The Future of Christianity
A summary of three trends facing the Church in America.
The following is adapted from remarks delivered at Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland, on May 1, 2023.
The future of Christianity? It’s an enormous topic. There are more than one billion adherents worldwide, with churches in every society and situation, which means the future of Christianity will differ significantly in various parts of the world. It seems likely that the vital and growing forms of Christianity in South America will be Protestant, and not just Protestant in a generic sense, but charismatic and evangelical in distinctly American ways. The same may obtain in China and elsewhere in Asia. It’s a global trend, and historians may look back and describe it as religious Americanization of the entire world.
But I am not Philip Jenkins. I lack his command of global trends in Christianity. Thus, to make my topic manageable, I will restrict myself to speculations about the future of Christianity in America. That’s the corner of the world I know.
Three trends catch my attention.
The first concerns Christianity and politics. Here I see continuity: the battle between conservative Protestantism and the secularized liberal Protestantism represented by the progressive left will be ongoing.
The second trend will be toward a more conservative Christianity. There are many factors pushing the churches in this direction.
A growing challenge to Christianity from the anti-Christian right is the third trend. This marks an important change. For most of the modern era, Christianity been criticized by Enlightenment rationalists and those committed to progressive moral causes. That won’t end, but it will be supplemented, perhaps eclipsed, by a Nietzschean vitalism and cult of power that blames Christianity for the suicide of the West.
A decade ago, the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia produced a detailed report on family life in the United States. Titled “Culture of American Families,” this study illuminates what underlies today’s political polarization, realities that are tied to the history of Protestantism in America.
The study identifies four distinct family cultures: the Faithful, Engaged Progressives, the Detached, and American Dreamers. The Detached family culture is dysfunctional. These families are unstable, burdened by poverty, and debilitated by violence, drug abuse, and other destructive behaviors. Obviously, this family culture is not capable of cultural leadership and political influence. American Dreamers are strivers. Often immigrants, these parents want their kinds to move up the ladder. This family type is highly functional, but parents take their cues from the dominant culture rather than contend for control.
This leaves the Faithful and Engaged Progressives family types, both of which are confident and assertive—and at loggerheads. If you dive into the survey data provided in this study, you can see that the culture wars of recent decades are rooted in the conflict between these two family types.
I won’t go into detail here, but some data points are informative. Among the Faithful, Republicans outnumber Democrats 4-to-1. Among Engaged Progressives, the opposite obtains: Democrats outnumber Republicans 4-to-1. Here’s an even more telling finding. Engaged Progressives champion “diversity” and “inclusion.” Parents want their children to have friends of different races and ethnic backgrounds. There is one striking exception, however: Engaged Progressives do not want their children to befriend Evangelical Christians!
I’m fairly confident that the Faithful parents harbor a reciprocal hostility. Homeschooling reflects an effort to prevent one’s children from falling under the influence of schools dominated by Engaged Progressives. I can report that I was happy to have my children become friends with peers of different ethnic and religious backgrounds. But I would have been nervous about friends whose parents put “Hate Has No Home Here” signs in their front yards.
Polarization in the United States is rooted in a struggle between the Faithful family culture and that of Engaged Progressives. I submit that this struggle is longstanding. For most of our history, it was a battle between two strands of Protestantism. One strand is the conservative and populist Protestant tradition that goes back to Cane Ridge and the Second Great Awakening. In the twentieth century, it was often called “evangelical,” although its opponents were more likely to deride it as “fundamentalist.” In recent decades, the uniquely Protestant character of this strand has been diluted by the addition of conservative Catholics and orthodox Jews, which is why the University of Virginia study adopts the generic term “the Faithful” rather than Evangelical.
The second strand finds its roots in liberal Protestantism and offshoots such as Unitarianism, Transcendentalism, and other forms of nineteenth-century and twentieth-century spiritualism. In his multi-volume study, The Making of American Liberal Theology, Gary Dorrien details the society-defining ambitions of the progressive churches. For example, at their outset, departments of sociology at institutions such as the University of Chicago were staffed by theologians who specialized in church missions. For this reason, our American tradition of social science is characterized by an activist mentality that aims to convert society. Of course, a secular progressive agenda very quickly supplanted theological aims. But the spirit of advocacy remained and continues to this day.
