Thursday, April 16, 2009

Blips on the Blogosphere 20- Post-Christian America?

There's been a lot of press and discussion lately about the United States as a "post-Christian" nation.

President Obama's phrase, "we are no longer just a Christian nation", spoken during a keynote address Obama gave in June 2006, later generated much controversy during his presidential campaign. Obama has frequently reiterated this view, including just 10 days ago in prepared remarks made during a diplomatic visit to Turkey. He said, "We do not consider ourselves a Christian nation or a Jewish nation or a Muslim nation; we consider ourselves a nation of citizens who are bound by ideals and a set of values."

Newsweek's cover story this month by editor Jon Meacham is ominously titled The End of Christian America. Meacham notes troubling statistics about the state of American Christianity. According to the article, recent surveys by the American Religious Identification Survey [ARIS] and the Pew Forum's U.S. Religious Landscape Study have found that:
  • the number of Americans who claim no religious affiliation has nearly doubled since 1990, rising from 8 to 15 percent;
  • the percentage of self-identified Christians has fallen 10 percentage points since 1990, from 86 to 76 percent;
  • the percentage of people who say they are unaffiliated with any particular faith has doubled in recent years, to 16 percent; in terms of voting, this group grew from 5 percent in 1988 to 12 percent in 2008;
  • the number of people willing to describe themselves as atheist or agnostic has increased about fourfold from 1990 to 2009, from 1 million to about 3.6 million. (That is about double the number of, say, Episcopalians in the United States.)

Southern Baptist Seminary President and conservative blogger Al Mohler played a prominent role in the Newsweek essay. In a thoughtful analysis of the Newsweek piece, Mr. Mohler complements "the care, respect, and insight that mark the essay", and notes that the article "is elegant in form and serious in tone."

He agrees that Newsweek is right to designate, at least certain sections of America, as "post-Christian". But in his analysis Mohler highlights that the Newsweek story is primarily concerned with Christianity's waning political influence. Mohler notes that while this is hardly a "non-issue",

... my greater concern is not with political influence and what secularization means for the political sphere, but with what secularization means for the souls of men and women who are now considerably more distant from Christianity -- and perhaps even with any contact with Christianity -- than ever before. My main concern is evangelism, not cultural influence.

Mohler agrees in part with Meacham's argument that "what binds America together is not 'a specific faith' but instead 'a commitment to freedom' and, in particular, freedom of conscience. The founding generation did not establish the young republic on any religious creed or theological doctrine." But Mohler points out "there is something missing from this argument, and that is the recognition that
freedom, and freedom of conscience in particular, requires some prior understanding of human dignity and the origins of conscience itself. Though the founders included those who rejected the Christian Gospel and Christianity itself, Christianity had provided the necessary underpinnings for the founders' claims."

Mohler, as usual, hits the nail on the head-- the incredible freedoms and prosperity this nation has enjoyed to date were built upon a Christian foundation, without which they would not have been possible. So when the President says that we are a nation of citizens "bound by ideals and a set of values", his argument is that there is some set of values that transcends any particular religion and which all may somehow come to recognize and embrace. But Obama's argument raises many questions.

Is it really accurate to say that a certain set of values is going to be universally recognizable and agreeable to all? If not, who gets to define which are the set of values acceptable to be promoted in schools and enacted in public policy? Does government have the authority to play the role of deciding which values are the right ones to be promoted? Are values to be decided by majority vote? And shouldn't religious views be allowed to enter the public debate about values? Even if really it could be, why should values discussion and public policy-making be a "religion-free" zone?

Mohler closed his analysis with these fine words:

This much I know -- Jesus Christ is Lord, and His kingdom is forever. Our proper Christian response to this new challenge is not gloom, but concern. And our first concern must be to see that the Gospel is preached as Good News to the perishing -- including all those in post-Christian America.

Now a few of the questions I raised above are touched upon-- albeit briefly-- by writer/pastor Tim Keller, speaking on the MSNBC program "Morning Joe" last week on a special Good Friday edition. Keller sat next to Jon Meacham and participated in the short but interesting discussion on issues raised by Meacham's article. You can watch a video of the discussion below.

Keller agrees with Meacham that there is danger when the Church becomes overly concerned with grasping for political power and worldly influence. "If the Church tries to turn the world into the Church it turns out that the Church becomes more like the world." But Keller points to the rise of a new generation of college-educated evangelicals that is seeing these issues differently and with more clarity and depth than did their parents, who were more of a "blue-collar generation" of evangelicals:

All public policies are based on views of human flourishing that are basically based on faith, they are not scientific, they are not empirical, they're based on faith. And therefore everything that happens in the public sphere is based on a kind of religiousness, a kind of "faith" view of human flourishing, human nature, the ultimate sense of what reality is about. And therefore Christians wouldn't want to say well, we're not going to bring our religion to the public sphere anymore because they actually see everything happening in the public sphere having essentially religious roots. And I think people that have gone to college see that a little better and they have a tendency to see that there's religious background to all the positions instead of looking at just certain hot-button issues, I think evangelicals in the future are going to have a more nuanced and comprehensive, you might say, public philosophy than they have in the past. So I think John's right, that the old approach is dying.

I agree with Mr. Keller's argument-- public policy is not and cannot be forged in some sort of metaphysical vacuum in which questions about meaning-- theological questions- are simply ignored. Inquiries dealing with profound questions such as the existence of God and the ultimate reality of life must be answered, and those who advocate secularism indeed have their own "faith-based" take on such questions but want to mandate that overtly religious and particularly, Christian answers to these questions cannot be entertained in the public sphere, citing so-called separation of church and state. But Keller's comments show the fallacious thinking behind this position. Additionally history proves that Christianity has had a most powerful role and influence, in policy-making discussions, in law-making, and in the adoption of various policies in the United States. Christian principles have been felt in the creation of American universities, hospitals, charities, and of course, in the creation of our unique form of democratic government. The positive outcome of all this Christian influence is well-documented. And if Keller is right, a new generation of smart evangelicals will continue to see the connection between faith and policy-making and insist that Christianity is allowed to continue to make its case in the public square.

HT: Alex Chediak

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