Rumors of Christianity’s death in the U.S. are greatly exaggerated. But like most rumors, they are not totally baseless. According to a recent poll by the American Religious Identification Survey, the number of self-identified Christians has fallen 10 percentage points since 1990, from 86-76 percent. Lots have been made in recent years not just about the number of people in this country who are not Christian, but about the rise in the number of people who claim not to be affiliated with any religion as well as those who boast of being atheist. In fact, the numbers for the latter group jumped from 1990 to 2008 fourfold from 1 million to about 3.6 million. Despite these trends, the U.S. still remains a nation decisively shaped by Christian faith. Where there can be no denying is the fact that slowly but inexorably Christianity is losing its privileged place on the cultural landscape. Christianity and its followers can no longer assume everyone is Christian or that everyone shares the core values of Christianity.
So, what are we to make of this? What does all of this mean if you’re Christian? It means a lot. Hopefully, Christians are paying attention and taking note. Probably not. After all, that’s what it means to belong to a privileged group. You’re usually the last to know that you’re a has been. You’re definitely the last to know (admit) what everyone else sees so clearly.
Christians will do well to sit up and pay attention to this latest bit of news.
Our declining numbers on the American landscape will impact the way we do Christianity.
According to recent religious surveys, Americans can no longer assume there is a broadly based consensus about the superiority of Christian values. The New Testament may declare, “there is no other name under heaven whereby men can be saved except by the name of Jesus,” but future Christians are going to have to figure out what that statement means to a generation that prefers having a smorgasbord of religious options from which it can choose.
Nor can one assume that just because one speaks of being a Christian or being born again that others will know what that means or even be impressed. We’re going to have to actually act like Christians, as in do what Jesus would do, to get people’s attention and to convince them to consider belonging to our, um, sect. (Some of the most lively discussions on this blog have been about what it means to be a Christian.)
Heck, you can’t even assume today there’s a consensus that there is even a God. All you have to do is venture out of your little Christian enclave to find that this is already the case. Talk to a stranger. In polite circles, atheism is an intellectually respectable option. Heck, it’s downright sexy and fashionable to be atheist in some other circles.
The upshot of all of this? American culture is gradually withdrawing the privilege, if not the respect, it once gave to Christianity in general, and to the church in particular. Which is no small thing to consider. Why should churches get special tax exampt status? So, you’re Christian minister. So what? That doesn’t give you the right to expect special hospital parking stickers to get you in to visit a dying member. So what you pray before eating? Everyone else at the table will just keep on talking while you mumble under your breath. So you’re a woman in white, with your bible and church hat, standing on the bus corner waiting for the #7 bus to take you to the Baptist church down the street; why should the teens stop cursing and grabbing their crouches just because you’re standing there?
This isn’t all bad, right? Christians will just have to learn what it means to earn the respect of people, right? We can’t assume people will have heard of Jesus or know anything about The Ten Commandments. We’ll just have to go back and learn the core values of our faith and figure out how to communicate them to a public that finds such talk quaint and novel. Back to basics, right? That’s good, right?
Remember the old Smith Barney commercial featuring the elderly actor John Houseman speaking with a blue-blood, Brahmin clip: “We make money the old fashioned way. We earn it”?
That’s what we’re going to have to do as the soon to be Christian minority. Earn converts. Or, better yet, earn our right to co-exist with other religious faiths.
Before the knee-jerk Progressive in me is tempted to hail all that a religiously diverse world is likely to offer, permit me a moment of grieving.
After all, giving up power is not easy.
The thought of Christianity diminishing before me gives me pause. Now I know better as a black woman than to ever claim that America is or has ever been a Christian nation. That’s just not true. But as a woman and an African American, which doesn’t grant you any automatic respect in this society, belonging putatively to the dominant religious group in society has had its advantages. (Grant it, the Jeremiah Wright tableaux reminded us once again that there’s a world of difference between black and white Christianity.) The days are coming to an end, however, when we can claim this, but for at least the next hour it’s probably safe to say that there really is some faint notion in folks’ minds – however warped it may be –of what it means to be Christian. That you love everybody? Well, not that exactly. How about that you feel mandated to try to get along with people you otherwise hate. How about that you feel responsible as a follower of Jesus to improve the world by standing up to unjust people and doing your part to leave the world somewhat more just and loving than you found it.
That said, can’t say that I relish the day when I wake up to find that I belong to a minority religious sect. Dang, can’t a sister belong to a group that’s in power? Now I’m told that along with my gender and race, even my religion will one day be marginalized. It hasn’t happened yet. But the signs do point to the fact that the day is not that far away.