The historian David Hollinger has detailed the evolution of liberal Protestantism into today’s secular progressivism. He shows how “multiculturalism” emerged as a liberal Protestant commitment well before the middle of the twentieth century. In 1900, the finest graduates of Yale and other elite universities often became missionaries. These were the sons of the most powerful and influential Americans, and they moved in elite circles. Their ambition was to convert the world in one generation. However, their experiences abroad were not filled with great successes, and ambitious missionaries tended to change course, emphasizing good works and social development over doctrine. Many returned to the United States and became State Department officials, professors, and leaders of social reform movements. Today, few read the author Pearl Buck, or even know her name. The daughter of Presbyterian missionaries in China, she was a popular writer in the 1930s and won the Noble Prize in Literature in 1938. Far from needing conversion, her famous books depicted Chinese peasant culture as having its own integrity. Buck was a proponent of postcolonialism avant la lettre, and she supported all the progressive causes of mid-century America.
Theologians pursued a parallel course. Many argued that God works through all religious traditions, not just Christianity. Establishment Protestant leaders convinced John D. Rockefeller Jr. to fund a study of American missionary activities around the world. The upshot was Re-Thinking Missions, popularly known as the Hocking report for the Harvard philosophy professor William Ernst Hocking who oversaw its composition. The report’s content anticipated nearly every aspect of today’s multiculturalism.
I could go on. It’s widely known that liberal Protestant churches played an important role in the Civil Rights Movement, but many do not know that the first mainstream call for gay rights was issued in a Methodist church publication. But my point is this: The Engaged Progressive family, although unlikely to attend church in the twenty-first century, descends from the longstanding tradition of progressive Christianity in America.
Casual observers imagine that the Religious Right first emerged with Jerry Falwell in the 1970s. In truth, as a self-conscious movement it began a generation earlier. The National Association of Evangelicals was organized in 1940 for the express purpose of opposing the progressive theological and social leadership of the National Council of Churches, that era’s powerful and influential liberal Protestant lobby. Fuller Theological Seminary was founded in 1947 in order to counter mainline seminaries. In 1956, Christianity Today was launched to challenge the leading liberal Protestant organ, The Christian Century.
The 1950s was a time when the voices that spoke for Protestant America presumed that they spoke for the country as a whole, which meant that the struggle between conservative and liberal Protestantism was not merely theological, but also political. In subsequent decades, the theological element has receded and the political has loomed larger. Moreover, after the mid-twentieth century, our two parties exited their post-Civil War configuration that had mixed liberals and conservatives. By the 1970s, the Democratic Party was more purely the party of the Engaged Progressives, while the Republican Party became the home of the Faithful. For this reason, the Religious Right of the last generation has seemed more “political,” since it fed more directly into partisan politics than had the previous generation’s social conservatism. Moreover, like liberal Protestantism, it had also become secularized to some degree. Today, many self-identified evangelicals are not churchgoers.
Going forward, I don’t see any change in this conflict between two traditions of Protestantism. If anything, the battles between the Faithful and Engaged Progressives will intensify. Over the last twenty years, progressive cultural politics has emphasized the rainbow agenda that places LGBT issues at the forefront. This political program directly conflicts with Scriptural authority and core Christian doctrines such as the doctrine of creation. Moreover, because Engaged Progressives are direct descendants of liberal Protestants, sometimes literally, but almost always spiritually, their political advocacy is infused with a religious urgency that makes compromise impossible.
To sum up this trend, allow me to paint an impressionistic picture. In 1925, William Jennings Bryan went to Dayton, Tennessee, to argue one of the most famous cases of that era, the Scopes Trial. On its face, it concerned school policies prohibiting instruction in Darwin’s theory of evolution. But Bryan recognized that the trial presented the nation with a fundamental choice. Will we organize our common life around the biblical teaching that man is made in the image and likeness of God, or will we live in accord with the consensus that we are merely clever animals engaged in the struggle for survival?
