A Nation of Heretics

Ross Douthat published Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics three years ago (2012), but I’m just getting around to reading it. Now I find I can’t put it down.BadReligion

He describes the time of post-WWII America as a quasi-golden era for the Church. Four religious figures exemplified, respectively, the four foremost religious movements of the 1940s and 50s: theologian Reinhold Niebuhr and his intellectually stimulating neo-orthodoxy, evangelist Billy Graham and his new brand of evangelicalism, Bishop Fulton Sheen and his warm-hearted Roman Catholicism, and Martin Luther King and his prophetic call for civil rights.

The growth of Christianity in America during this time was truly phenomenal. In 1930, less than half (47%) of all Americans were members of a church. By 1960–in just 30 years–the number had jumped to 69% (22).

But between the 1960s and the current day, explains Douthat, something went seriously wrong:

The Protestant Mainline’s membership stopped growing abruptly in the mid-1960s and then just as swiftly plunged. Of the 11 Protestant churches that claimed more than 1 million members in the early 1970s, eight had fewer members in 1973 than in 1965. There were 10.6 million United Methodists in 1960, more than 11 million at mid-decade, and 10.6 million again my 1970 – and it was down, down, down thereafter. The Lutherans peaked in 1968, Episcopalians in 1966, and the United Church of Christ in 1965; by the middle of the following decade, they were all in steep decline. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Lost about 1.5 million members between the mid-1960s and the late 1980s. By the 1990s, 60% of Methodist parishioners were over 50, and there were more Muslims in America than Episcopalians. (59)

One would think that the decline might have been merely the result of the country becoming more secular. However, the evidence indicates that during the last half of the 20th century the nation became more religious. “Belief in God, an afterlife, and intercessory prayer remained constant or even rose during these years (Americans were slightly more likely to believe in life after death in the 1990s than in the 1960s)” (62).

No, America is didn’t stop believing; rather, its beliefs became skewed. Orthodoxy was replaced with worship of “the god within”, the prosperity gospel and American nationalism. The message of the Cross was abandoned in favor of moralistic therapy. Douthat describes the present spiritual state of the nation thusly:

United States remains a deeply religious country, and most Americans are still drawing some water from the Christian well. But a growing number are inventing their own versions of what Christianity means, abandoning the nuances of traditional theology in favor of religions that stroke their egos and indulge or even celebrate their worst impulses. These faiths speak for many pulpits –conservative and liberal, political and pop-cultural, traditionally religious and fashionably “spiritual”–and many of their preachers call themselves Christian or claim a Christian warrant. But they are increasingly offering distortions of traditional Christianity, not the real thing.
… This is the real story of religion in America. For all its piety and fervor, today’s United States needs to be recognized for what it really is: not a Christian country, but a nation of heretics. (4-6)

America has always had its share of groups at the margins–Quakers, Shakers, Mormons, and Millerites. Douthat argues that the difference this time is the weakest of the orthodox center. Mainline Christianity wasn’t prepared to handle the pressures of late 20th century: political polarization, the sexual revolution, globalization, increasing wealth, and the rise of a new cultural elite that considered the Christian faith déclassé.

Douthat is Roman Catholic, and there are places where I would have said things differently. Still, I highly recommend the book.

In Case You Missed It

Recently at TGC, Trevin Wax published an article giving tips for reading better while retaining more. In his article Trevin writes:

Last week, I posted a video to my Facebook page in which I gave some tips for reading faster, better, and wider. Also last week, Hubworthy released book recommendations from people associated with The Gospel Coalition. (My list of “essential reading” is here.)

With so many good books to read, it’s natural to want to read better and wider. Here is my response to a few questions that were sent to me on Facebook, prompted by the video.

In a guest post on Art Rainer’s blog, Sam Morris gives five helpful tips for becoming a better public speaker:

Whether it is a sermon full of ‘umms’ or a prayer spoken at the speed of sound, if the audience has lost track you are not communicating effectively. As a pastor, this could quite literally be the difference between redemption and condemnation.

There are a myriad of reasons why a pastor should always continue to develop as a public speaker. Here are  five communication tips for pastors to consider.

Elizabeth Wann published an article earlier this week at Desiring God explaining the hidden ministry of motherhood. Elizabeth writes:

[T]he main role God calls us to as wives and mothers is our home and family. God made women to bear and nurture life and men to provide for and protect the lives of women and children. The heart disposition in these matters manifests itself in where our priorities lie.

At the Baptist Press, Don Whitney explains how he started praying the Bible:

It was the first of March 1985. I remember where I was sitting when it happened.

I was pastor of a church in the western suburbs of Chicago. A guest preacher was speaking at a series of meetings at our church. He was teaching on the prayers of the apostle Paul in his New Testament letters, and encouraging us to pray these inspired prayers as our own.

Then, at one point he held up his Bible said, “Folks, when you pray, use the prayer book.”

In that moment I suddenly realized, “The entire Bible is a prayer book. We can pray not only the prayers of Paul in Ephesians, we can pray everything in the Book of Ephesians.”

Chris Martin recently had the opportunity to interview Dr. Russell Moore about his latest book ‘Onward’.

I do not count it coincidence that a leader as articulate and gracious as he has been made the leader of one of the most influential Christian organizations in Washington, D.C. amidst our present culture context. The Lord knew what he was doing when he led Dr. Moore to lead the ERLC, and I’m thankful for that. People who get on TV to represent Christianity sometimes make Christians look silly. Dr. Moore has done quite the opposite, and I’m thankful someone like him represents evangelicals on CNN and other places.

The Culture of the Christ-Haunted South

Russell Moore, the president of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, begins his latest book, Onward, by telling a story.Onward Russ had a college friend, an atheist, who wasn’t antagonistic towards the Christian faith so much as he found it simply irrelevant. Russ and he had friendly coffee-shop debates about the existence of God, and on a number of occasions Russ had shared his faith with his unbelieving friend. So when his friend, out of the blue, asked Russ to recommend a church for him to attend, Russ thought the friend must have had a Damascus Road-type conversion. His friend quickly corrected Russ:

He rolled his eyes. “I don’t believe any of that stuff,” he said. “But I want to go into politics, and I’m never going to be elected to anything in this state if I’m not a church member. And I’ve looked at the numbers; there are more Southern Baptists around here than anything else, so sign me up.”

I was stunned into momentary silence as he stopped to check out a girl walking past our table. He then took a swig of coffee and continued, “But seriously, nothing freaky; if anybody starts screaming about hell or pulling a snake out of a box, I’m out of there.” (2)

Russ makes his point well. There has been a serious downside to the culture of the Bible-Belt, a milieu he calls “the culture of the Christ-haunted South.” For many persons, claiming to be a Christian became so expedient that it blinded them about the actual claims of Christ.

Russ argues that the collapse of the Bible-Belt provides the Church with a new opportunity. “We ought to see the ongoing cultural shake-up in America as a liberation of sorts from a captivity we never even knew we were in” (7). In Onward: Engaging the Gospel without Losing the Culture, Russ Moore makes the case for a clear-eyed optimism. I think he’s right.

Cross-posted at ww.theologyforthechurch.com