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Is America Post-Christian?

Ross Douthat sees Francis enthusiasm and says, 'Maybe not.' I am not persuaded

Ross Douthat is being all non-Eeyore-ish about Pope Francis’s visit, and what that might say about Christianity in the West. Excerpt:

In a truly post-Christian society, would so many people find an imitatio Christi thrilling and fascinating and inspiring? Would so many people be moved, on a deep level, by an image like this one? (Wouldn’t a truly post-Christian society, of the sort that certain 20th century totalitarians aspired to build, be repulsed instead by images of weakness and deformity?) And then further, in a fully secularized society, would so many people who have drifted from the practice of religion – I have many of my fellow journalists particularly in mind – care so much whether an antique religious organization and its aged, celibate leader are in touch with their experiences? Would you really have the palpable excitement at his mere presence that has coursed through most of the coverage the last two days?

A cynical religious conservative might respond that the secular media only cares, only feels the pulse of excitement, because this pontificate has given them the sense that the Catholic church might be changing to fit their pre-existing prejudices, that the Whig vision of history that substitutes for its Christian antecedent might be being vindicated in the Vatican of all places. And this is surely part of it, which is one reason among many why Christian leaders should be wary of mistaking an enthusiastic reaction for a sign of evangelistic success or incipient conversion; sometimes the enthusiasm is just a sign that the world thinks that it’s about to succeed in converting you.

But mixed in with this Whiggish, raze-the-last-bastions spirit is something else: Probably not the sudden, “Francis Effect” openness to #fullChristianity that some of the pope’s admirers see him winning, but at the very least a much stronger desire to feel in harmony with the leader of the West’s historic faith than you might expect from a society allegedly leaving that faith far behind.

Oh, I dunno. I doubt it. I wish it were so, but I just can’t see it.

Believe me, I’m quite pleased to see so much excitement among my Catholic friends — and I’ve been among them this week at Villanova — over Francis’s visit. Even pals who are not theologically inclined to be Francis fans are feeling great this week. As regular readers know, I’m much more of a Benedict XVI man, but Francis sometimes says things that challenge me in a good way.

That said, I’m not convinced that public enthusiasm for Pope Francis is a sign that we are not (yet) post-Christian. Let me explain why.

What does it mean to say we are in post-Christian times? Does it mean that there are no Christians left? Of course not, that would be ridiculous. It means that we have left the historical period in which the Christian religion and its precepts were at the core of the moral imagination of the West. It doesn’t mean that Christianity has disappeared. It only means that Christianity as an ideal and a cultural force is no longer dominant.

The most recent Pew survey found that Christianity is declining sharply in America. Catholics and Mainline Protestants are taking very serious hits, but Evangelicals are holding their own. But Christians are still by far the most populous religious group in the US. What does that mean, though? Earlier this month, Pew surveyed American Catholics in advance of Francis’s visit. They found that on key Catholic teachings about the family and sexuality, Catholics reject the teaching of their own church:

Nine-in-ten U.S. Catholics say, when it comes to parenting, a married mother and father are ideal – as good as, or better than, any other arrangement for bringing up kids. But large majorities of Catholics think other family configurations generally are acceptable, too.

For example, 84% of Catholics say it is acceptable for unmarried parents who live together to bring up children, including 48% who call this as good as any other arrangement for raising children. And fully two-thirds of American Catholics think it is acceptable for same-sex couples to raise children, including 43% who say a gay or lesbian couple with children is just as good as any other kind of family.

Leaving children aside, Catholics also condone a variety of adult living arrangements that the church traditionally has frowned upon. A sizable majority (85%) think it is acceptable for a man and woman to live together as a couple outside of marriage, including more than half (55%) who say cohabitation is as good as any other living arrangement for adults. And seven-in-ten Catholics say married couples who opt not to have children have chosen a lifestyle that is as good as any other.

The numbers are more in line with Catholic orthodoxy when they filter out people who go to mass regularly, but still far from ideal. In 2013, Pew’s analysis of data from the General Social Survey found that Americans who considered themselves to be “strong Catholics” was at a four-decade low, while Evangelicals and black Protestants were doing well by that measure. Mind you, that’s self-reporting, and it doesn’t tell us about the content of the faith the respondents practice.

In 2013, the Barna Group, an Evangelical polling firm, looked at a number of factors having to do with belief and practice to determine how post-Christian America is. The good news is that Barna found that a majority still qualify as meaningfully Christian. But a majority of Millennials are post-Christian by Barna’s metric (which is a bit eccentric, but still useful), and the most post-Christian regions are, of course, the East and West coasts — which are much more culturally influential than the South and the heartland. As sociologist James Davison Hunter has pointed out, cultural change in a society is usually determined by its elites.

Let me quote once again this highly relevant passage from sociologist Philip Rieff’s prophetic 1960s book The Triumph of the Therapeutic. Emphases below are mine:

The death of a culture begins when its normative institutions fail to communicate ideals in ways that remain inwardly compelling, first of all to the cultural elites themselves. Many spokesmen for our established normative institutions are aware of their failure and yet remain powerless to generate in themselves the necessary unwitting part of their culture that merits the name of faith. “Is not the very fact that so wretchedly little binding address is heard in the church,” asked Karl Barth, rhetorically, in 1939, “accountable for a goodly share of her misery—is it not perhaps the misery?” The misery of this culture is acutely stated by the special misery of its normative institutions. Our more general misery is that, having broken with those institutionalized credibilities from which its moral energy derived, new credibilities are not yet operationally effective and, perhaps, cannot become so in a culture constantly probing its own unwitting part.

