The collapse of American Christianity and the disuniting of America
In the aftermath of the West’s victory in the Cold War, scholars were celebrating “the third wave” of democratisation that seemed to be sweeping the world, and democracy’s apparent triumph over its competitors. Today, however, it appears that the celebration was premature. Indeed, even in the United States, the home of modern democracy, there is increasing concern about democracy’s future.
The signs that something is amiss are myriad. One thinks here about the widespread collapse of trust in our political institutions and leaders; the decreasing ability of our political institutions to provide effective governance; the increasing disconnect between the people and political elites; our ever-increasing polarisation which finds expression in the ongoing and debilitating culture war which has transformed our political life into cold civil war; and increasing political violence (e.g., Charlottesville, the “1619” and January 6th riots, etc.). More and more, one gets the sense that America is falling apart.
Many different explanations have been proposed for the problems that beset us. While there are undoubtedly multiple causes at work here, what I want to focus on is what I believe to be a fundamental yet neglected factor: the sea change that has taken place in American religious life. As Ross Douthat has observed, a map of America’s religious past, “would look like a vast delta, with tributaries, streams and channels winding in and out... but all of them fed, ultimately, by a central stream, an original current, a place where all the waters start.” That place is “not the orthodoxy of any specific Christian church,” but “the shared theological commitments that have defined the parameters of Christianity since the early church.” For the past half-century, however, that spring “has gradually been drying up,” so much so that we are witnessing “the slow-motion collapse of traditional Christianity” in America.
The transformation of our religious landscape includes: the rapid demographic decline of American Christianity (according to Pew, the percentage of Americans who describe themselves as Christians has declined by 12 percent between 1998 and 2018, and current projections are that within a few decades, less than half of Americans will identify as Christians); the increasing marginalisation of Christians and accelerating de-Christianisation of American culture; the declining importance of religion in the lives of Americans; the rise of the so-called “nones”; the emergence (especially among the young) of a deep-seated scepticism of — and even hostility toward — organised religion; the undisguised contempt of cultural elites towards Christianity; the emergence of religious traditions native to Asia and the Middle East as presences on the American scene; and the rise of what are sometimes called “remixed” religions or do-it-yourself religions. As late as 1931, the Supreme Court could describe Americans as “a Christian people.” Would anyone make that same claim today?
Self-government requires virtue, and virtue needs moral consensus
What then are the connections between our new post-Christian religious landscape and our contemporary malaises? The most obvious connection concerns what once was called republican virtue. The founders recognised that self-government required virtue. Benjamin Franklin concisely expressed their view when he insisted that “only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters.” At the time of the founding and for most of our history, religious institutions — primarily, Christian churches and associations — played a key role both in defining what virtue consists of and inculcating it. The contemporary collapse of these institutions, combined with their ongoing marginalisation, has created a yawning vacuum at the heart of our culture. The resultant decline in civic virtue has struck at the very foundation of our republic.
Likewise, these developments have played a role in what Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., once called, “the disuniting of America.” “One of the oldest sociological generalisations,” as Robert Bellah writes, is “that any coherent and viable society rests on a common set of moral understandings about good and bad, right and wrong, in the realm of individual and social action.” These understandings, in turn, “provide both a basic cultural legitimisation for a society which is viewed as at least approximately in accord with them and a standard of judgment for the criticism of a society that is seen as deviating too far from them.” A political society, in other words, depends for its stability and vitality on a consensus about the political and moral principles legitimising the structure of the polity’s public order, specifying the content of the common good, and providing a common language and intellectual universe for public affairs.
This agreement at the level of political life, however, has to be anchored in something deeper than itself. Civic moral systems don’t just hang in the air, but rather must be rooted in something deeper than themselves, in the society’s understanding of man and the universe. This does not mean that there must be agreement on the totality of metaphysical and theological truths governing human life. It does mean, however, that there is enough commonality at this level to make possible an agreement on the moral principles governing public life. Political unity, in short, presupposes an antecedent cultural and moral unity.
