On ominous red-on-black lettering, a recent Newsweek cover carried the headline, “The Decline and Fall of Christian America.” The magazine’s cover story by editor Jon Meacham described what he saw as a failed project by the Right “to engineer a return to what it believed was a Christian America of yore.”
The story immediately provoked a wide array of reactions from across the spectrum. Whether Meacham is ultimately correct in his observation of these trends and his interpretation of their meaning is yet to be seen. The 1966 Time magazine cover that asked “Is God Dead?” could not have foreseen the development of religion in American public life over the past 40 years, and we shouldn’t expect any more from Newsweek. What the latter cover has accomplished is to raise questions vital to both the health of the Christian tradition and for the public discourse of our nation.
The question that struck me in the story was that of the changing role of religion in public life and politics.
The Religious Right was a Christian mistake. It was a movement that sought to implement a “Christian agenda” by tying the faithful to one political option—the right wing of the Republican Party. The politicizing of faith in such a partisan way is always a theological mistake. But the rapid decline of the Religious Right now offers us a new opportunity to rethink the role of faith in American public life.
I AM NOT OFFENDED or alarmed by the notion of a post-Christian America. Christianity was originally and, in my view, always meant to be a minority faith with a countercultural stance, as opposed to the dominant cultural and political force. Notions of a “Christian America” quite frankly haven’t turned out very well.
But that doesn’t mean a lack of religious influence—on the contrary. Committed minorities have had a tremendous influence on culture and on politics—just look at all the social-reform movements animated by people of faith. But Martin Luther King Jr. did not get the Civil Rights Act passed because he had the most Bible verses on his side. Rather, it was because he entered into the public square with compelling arguments, vision, and policy that ultimately won the day. Those faith-inspired movements are disciplined by democracy—meaning that they don’t expect to win just because they are “Christian.” They have to win the debates about what is best for the common good by convincing their fellow citizens.
And that is best done by shaping the values narrative, as opposed to converting everyone to our particular brand of religion. Rather, we are always looking for allies around moral causes, including people of other faiths or of no religion.
The story of Christianity in America in the coming decades will be defined by a cultural shift as well as a generational one. “New” evangelicals and Catholics, along with black, Latino, and Asian churches, will now shape the agenda. But also included are the millions of Americans who say they are “spiritual but not religious,” finding homes in non-traditional churches, mega-churches that teach that true religion is found in care for “the least of these.” Making a real impact on the values and directions that a democracy will choose is, perhaps, a less exciting kind of influence than relying on the illusory and often disappointing hopes of cultural and political dominance, but one that will produce more lasting results.
Barack Obama stirred the pot around this question recently with his comment at a press conference in Turkey that “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.” This position is not a new one for the president. He expressed it clearly during a 2006 speech to a Sojourners/Call to Renewal conference. He explained his position this way:
Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals be subject to argument, and amenable to reason. I may be opposed to abortion for religious reasons, but if I seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church or evoke God’s will. I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all.
Now this is going to be difficult for some who believe in the inerrancy of the Bible, as many evangelicals do. But in a pluralistic democracy, we have no choice. Politics depends on our ability to persuade each other of common aims based on a common reality. It involves the compromise, the art of what’s possible. At some fundamental level, religion does not allow for compromise. It’s the art of the impossible. If God has spoken, then followers are expected to live up to God’s edicts, regardless of the consequences. To base one’s life on such uncompromising commitments may be sublime, but to base our policy making on such commitments would be a dangerous thing.
Or, as Jon Meacham put it, “While we remain a nation decisively shaped by religious faith, our politics and our culture are, in the main, less influenced by movements and arguments of an explicitly Christian character than they were even five years ago. I think this is a good thing—good for our political culture, which, as the American Founders saw, is complex and charged enough without attempting to compel or coerce religious belief or observance.”
That shift Meacham describes may be the best news in a long time. People of faith will win our views on political issues by the strength of our arguments, not simply because they are Christian arguments. If our views are sound public policy, and we can convince our fellow Americans of that, we will be successful. And that is as it should be.