It may be argued against this position that Western culture was never deeply believing—at least not in the Christian manner which, in a number of its most persuasive varieties, encouraged the seeking after individual salvations at the expense of a collective one. Even so, Christian culture survived because it superintended the organization of Western personality in ways that produced the necessary corporate identities, serving a larger communal purpose institutionalized in the churches themselves. Ernst Troeltsch was correct in his institutional title for the moral demand system preceding the one now emerging out of its complete ruin: a “church civilization,” an “authoritarian and coercive culture.” What binding address now describes our successor culture? In what does the self now try to find salvation, if not in the breaking of corporate identities and in an acute suspicion of all normative institutions?

We must grant that there has never been a utopia in which everyone believed with perfect or near-perfect orthodoxy. Christians are always in need of repentance. The Church always needs to be reformed. Nobody can dispute this. Nor can the Christian faith be reduced to a moral and ethical code. That said, the Christian faith cannot be divorced from certain moral norms and the obligation for people who call themselves Christians to abide by them. For very many contemporary Americans, the historic Christian faith does not make much difference in their personal beliefs and practices. The whole point of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is to be parasitic on the concepts of Christianity, but turn them inside out to make Christianity a strategy for psychological and emotional comfort as an add-on to our modern American lives. It is exactly the kind of pseudo-Christianity that Rieff predicted would become the major religious form in America. Sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton, who coined the MTD phrase, said that Christianity in America is either degenerating into a pathetic version of itself, or is being actively colonized by MTD.

To conclude, it’s clear that America (and certainly Europe) is post-Christian, but that does not mean that we don’t still have some attachment to the faith and its ideals, only that it has faded, and continues to fade. We are in a time of transition, and have been for decades, even centuries (think of Matthew Arnold’s poem Dover Beach). There are many opportunities for deepening our faith, even in this post-Christian culture. I do believe, though, that Christians cannot afford to deceive ourselves about the present state of things, and what it portends for our future.

Has there been a “Francis effect,” in which lapsed Catholics have been energized to return to their faith because of this celebrated new pope? No. According to Pew’s findings, Catholic Americans are certainly excited by Pope Francis, and view him favorably. Alas, those most enthusiastic for the Pope are those who already go to church regularly. More:

But despite the pope’s popularity and the widespread perception that he is a change for the better, it is less clear whether there has been a so-called “Francis effect,” a discernible change in the way American Catholics approach their faith. There has been no measurable rise in the percentage of Americans who identify as Catholic. Nor has there been a statistically significant change in how often Catholics say they go to Mass. And the survey finds no evidence that large numbers of Catholics are going to confession or volunteering in their churches or communities more often.

So, look, I don’t mean to rob anybody of the joy and good feeling they get from having the Pope here. I expect that it will be an occasion of serious conversion and renewal for many individuals, and for that, Deo gratias. I don’t see it as halting the deeper long-term trends in this culture. I suspect Ross and I agree on the data, but he sees the glass half-full, and I see it half-empty. The numbers and the trends are gloomy, but I am working my way towards a Russell Moore-ish view of the situation facing the church, which is this (from the Christianity Today cover story out now):

“We are a prophetic minority who must speak into a world that is . . . exactly what Jesus promised us the world must be,” he said.

“Moore has an important message: How do you live when you’re in exile?” says Fox News commentator Kirsten Powers. “Let’s stop the pity party and instead say, ‘We’re in exile, and this is not the first time God’s people have been in exile.’ ”

So, when Ross finds good news in what he sees this week as “at the very least a much stronger desire to feel in harmony with the leader of the West’s historic faith than you might expect from a society allegedly leaving that faith far behind,” I say that most people want to feel in harmony, but they don’t want to do anything to bring themselves in harmony, and — this is crucial — they don’t believe that they have to do anything more than feel to be in harmony with him. Because America is post-Christian.

UPDATE: Mollie Hemingway nails it:

Right after the terrorism attacks of September 11, 2001, newspapers and broadcasts were filled with stories about Americans returning to their houses of worship in droves. Evangelical leaders and others claimed that a religious awakening was happening, seen as one positive result of the day of carnage. Maybe there was a tick upward for a week or two, but not only did the terrorism attacks not presage some kind of general spiritual awakening in the United States (at least for Christianity), the trend is actually toward more religious apathy, not less.

We’re now living in something that the media like to refer to as the “Francis Effect.” Like the September 11 Effect, this is about, supposedly, a reinvigoration of church life, particularly for Roman Catholics. Francis has only been in that office for two-and-a-half years but we’re told that he is such a stark contrast to his predecessor Pope Benedict, the media-opposed theologian who led the church for several years, that Roman Catholics are rushing back or finding new enthusiasm for their religious practices. He was supposed to “rescue the church.” What’s intriguing those who study these things, though, is that for all the good feelings reported by Roman Catholics, attendance at Mass is doing anything but rising.


In the same vein, think of the Francis Effect. Many Roman Catholics on left and right keep waiting for it to result in numerical or percentage increases in actual reception of the sacraments. It’s only been two-and-a-half years, certainly. But also, it’s been two-and-a-half years! A life of sanctification is not something gained by battling traffic once in your lifetime to see a pope give a few minutes of remarks.

It’s wonderful that some people say that Francis makes them feel the church is more welcoming to them. But if it’s just making people feel more comfortable in their politics, instead of making them feel the comfort of absolution, communion and strengthening of faith, that’s not much to get excited about.



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