HE IS ALIVE AND WELL
April 23, 2011
Is the Christian church slowly slouching toward an inevitable death? A study funded by Northwestern University says “yes,” concluding that Christianity is headed for extinction across the Western world.
With apologies to Friedrich Nietzsche, faith in God is very much alive in America this Holy Week. That is not to say that some religious leaders have not tried to destroy the institutions they run through dreadful misconduct.
The sex abuse scandals that rocked the Catholic Church were made worse by the Vatican’s shameful and slow response to generations of predatory priests. Evangelical preachers like Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart and Ted Haggard also became embroiled in sex scandals. Since their television platforms made them some of the most well known religious leaders, their very public falls fed into the cynicism of millions.
Too many other televangelists still pollute the airwaves begging for money while preaching the glories of the prosperous life. Jesus’ emphasis on servant leadership and humility obviously never penetrated the mind of these foul creatures.
While preachers and priests damaged the church’s reputation over the past 25 years, politicians did Christianity no favors either. The combination of religion and politics has been a toxic mix for a faith already in full retreat after the social upheaval of the 1960s.
The de facto alliance of religious conservatives with GOP candidates created even deeper divisions between liberal elites and conservative churchgoers—and assured that the church would have even fewer allies in the national press at the turn of the 21st century.
The reelection of George W. Bush in 2004 was followed by an unprecedented assault on the church from liberal media outlets. In apocalyptic rhetoric that predated Glenn Beck’s attacks against liberals, respected historian Garry Wills lashed out in the New York Times at America’s conservative Christian community for possessing ” a fundamentalist zeal, religious intolerance, and a hatred for modernity.”
Wills argued that Bush’s victory meant that the United States had more in common with al Qaeda than our Western European allies. Another Times column that week ominously suggested Bush’s Christian allies would now return America to the Dark Ages.
Actually, instead of being plunged into the Dark Ages, the American left experienced a renaissance of sorts following the election. Very soon after, a cottage industry in publishing sprung up that focused on attacking Bush, Christians, and the concept of God. Setting the Almighty up as a straw man during the Bush years was a very profitable business model for bookstores.
The New York Times best-seller’s list filled up with titles like “The God Delusion,” “God is Not Great,” “The Rise of Christian Nationalism” and “American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America."
It was enough to keep Bill Maher busy for years.
And yet through preacher scandals and political upheaval, the Alpha and Omega is doing just fine. Long-term religious trends are looking up and a counterrevolution of sorts is underway 40 years after the excesses of the 1960s.
I have personally been heartened by what I have seen in churches like Tim Keller’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church in the heart of Manhattan. Keller keeps showing up on the Times’ best sellers list while filling his Upper Westside congregations with young believers every week.
Thoughtful leaders like Keller, Michael Gerson and Peter Wehner believe that politics should be left outside the doors of the church so spiritual leaders can focus on preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ instead of sponsoring glorified political rallies. At the same time, they are moving away from defensive doctrines and instead focusing on the things Jesus said would assure his followers a place in heaven: antiquated concepts like feeding the poor, clothing the naked, and bringing hope to the hopeless.
It is a powerful message that may stem the decline of religion in America. While religious attendance in the United States has been down over the past few decades, the long-term trends are positive.
“The single most significant trend in American religion from 1900 to the present has been the steady and spectacular decline in the percentage of religiously unaffiliated people in the American population,” J. Gordon Melton, founding director of the Institute for the Study of American Religion in Santa Barbara, Calif., wrote in a recent ARDA paper. “In 1900, the religiously unaffiliated included some 65 percent of the population. That figure has now dropped to around 15 percent.”
According to a survey conducted by Pew Research in 2006, more than half of the population still attends religious services on a weekly basis. More than 75 percent of Americans believe the Bible is the word of God. And sixty percent “see an active and creative higher power behind the origins and development of human life.”
A 2010 Gallup poll showed that 54 percent of Americans say religion is a “very important” part of their lives and that 61 percent were a member of a church or synagogue. Seventy-six percent of Americans describe themselves as Christian.
Two thousand years after the first Holy Week, the state of the Christian church is strong in America. And if religious leaders continue to focus more on the teachings of Jesus Christ instead of blindly following the agendas of politicians, it will surely grow even stronger for years to come.
We believe that the Constitution of the United States speaks for itself. There is no need to rewrite, change or reinterpret it to suit the fancies of special interest groups or protected classes.