A recent Barna study confirms other data showing increased church attendance over the last decade in ostensibly secular New York City, including increased numbers of “born-again” believers. The findings defy not only stereotypes about “godless” New Yorkers but also illustrate that, despite all the talk about secularizing America, church participation has remained remarkably unchanged nationally for most of 80 years.
The much-ballyhooed religiously unaffiliated number about 15-20 percent of Americans (some of whom still report attending religious services and most of whom still profess belief in God). About 75-80 of Americans percent say they are Christian, with Jews the next largest religious group, numbering under 2 percent.
Yet “Christendom” is reputedly over according to many Christian conservatives, who’ve declared America post-Christian. Some have heralded this reputedly new secular age as an opportunity for the church to recover its prophetic witness.
Meanwhile, religious liberals often condemn Christian conservatives for supposedly clinging to Christendom by defending traditional morals in society or civil religion. Some on the religious left deride the whole project of “Christendom” as an egregious compromise of true Christianity dating back to Constantine. For them, Christendom means centuries of theocracy, conquest, empire, slavery, and hypocrisy.
What the critics forget is that Christendom also refined the social conscience and capacity for reform to challenge its own moral failures.
Christendom indeed has included nearly all the faults alleged, but it did not invent any of them. Theocracy, conquest, empire, slavery, and hypocrisy have been intrinsic to nearly all human history. What the critics forget is that Christendom also refined the social conscience and capacity for reform to challenge its own moral failures. Christendom developed human rights and legal equality, social tolerance, constitutional democracy, free enterprise, technology, modern science and medicine, new levels of arts and literature, and refined notions of charity.
Typically most critics of Christendom are unknowingly relying on its assumptions and moral heritage. Some imply that Christians can never really be more than an alternative community, even as they rely on the institutional vestiges of Christendom for their influence and advocacy. More conventional believers on the left denounce the supposed imposition of religious beliefs about marriage or abortion on society while simultaneously urging that society adopt their own religious beliefs about the environment, poverty, or peacemaking.
At the same time, Christian conservatives think that political setbacks on marriage, and hostility from cultural elites in the media and academia especially, mean Christendom is gone, perhaps forever. They are building the barricades and preparing for the coming storm. Their concerns are legitimate. But they may underestimate the continuing underlying continued pull of Christendom in American culture.
It’s true that America often feels religiously different from past decades, even though rates of religious practice remain mostly unchanged and in some cases even higher than in supposedly more pious eras. Unlike 50 or 100 years ago, the commanding heights of American culture are no longer dominated by Christian belief. Not very long ago, universities were still seriously church affiliated, newspaper editors and publishers were often churchmen in their local communities, publishing was dominated by church-affiliated publishing houses, and even Hollywood was led, if not by pious film makers, then at least by persons, especially immigrants, with deep appreciation for America’s religious heritage.
Unlike 50 or 100 years ago, the commanding heights of American culture are no longer dominated by Christian belief.
These culture shaping institutions are now vastly changed, mostly owing to the implosion of Mainline Protestantism, which was America’s chief religious and cultural force across four centuries. Evangelicalism and Catholicism have demographically displaced Mainline Protestantism. But they do not have sufficient historical momentum in America to fill the cultural void left by the Mainline’s loss of confidence and beneficent surrender of its influence.
So America often feels more secular even if Americans are not. But all of us, however unknowingly, still swim in the cultural and moral waters warmed by Christendom. Even arch-secularists, in their constant demands for ever greater rights and self autonomy, speak in the language Christendom created.
Today’s reputedly secular Western society in some ways is a victory for Christendom. Across the nations once described as Christendom, there is unprecedented social peace, political stability, legal equality, amelioration of poverty, and historic domestic tranquility. Many champions of Christendom across history, such as the Christian Democrats who struggled to rebuild post-WWII Europe, would be amazed by their success.
No less significantly, Christendom is now no longer the West but much if not most of the world. It is felt not just where churches are growing dramatically, in Africa and Asia, but everywhere that lawful government, free markets, legal equality, human rights, and wide prosperity have reached.
Religious liberals need to reconsider their hostility to Christendom, remembering that the original social gospel, with its thirst for justice, was unabashedly Christendom-centered. And religious conservatives, without reducing their passion for needed moral reforms, should be mindful of their blessings and position of unrealized strength.
The quiet religious revival in New York City is mostly below the radar screen. But it showcases how Christendom, although it ebbs and flows, after 1700 or so years, is not going away.
Image courtesy of Chris Ford.