The question of what it means to be human remains the focal point of American cultural politics, as debates about transgender ideology make clear. And the contending factions are at present very similar to those in Bryan’s day. They will remain so in the future. Our progressive Anglo-Protestant tradition, now entirely secular, seeks to subdue the conservative Anglo-Protestant tradition.
Our conservative Protestant tradition is not inclined to submit and accept the progressive consensus, which brings me to the second trend: the rightward movement of Christianity in America.
The notion of an opposing “right” and “left” comes from the seating of parties in the French assembly during that country’s revolution. In its most fundamental meaning, “right” designates the party of authority, which of its nature is rooted in the past. By contrast, the “left” is the party of liberation. Given the inequities of the present, it necessarily aims toward the future. Thus, right and left are not policy positions. They are metaphysical dispositions.
Liberal Christianity is a uniquely modern phenomenon that tries to harmonize left and right. “Liberal” was adopted as an adjective to indicate the desire to create space between theologian and the authority of church tradition, space that would allow the individual freedom to weigh the significance of modern knowledge and reformulate Christian teaching accordingly. In this regard, liberal Christianity participated in the modern trend toward greater freedom from old authorities.
In its classic form, liberal theology tried to balance new freedoms with old authorities. For example, Scriptural authority was not rejected; rather, it was reinterpreted. Doctrines were not discarded; they were reformulated. However, as I document in my recent book, Return of the Strong Gods, the catastrophes of the first half of the twentieth century discredited the old authorities. As a consequence, the metaphysical disposition of the “left” became ascendant. An “open society” consensus emerged that requires us to weaken all strong claims. Liberal Protestantism became a victim of this requirement, because the imperative of weakening overwhelmed what remained of old authorities. Instead of reformulated doctrines, an anti-doctrinal sentiment took hold. With little reason left to attend church, people stopped going. They were satisfied to remain loyal to the liberating and progressive cultural and political programs that liberal theologians had for a long while told them were the essential meaning of Christianity.
Although I have described Engaged Progressives as descendants of liberal Protestantism, they are self-evidently not Christian in a church-going sense. By default, therefore, conservative Christians—those who continue to affirm God’s authority—have come into possession of most of the actually existing churches in the United States. As liberal Christians fell away, conservative Christians became more dominant.
When I was growing up in the late 1960s and early 1970s, a social observer would not have described American Christianity as liberal or conservative. It was both. In 2023, Christianity is seen by most as a bastion of conservatism, which is why Engaged Progressive parents don’t want their children to fall under its influence. To be sure, there are progressive churches in every city that hang rainbow flags in their sanctuaries. But ask a college student if Christianity impedes social progress. He’s almost certain to answer, “Yes.”
The conservatism of contemporary Christianity is not political (although it can be that as well). It is metaphysical. Even in liberal denominations a degree of doctrinal orthodoxy has returned, at least with respect to the divinity of Christ and doctrine of the Trinity. In my lifetime, “high” sacramental practice has taken hold in many denominations. Presbyterian churches are more ritualistic: not enough to satisfy a Catholic like me, perhaps, but the trend is toward a “thickening” or “strengthening” of the Church as a divine institution. Notoriously (and to the dismay of the present pope), pious young Catholics in America are attracted to the traditional Latin Mass.
Put simply, the kind of Christianity practiced in the United States is on a trend line toward the “right,” by which I mean toward the party of authority, not the Republican Party. The reason is not hard to discern. In Return of the Strong Gods, I offer a brief history of the last seventy years. I show how the open society consensus has eroded all anchoring authorities, leaving us anxious and atomized. This condition is creating a demand for the “return of the strong gods,” by which I mean a restoration of commanding authorities that ask us for devotion and sacrifice.
