People want to be on the “right side of history” – a problematic notion in itself, as discussed here – so once a trend is established it tends to gain a momentum of its own. So naturally a lot of ink is being spilled in trying to analyzewhat’s driving the decline and suggest ways to reverse it.
Here are a few ideas I’ve had over the years. I suspect they are all contributing factors.
- The decline might not be as steep as it seems. In other words, high levels of self-identification as Christian in past years may have been driven by embarrassment in admitting one’s non-religious outlook, and the number of practicing Christians however one might define that is perhaps not declining so sharply or even at all. This is quite possible of course, and I’m reminded of an essay by C.S. Lewis on that topic (see here and here).
- The collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990’s may have played an important role. In the public mind, godlessness and communism went hand in hand and were seen as a mortal threat to cherished American ideals. Nowadays, that link is for the most part gone (Russia seems to be re-embracing traditional religion, and China’s economy is barely recognizable as communist), so in most influential circles it’s no longer risky to identify as a non-believer (probably the other way around).
- Continuing that line of thinking, I shudder to think what the next batch of surveys will show in a year or two. We’ve seen the election of a U.S. president who many see as a mortal threat to cherished American ideals, with unsavory Russian ties as well. But this time, the threat is not connected to godlessness but to a “base” of voting support that is disproportionately Christian.
I recently attended a conference that got me thinking intensely about these drivers and what’s to be done about it. As I dug deeper into the survey data, and reflected upon my own experience in both mainline and evangelical churches, I came to see the main factor as neither political nor cultural but more basic to the truth claims being made by Christians. In a nutshell, I fear that evangelicals – in addition to making unholy political alliances – have overreached on a number of points of doctrine that are by no means shared by all Christians, choosing the wrong hills to die on, and are losing arguments in a public square where nonbelievers are increasing vocal and strategic with their own kind of “evangelism”. Catholics, while enjoying a short-term improvement in public perception under a popular Pope, are nonetheless slow to adapt to a rapidly changing situation.
Meanwhile, mainline Protestants, who, I would think, are best positioned to engage the other side in the battle of ideas, largely seem to have no strategy for laying out compelling reasons why anyone should choose to join them. What is desperately needed, I think, isn’t just sincere respect for differences and doubts, but a thoughtful practice of apologetics that gives people reasons to choose a life of faith in God in spite of lingering doubts, and to choose to follow Jesus Christ specifically. This is a tall order, and I’m not seeing much fruit from my own attempts here on this site, so I don’t want to underestimate the difficulties that mainline institutions and clergy face. But I do think a strategy is needed, lest the U.S. go further down a path of less and less belief in God (as Europe has already done). And while the strength of organized religion is my no means synonymous with abundance of the fruits of Christian faith, I do believe that in the long run they are correlated.
Some further thoughts are here, in a slide deck I put together during and immediately following the conference. I’m not really sure what to do next, personally. If any of this resonates with you, please get in touch.