Christianity once provided moral unity
Alexis de Tocqueville called attention to the central role of this antecedent cultural unity in securing the political unity of the large, diverse and fissiparous nation he visited in the 1830s. One of the most important sources of this antecedent unity, he contended, was the fervent Christianity that pervaded nineteenth-century America. “Reigning by universal consent,” Tocqueville notes, in America, Christianity was “an established and irresistible fact” that had a far-reaching impact on American culture and on the character of Americans, both individually and collectively.
Although there were “many sects” in America, they all belonged to “the great unity of Christendom,” and therefore they looked “at religion from the same point of view” and professed in common “a great number of moral truths.” Thus, Christianity provided a common body of moral principles and a shared understanding of man, the human good, and the proper structure of social relations from which public life could take its bearings. By doing so, it played a key role in supplying what Douthat calls the “invisible mortar” that held our large, pluralistic, and fractious polity together.
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Admittedly, the American religious scene was not static. Although there was a Catholic minority, the America Tocqueville visited was a demographically and culturally Protestant nation. By the first half of the twentieth century, the American religious scene came to include large numbers of Catholics and Jews, and America’s self-understanding as a Protestant nation gave way first to a generically Christian self-understanding, and later to a broader self-understanding rooted in what James Davison Hunter terms “biblical theism”, in which Judaism was understood to be a legitimate participant in the American project.
By the 1950s, Biblical theism supplied much of the cultural cement that was once supplied by the Protestantism of early America. Well into the middle of the twentieth century, as Francis Canavan reminds us, America’s religious pluralism was a pluralism of “a multitude of religious branches that sprang from a common stem” and in most respects – particularly regarding “matters of public concern” – taught “the same biblical morality” that “told citizens what virtue was and how to acquire it.”
The collapse of Christianity and the growth of disunity
The collapse of this shared religious heritage simultaneously injected a wide range of potentially explosive moral issues into public life. Indeed, it has turned our politics into a clash between fundamentally different understandings of the meaning and purpose of human existence. It thereby brings into political play absolutes which to the combatants are “non-negotiable” and thus resist resolution through the normal give-and-take of the democratic process. It makes impossible the type of broad overlapping moral and political consensus on which the well-being of the body politic depends and thus threatens the polity’s very cohesion. How long can a civic unity endure in the face of citizens who hold irreconcilable visions of man and view each other with contempt?
Now, it might be objected that America’s shared religious heritage has not been our sole source of civic unity. This is undoubtedly correct. Other factors (including, among other things, the British constitutional tradition, a shared language, the Western natural law tradition, and our long-standing reverence toward the Constitution) have played important roles here. A comprehensive account of America’s civic unity would have to reckon with these other factors.
What must be emphasised here, however, is the centrality of religion to human social life. When all is said and done, politics is decisively shaped by culture, and culture is decisively shaped by religion. Indeed, as Philip Rieff put it, “the historical task of culture is to transliterate otherwise invisible sacred orders into their visible modalities – social orders.” To understand a political order, therefore, it is necessary to understand the religious vision that shapes it. Thus, as Bellah notes, the “common moral understandings” on which a society trades themselves depend “upon a common set of religious understandings that provide a picture of the universe in terms of which the moral understandings make sense.” When such shared understandings disappear, moral consensus becomes increasingly problematic, and the public order that this consensus had informed becomes increasingly precarious.
What I am suggesting is this: A shared religious tradition — originally Protestant, then generically Christian, and finally Judeo-Christian — was one of the most important threads that held together the fabric of this large, diverse, and fractious nation, and the removal of that thread has caused the fabric to begin to come apart. Seen in this light, the loss of a common set of religious understandings is one of the principal events — perhaps the principal event — of our time. It fundamentally divides our America from the various Americas of the past and goes a long way towards explaining what we see today: a collapse of civic virtue, cold civil war, and dysfunctional government; in short, the gradual — and not so gradual — disabling of our political institutions and unravelling of the body politic. Where we go from here is anyone’s guess.
Kenneth L. Grasso is Professor of Political Science at Texas State University – San Marcos. He received his M.A. and Ph.D. from Fordham University, and his B.A. in Government and Politics from St. John’s University. He has edited or co-edited several books including Theology and Public Philosophy (2012), Defending the Republic (2008) and Rethinking Rights: Historical, Political and Philosophical Perspectives (2008).
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