlying my argument is the conviction that Enlightenment rationalism is not nearly so constructive as is often supposed. Granted, it has sometimes played a constructive role. It has translated certain Christian values into secular terms and, in an age becoming increasingly secular, has given them political force. It is doubtful, however, that it could have created those values or that it can provide them with adequate metaphysical foundations. Hence if Christianity declines and dies in coming decades, our moral universe and also the relatively humane political universe that it supports will be in peril. But I recognize that if secular rationalism is far more dependent on Christianity than its protagonists realize, the converse also is in some sense true. The Enlightenment carried into action political ideals that Christians, in contravention of their own basic faith, often shamefully neglected or denied. Further, when I acknowledged that there are respectable grounds for disagreeing with my argument, I had secular rationalism particularly in mind. The foundations of political decency are an issue I wish to raise, not settle.

If you liked that, read the whole thing. I think it goes a long way towards addressing the concerns New England Reader raised.

One more thing about Christianity and society. Yesterday on NPR, I heard a report about the rise of the Nones – people who don’t claim any religious affiliation. Excerpt from the interview with Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam:

ROBERT PUTNAM: I agree that there is this creeping secularization that Greg talked about, but I don’t honestly think that that’s the main reason for the rise in nones. I think there are factors that are really more important.

GREENE: OK. Give them to us.

PUTNAM: One of those is the distancing of this younger generation from community institutions and from institutions in general, actually. That’s the same pattern, actually, that we find in politics. These are the very same people who increasingly describe themselves as independents rather than Republicans or Democrats. And those are the same people also who are not joining the Elks Club or the Rotary Club or whatever. I don’t mean to be casting that as a critique of them, but this same younger generation is much less involved in many of the main institutions of our society than previous younger generations were.

You can see right there a negative correlation between the loss of religious faith and broader health of the polis. Correlation is not causation, but it is pretty interesting to observe the increasing atomization and individualization of American society, as expressed in a loss of involvement with all institutions, not simply the church.

There’s this too, from NPR’s interview with the Pew Center’s Greg Smith:

GREENE: The first time you’ve ever seen less than half the country identify themselves as Protestant.

SMITH: That’s right. And when you think about the United States historically, you think of it as a Protestant country. But it’s also important to point out that the growth of the nones is really something that we’re seeing across a variety of groups. We’re seeing it among both men and women. We’re seeing it among college graduates as well as among people with less education. We’re seeing it occur in all regions of the country. Race and ethnicity though is one exception to that pattern. The growth of the nones really does seem to be restricted to whites. We haven’t seen much growth in terms of African-Americans or Hispanics who say they’re religiously unaffiliated.

So, racial minorities are sticking with their churches, while it’s the whites that are falling away. This goes along with Robert Putnam’s finding that if it weren’t for the huge influx of Latin American immigrants over the past decade or so, the US Catholic Church would be declining at the same rate as the mainline Protestant churches.

This raises a big question for me: if the black church can claim so much allegiance, why isn’t it making more inroads in turning poor black folks away from sexual behavior that is entirely un-Christian, and so destructive to their communities, economically and otherwise? This is not a question liberal churches have an answer for, inasmuch as they have largely jettisoned Christian sexual ethics. But black churches are still pretty conservative on homosexuality. It’s on heterosexuality that there doesn’t seem to be any real effective teaching or practice.

A white Christian friend who used to live close to a poor black neighborhood in a major Eastern city said she would drive through the bad neighborhood all the time, and see churches everywhere. She wondered why things never seemed to improve for those communities, given the ubiquity of churches. Is there something about black American Christianity that could explain this? I’ve been told that black American Christianity is primarily about emotion and uplift, in part because the slave people who embraced it led lives of such grimness and suffering that they needed the church on Sunday to be a place of rest and relief. Thinking on this description of the black church, it sounds like therapeutic deism, without much moralism. But I don’t know firsthand. Can any of you readers tell me more?