The Church Also Left Americans
It shouldn’t come as a surprise to us that the Washington Post publishes opinions on the future of the Church in America written by non-Christians. When contributing columnist Brian Broome last week described leaving Christianity and predicting the continued decline of church attendance in America, serious Christians did not take him seriously.
Still, it is true that church attendance is declining. Perhaps it is also true that the downward trend will continue. You may have read that this is so because young Americans are less religious than previous generations. That’s a bit like saying there are fewer Irish mothers because Irish wives are having fewer babies. In other words, it’s obvious. The question is: Why are young Americans less religious?
But the premises of this question are wrong, I think. Americans are not less religious than previous generations, they are merely adherents to new religions: secularism, science, self. These are not the sort you’d find in a religious poll, but they are ways of viewing the world that are adhered to with as much fervor as some forms of Christianity.
These new religions require less of a person. They offer much in exchange for little: a lifetime of success, acclaim, happiness. They promise the satisfaction of every bodily desire, and the freedom to chase any new ones at will. Their demand? Renounce the old creeds and anything that reeks of tradition—submit to the demands of the broader culture around you—and you’re good. These religions demand confessions, yes, but not that worst-of-all-curses, apostasy from enlightened circles.
Still, the nature of Americans, both as human beings in general and as a people in particular, has not changed. As Tocqueville once noticed, we are always hungry for new causes to believe in. (Our attraction to causes is both our strength and our weakness, it seems.) Americans have arrived at their rejection of traditional Christianity not at the conclusion of some philosopher’s struggle but, in part, due to a kind of laziness. If they are leaving the Church, it’s not because they gave up trying to reform it, but because they gave up trying, period.
Broome’s story follows the tried-and-true pattern. He denounces Christians who cherry-pick scriptures and parishes to suit their political preferences, while presenting a thinly veiled argument that the Church is the antithesis of his own politics—most Christians, he suggests, are misogynists, racists, and homophobes, or worse, judgmental. And yet, he admits, he left because he quit.
I didn’t give it up all at once. Like many people, I went on a spiritual quest. But, like some of those, I quit the hunt after a while.
I stopped looking for the meaning of life and instead decided to just live it.
I stopped looking for an afterlife and now just try to be a better person in this one.
We’ve seen this before in prominent Ex-vangelicals, who love to blame Christian intolerance for forcing their departure when, in many cases, it was they who gave into the broader cultural current of self love and followed it to its logical conclusion. You could say it wasn’t the Church that moved, but the people within it. This is partly true; the tug of acceptance is stronger than that of obedience, and while only one man has ever wrestled with God, the rest of us are more likely to be found somewhere near the path of least resistance. We either submit to the dominant culture around us, or submit to strong subcultures that run counter to it. Of late, the dominant culture seems to be winning.
But this misses a big piece of the story. The modern American church has also moved, and has given much to the tug of the cultural current. If the gods of culture seem stronger than the Alpha and Omega, it is often because the Church has diluted the latter. And, as it attempts to cast itself as more accepting, nonjudgmental, open to all, the Church continues to bleed members. The irony is that most churches that dilute the Gospel to make it more palatable take this tactic to bring in more people. Perhaps it does bring more guests. What it does not do, however, and what it cannot do, is create more Christians. The bait-and-switch on homosexuality, for example—Jesus said ‘judge not,’ all are welcome! Also, please ignore Leviticus, Judges, I and II Kings, Romans, 1 Corinthians, 1 Timothy, or Jude—is a faith that does not save. To resolve the contradictions between the culture they wish to please and the God they claim to serve, the modern American church has avoided the taboo questions altogether.
It is precisely because the Church in the West—Protestant and Roman—has diluted its message to try to entice a secular audience that we find ourselves in such a place. Christianity Lite serves no purpose.
But hundreds of thousands of Americans still hunger for something real. True, their appetite has been dulled by a diet of licentious pleasures, social media, and seed oils, but the imago Dei is still printed in each face, each handprint, each heartbeat. This is why, while overall church attendance has declined, Latin Masses have seen a resurgence of interest. More traditional churches, especially those that are not online, are thriving. If you knew of a pastor or a priest who still served communion during Covid-19, these men were local legends. Americans have not lost their appetite for the eternal, but too many have been made to drink from a diluted well, have been refused the bread of life and the cup of salvation. They are leaving the Church not because they are irreligious, but because many churches no longer share the true religion.
The pandemic cast the contrast between such diluted messages and the undiluted Gospel in stark relief, but it also set a clear path forward for church leaders, if they would only redeem the faith.
I think the author of Hebrews puts it best:
Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, and of instruction about washings, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. And this we will do if God permits. (6:1-3)