The Coming Christian Collapse
Michael Brendan Dougherty has a good piece on how the potential for a Trump candidacy existed in plain sight among Republicans and their conservative base for years — but establishment Republicans refused to see it because it didn’t suit their biases. Excerpt:
The truth was, the great wave of migration America experienced from the early ’90s to the middle of last decade was a history-shaping event with long-term consequences. But because it was hardly debated by official Washington, the passions it generated tended to find sensationalistic or conspiratorial outlets.
And immigration went hand in hand with anxiety about American jobs and sovereignty. There was a minor nationalist panic during the Bush presidency, with conspiracies floating around that North American governments would create a common currency, the Amero, in imitation of the European Union. Pictures of the currency still float around the internet today. They came with the theory that America would stave off bankruptcy by uniting itself with Canada’s natural resources and Mexico’s underpaid labor. With that done, an enormous new transportation network would spread across the map like a squid, the NAFTA superhighway system. The rumors were fueled by quixotic lobbying dreams. But the opposition was real and fierce, and it eventually took down the very real Trans-Texas Corridor project with it.
In other words, there were signs of an emerging Trumpism on the right for years. These political tremors were ignored during the Bush years as the GOP immolated itself on foreign policy. And so no one wanted to believe an earthquake like this was coming.
I believe the same thing is happening now with Christianity in America, but Christian leaders simply do not want to face the reality of what’s happening. Consider:
- Millennials are far more likely to have no religious affiliation than any other cohort. From Pew:
While some Millennials are leaving their childhood religion to become unaffiliated, most Millennials who were raised without a religious affiliation are remaining religious “nones” in adulthood. Two-thirds of Millennials who were raised unaffiliated are still unaffiliated (67%), a higher retention rate than most other major religious groups – and much higher than for older generations of “nones.”
It is possible that more Millennials who were raised unaffiliated will begin to identify with a religion as they get older, get married and have children, but previous Pew Research Center studies suggest that generational cohorts typically do not become more religiously affiliated as they get older. And the new survey finds that most generational cohorts actually are becoming less religiously affiliated as they age.
- Millennials, even those who identify as Christian, are shockingly illiterate, both in terms of what the Bible says and more generally regarding what Christianity teaches. I trust you don’t need me to repeat again Christian Smith’s findings showing that Moralistic Therapeutic Deism — a bland, undemanding, non-specific religion parasitic on Christianity — has taken over US religious institutions and has displaced authentic Christianity, especially among the young. That has had a further effect of hollowing out the moral sense of Millennials, as Smith’s further research has shown. Here’s an excerpt from a review of his subsequent book, Lost In Transition:
The four sections deal with specific moral problems faced by emerging adults. The topics include consumerism, drug abuse, sexual liberation and civic and political disengagement. All of these problems stem from the lack of awareness and commitment, the authors identify in section I. The book shows that the goal of the majority of emerging adults is to achieve material affluence; they are not critically aware of the problems of consumerism and materialism. Alcohol consumption and binge drinking are continuously increasing. Sexual liberation is greater than in previous generations, and many emerging adults are not aware of a world of hurt, regret and other negative emotions beneath the veneer of happiness. Moreover, most emerging adults are apathetic, uninformed and disengaged from political and public life. In all aspects of life, the majority of emerging adults are experiencing a lack of reflection, criticism and firm direction. This findings comports with Damon (2008)’s qualitative study, The Path to Purpose. His study indicates that the majority of adolescents and young adults do not have a clear commitment to a purposeful life. Damon describes them as “drifting”, which fits with Smith, Christoffersen, Davidson and Herzog’s analysis. The lack of purpose, goals, reflection, criticism and awareness will result in emptiness and nihilistic morality. This phenomenon might be related to the degenerative moral development of young adults. Since emerging adults will become the future leaders of society, the problem of their lack of moral development is very urgent. If not addressed, their problems may be repeated in future.
In my own informal conversations with college professors — both progressive and conservative, and both at Christian and secular institutions of higher learning — this finding has been abundantly confirmed. The ignorance is so widespread and profound that most of their students don’t even know what they don’t know. Which leads us to:
- If we lose the middle and upper classes, we lose the church. For various reasons, churchgoing in America is primarily something that educated middle and upper class Americans do. Charles Murray, among others, has highlighted research showing that the working class has largely abandoned church. If Christianity is to survive in the US, it cannot afford to lose middle class Americans. Of course Christianity must especially be for the poor and working classes, but at this point in its history in the US, the poor and working classes have already left, and the middle classes are hemorrhaging.College is (at least for now) a common middle class experience. If we lose these kids in (or by) college, they’re gone. According to my anecdotal information, supplemented by the research from Smith et al., this has already happened.
In 2009, Michael Spencer, who blogged as “Internet Monk,” predicted a “coming Evangelical collapse.” Spencer has since died, but his prophetic words are as important as ever. He was an Evangelical, so he addressed himself to fellow Evangelicals. But the Catholic trajectory is the same, and for similar reasons. There are so few Orthodox Christians in America that it’s hard to know where we stand, but I have no reason to believe that Spencer’s diagnosis and prognosis doesn’t apply to us as well. Excerpts:
2. We Evangelicals have failed to pass on to our young people an orthodox form of faith that can take root and survive the secular onslaught. Ironically, the billions of dollars we’ve spent on youth ministers, Christian music, publishing, and media has produced a culture of young Christians who know next to nothing about their own faith except how they feel about it. Our young people have deep beliefs about the culture war, but do not know why they should obey scripture, the essentials of theology, or the experience of spiritual discipline and community. Coming generations of Christians are going to be monumentally ignorant and unprepared for culture-wide pressures.
3. There are three kinds of evangelical churches today: consumer-driven megachurches, dying churches, and new churches whose future is fragile. Denominations will shrink, even vanish, while fewer and fewer evangelical churches will survive and thrive.
4. Despite some very successful developments in the past 25 years, Christian education has not produced a product that can withstand the rising tide of secularism. Evangelicalism has used its educational system primarily to staff its own needs and talk to itself.
Spencer predicted that Catholicism and Orthodoxy would benefit from this collapse. Maybe so, but he must have had no idea how unprepared Catholicism and Orthodoxy are to react to these developments among Evangelicals. We can hardly keep our own young people, much less offer a safe, strong position for refugees from the Evangelical collapse to land. In theory, we have it. But we either don’t really believe what our own traditions teach about themselves, or we don’t care enough about it to teach it effectively to our own young.
Conclusion: Christianity in America is strong in pockets, but mostly its strength is only apparent. It is a façade that will come tumbling down when social conditions are right. This is something that most of us Christians will live to see. This is something that few of us Christians will have prepared for.
And when it happens, our bishops, leading pastors, and senior laymen will be like the GOP Establishment in the Age of Trump, left to wonder what in the hell happened.