Needless to say, in 2023 these “strong gods” do not compel widespread obedience. Our most powerful institutions are dominated by Engaged Progressives, who continue to promote the “left” agenda of critique and liberation. But a growing minority of Americans want truths to honor and obey, and more often than not, they pursue this desire through an explicitly religious faith. And they are not just “hanging on” in a rearguard action. There’s an upsurge in conviction. Polling indicates that Catholic priests under fifty hold more conservative theological views than do their fellow priests in older generations. Although polling has not been done, my experience suggests that the same is true for Episcopalian clergy and others in the remaining liberal denominations, although of course they are moving right from a position far to the left.
This trend will continue. The percentage of people going to church on Sunday may decline. And certainly the percentage of those who are un-churched (the “nones”) will increase, as will those who regard Christianity with hostility. Yet, the future will see a more “hardcore” Christianity. The image and reality of Christianity will increasingly reflect the logic, rhetoric, and aesthetics of authority.
We see this trend at work today. Debates about transgenderism turn on judgments about the authority of our bodies and the authority of nature. Some Christian leaders are beginning to recognize that aspects of the sexual revolution such as gay rights, and even contraception and feminism, are not narrowly moral questions or matters to be judged in light of particular biblical passages. They are aspects of a cultural revolution that wars against the limiting constraints of our bodies. I do not predict that Protestants will embrace Catholic teaching on contraception, and I cannot foresee any particular evolution of the Christian engagement with feminism or gay rights. I simply note that, like certain strands of radical environmentalism, Christianity is heading toward a more critical, even adversarial, stance toward the metaphysical disposition of “weakening” that animates the “left.” Put differently, Christianity is likely to lead the way among those who reject the supposedly beneficent ministrations of “progress.”
Which brings me to my third and final strand: Not everyone who rebels against the “left”—again, I mean this as a metaphysical disposition hostile to authority—will come to church. In fact, some will become critics of Christianity, deeming it the source of progressivism.
Friedrich Nietzsche formulated influential criticisms of Christianity at the end of the nineteenth century. He argued that Christianity champions weakness, while denigrating strength. Its teachings celebrate slavery while condemning mastery. As a consequence, Nietzsche concluded, Christian culture tends toward lifeless mediocrity, inculcating a hostility toward all that is strong and excellent. Against Christianity, Nietzsche preached a pagan vitalism, one that celebrates strength and mastery.
A resurgent Nietzschean vitalism is more tenacious, appealing, and mysterious than Baby Boomers like me allow ourselves to recognize. Consider the resonance of “What Is the Longhouse?”—a short article on the First Things website. The author unpacks the metaphor of the Longhouse, which is a popular meme on right-wing twitter. It refers to today’s feminized workplace and other aspects of society in which care, consensus, and solicitude for vulnerability dominate. The Longhouse treats ambition as aggression, and it discourages strong views and vigorous arguments.
One can argue about whether the pseudonymous author is correct in his account of today’s social norms. That’s not my point. Rather, it’s the remarkable attention this short article received that should be noted. There seems to be a deep well of resentment, even anger (which in my humble opinion is justified). The world of speech codes, sensitivity training, and endless efforts to promote safety is felt by many to be suffocating. They want something heroic and adventuresome.
Why are our lives so constrained? Many have observed that liberalism promises peace and prosperity by draining metaphysical drama out of public life, urging us to focus on preserving our property and protecting our lives. Our economic system certainly reinforces this concern about material things. Today’s society prizes money far more highly than honor. Others point to feminism and other modern efforts to promote greater equality and inclusion. These programs reject hierarchies, which of their nature give greater privilege and prestige to those deemed especially meritorious.
But I don’t want to digress into a long discussion of the origins of today’s cultural norms. My point concerns Christianity. There are a growing number of voices on the right who agree with Nietzsche. Christianity, they say, is the source of today’s progressive culture, which now puts emotionally damaged young people at the center of society, giving them the power to dictate to all of us which pronouns we’re allowed to use when referring to them.
