WASHINGTON -- Is "Christian America" dying? And if so, should we mourn or cheer?
These questions, raised in a recent cover story written by Newsweek editor Jon Meacham, opened a vigorous and continuing debate (note: I am an occasional contributor at Newsweek). The article has been peppered with criticism from religious conservatives who say it demonstrates the anti-religious bias of the mainstream media. This reaction actually demonstrates something different: that it is easier to read a headline than it is to read an article.
The Newsweek cover declaring "The Decline and Fall of Christian America" was provocative in a typical, newsmagazineish sort of way. The serious essay that followed stated that the proportion of Americans who describe themselves as Christians (76 percent) has declined since 1990 -- which is true. That the percentage of Americans reporting no religious affiliation (15 percent) has increased -- which is undeniable. That the religious right has become less influential and less triumphalistic over the last several years -- and that this is positive for religion in general, which can become diluted and discredited by identifying too closely with any ideology, social order or nation.
The religious right, at least in its cruder expressions, is indeed a phenomenon without a future. A younger generation of evangelicals and their leaders, while generally remaining culturally conservative, tend to view the religious right's model of social engagement as too narrow in focus and too negative in tone. And the loose language of creating or re-creating a "Christian America" has always been a heresy, a historical error and a blunder. A heresy because no human kingdom, however admirable, can be properly identified with the Kingdom of God. A historical error because the federal government has been wisely nonsectarian from its beginning -- its laws informed by religious values while establishing no single, official religious tradition. A blunder because the conflation of faith and ideology can politicize, nationalize and thus diminish the appeal of faith itself.
So Meacham's arguments are accurate, even wise -- but they also are incomplete. John Green, a polling expert at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, qualifies the Newsweek findings in several ways:
First, the rise of the religiously nonaffiliated is a trend -- but a very gradual one. According to Green, there is "no real difference between 2000 and 2009" on this measure.
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