The April edition of The Atlantic magazine featured a fascinating article, “Breaking faith: the culture war over religious morality has faded; in its place is something much worse.” The author Peter Beinart begins with the following:
Over the past decade, pollsters charted something remarkable: Americans—long known for their piety—were fleeing organized religion in increasing numbers. The vast majority still believed in God. But the share that rejected any religious affiliation was growing fast, rising from 6 percent in 1992 to 22 percent in 2014. Among Millennials, the figure was 35 percent.
Beinart continues driving home the point that while many Americans have left organized religion or at least have stopped attending church, “they haven’t stopped viewing politics as a struggle between ‘us’ and ‘them.’” Rather than becoming what this author expected, a more secular, homogeneous society, if anything, differences between people have become even more “primal and irreconcilable.”
Trending: Less Tolerant, Not More
Where are all these people going? Beinart suggests the “so-called alt-right movement” numbers are growing with conservatives who have left the church and are moving toward a race-based, nationalism. According to Beinart, and perhaps those coming from a non-Christian viewpoint, the expectation is that conservatives leaving organized religion would be less prejudiced and more tolerant of differences. Beinart quotes research that shows just the opposite happens. These in-name-only evangelicals become more hostile, specifically toward African Americans, Latinos, and Muslims.
But it‘s not just conservatives who are leaving the church and becoming less tolerant; liberals are too. The number of liberals who don’t attend or who have stopped attending church has increased dramatically (to 73 percent) over the last 25 years.
In a recent article in the Washington Post, Christine Emba makes a similar argument to Beinart’s—that the move away from church has led to a more divisive, antagonistic culture:
As Americans on the right and left untether themselves from the standards of organized religion, they often redraw their allegiances more broadly, rallying around identities of race or nationalism while setting aside tempering ideals such as charity and forgiveness. Think of the alt-right, the small, far-right movement that seeks a whites-only state, suspicious of Christianity because of its acceptance of many groups, or violent protesters on the left, more interested in tearing down their opponents than seeking opportunities for reconciliation. Such attitudes lead to a (sic) more partisan politics and more vicious public life.
The talking heads, who for years suggested that religion was the problem and a new secularism would all but end cultural conflict, cannot be encouraged by this unexpected outcome.
The Silver Lining for Believers
There is an important takeaway from the Beinart article for Christians “who are still attending church” to consider and be encouraged. As the exodus from the church continues, Western civilization will at some point realize the critical role Christianity has played in providing the moral basis for the values held so dear—love, forgiveness, lack of prejudice.
As historian Christopher Dawson writes in his book Enquiries Into Religion and Culture,
We are only just beginning to understand how intimately and profoundly the vitality of a society is bound up with its religion… A society which has lost its religion becomes sooner or later a society which has lost its culture.
That Christianity positively undergirds society is also central to Os Guinness’s book, Renaissance: The Power of the Gospel However Dark the Times. He, too, suggests there will be a time in the near future that our civilization will realize its need for its lost religious foundation. When this happens, Guinness suggests that we, as believers, do three things:
- Be committed to engaging with the world around us
- Consistently practice biblical discernment in the culture in order to retain the gospel’s distinctiveness
- Find the God-given courage to refuse to conform or compromise the truth of the gospel
Guinness also reminds us that, “The darkest hour is truly just before dawn. This is of course the story and lesson of every revival.”
Could it be that as the dream of a secular utopia withers, God may be sowing the seeds of the next great revival?
A Modern Reformation
In October, we will celebrate the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther nailing a copy of his “95 Theses” to the door of the Wittenberg Castle church, an action that accelerated events that would become known as the Protestant Reformation.
What was perhaps Luther’s most famous quote came four years after he posted his “95 Theses.” It was his response to the demand of the church that he recant what he had written in a number of his books. Luther ends his defense with the following statement:
I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. I cannot do otherwise, here I stand, may God help me, Amen.
In this moment, Luther clearly understands what the Apostle Paul called a matter “of first importance” (1 Corinthians 15:3-4). And that gospel reality gave Luther a boldness that sounds like something right out of the book of Acts.
Today, God is calling us to have our consciences taken captive by his word and our actions bound by the scriptures, and to live integrated lives that boldly reflect the gospel of Christ in everything we do.
As the culture shifts around us, let us stand with our feet planted firmly on the rock and truly be salt and light to all those around us. Let us, like the followers of Christ for centuries past, do our work in a way that glorifies God, serves the common good, and engages the world around us.