There’s a grain of truth in this judgment. As I’ve already argued, Engaged Progressives are heirs to the liberal Protestant tradition. Certain interpretations of Christianity feed into the diversity, equity, and inclusion agenda that is so influential today. As Jesus said: the last shall be first, and the first shall be last. Progressives recognize that this program, if applied to society, cannot be achieved without “checking privilege,” as they say, which means neutering those who are powerful and successful.
This is not the place for me to make a theological argument about how properly to interpret the Christian claim that the meek shall inherit the earth. My object is simply to observe that Christianity faces something new (or at least rare). Throughout the modern era, attacks on the Church came largely from the “left.” The Christian God has been deemed an authoritarian dictator, and Christians were thought to be dangerous dogmatists eager to impose their views on others.
Influenced by Nietzsche, there was a radical right in the first decades of the twentieth century that attacked Christianity as “Jewish,” an adjective meant to conjure the image of an unmanly and groveling religion. Hitler and his spokesmen preached bold deeds and promised the courage to strike hard blows. Something of this mentality is returning, and Baby Boomers like me underestimate its appeal to young men who are rebelling against the culture dominated by Engaged Progressives.
I foresee, therefore, a changing ideological landscape for American Christianity. The University of Virginia study I have cited identifies two family types in contention for cultural ascendancy, control over what should be praised and what should be shamed. In one fashion or another, the Faithful cleave to biblical norms and the confident “thou shalt nots” of traditional morality. The Engaged Progressives insist upon a new Mount Sinai, one on which History delivers commandments of diversity, equity, and inclusion. At this juncture, a third cultural contender seems to be emerging, one that rejects both Christianity and progressive culture in favor of a vision of strength that refuses to apologize for its superiority and of power that does not feel guilty for treading on those too weak to resist.
If this third, neo-pagan contender gains ground, Christians will face a confusing and difficult environment for mission and proclamation. My second trend, that if a “rightward” movement toward a thicker and more authority-friendly Christianity continues, as I predict, the churches will find themselves metaphysically akin to the neo-pagans, who also wish to revive the “strong gods.” But the churches will find the neo-pagan morality antithetical, and this may end up driving even the most conservative churches into an uneasy alliance with Engaged Progressives. And this move will, in turn, vindicate the suspicions of neo-pagans that Christianity underwrites the Longhouse, intensifying the neo-pagan animus against the Gospel.
Such speculations are much too cryptic. I suppose that’s inevitable, given the fact that I’m trying to talk about the future, which has the nebulous quality of not existing. And I apologize for my shorthand vocabulary of “strong gods” and other terms that substitute for genuine philosophical and theological analysis. That said, I must end with a perhaps more cryptic sketch.
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In my estimation, the first trend, the ongoing struggle in America between two strands of Protestantism, is being globalized by those waving the rainbow flag. This is inevitable. Modernity is modern because it promises to open up entirely new ways of living that are self-directed rather than dependent upon authorities, whether traditional, natural, or supernatural. The “left” functions as the engine for realizing that promise, which is one of liberation. Throughout the modern era, it has been met by the “right,” the metaphysical disposition that makes a very different promise. It tells us that there are higher things worthy of our love and devotion—if we give ourselves to them, heart and soul.
The ongoing struggle between left and right has not been static. It advances, and the stakes get higher. First, political liberation, then social liberation, then sexual liberation, and then trans-humanism, which is a final liberation from our bodies and their imposition of finitude. Transgenderism is the pilot program of this project. Perhaps the rise of neo-pagan vitalism signals the final stage of modernity and its left-driven trajectory, not as its adversary, but as its dark fulfillment. And perhaps this final stage will be like that envisioned in the Book of Revelation, when the opponent of pious submission to God’s authority is not diversity and inclusion but rather a powerful beast who makes no bones about his ambition to smash anything and everything that impedes the triumph of man’s unbridled desire to dominate and control all aspects of his own being and destiny.
If this is the case, than the future of Christianity will be to preserve the possibility of being human against the dream of being a god.