The Death of Christian America

Peter Leithart gives a clue. It has to do with ways of relating churches to the culture, coming along side it to use the vernacular of the Vatican, that would wind up devastating the Protestant mainline:

The growth that swelled the mainline during the 1950s was fueled by people looking for “a more relaxed, less legalistic, less dogmatic version of the faith.” Despite numerical growth, the mainline churches didn’t grow “stronger” during the 1950s; their grown “concealed an ongoing weakness that a few years later produced an unprecedently steep decline in membership” (194).

The authors see the drift in the mainline as an accommodation to cultural trends: “The American cultural climate has shifted during the twentieth century in the direction of greater relativism and skepticism in matters of religion, and toward greater degrees of individualism. Acceptance of diversity in belief, lifestyle, and ethnic and racial background has broadened markedly.” Initially promoted by elites, the shift became popular, and “the leadership of the mainline Protestant churches accommodated the shift within their own ranks.” When the Sixties hit, the mainline Protestant churches were already sailing with the same wind that carried the sexual revolution and the challenge to settled authority: “The mainline Protestant churches did not initiate the new shift, but they were unable and unwilling to resist it” (198).

Not surprisingly, Presbyterians lost the next generation: “The children have asked over and over what is distinctive about Presbyterianism – or even about Protestantism – and why they should believe it or cherish it. The answers have apparently not been very clear. Today Presbyterians should not bemoan the lack of faith and church commitment exhibited by their youth, since they have no one to blame but themselves. No outside power forcibly pulled their children away from the faith”

And what happened to the mainline in the 1960s, happened to Roman Catholics in the 1970s once the bishops at Vatican II opened the windows to modern society and hoped for a more relaxed church. (By the way, it could happen to all the folks inspired by TKNY. Some think it already has.)

Once again, it’s the progressives who pave the way for “progress” among Roman Catholics.

Why is it that the more you try to make Christianity relevant, the less Christianity you have left?


27 thoughts on “The Death of Christian America

  1. Maybe it was like that “hallway with many doors” metaphor. Then again, maybe it was more like a dog going through the contents of a knocked over trash can, sniffing through the contents until he finds something he likes….


  2. D.G.,
    Well, it seems that the OPC prides itself on not making Christianity relevant, but am not sure of how much Christianity is there.

    The real issue here is what is your working definition of the word ‘relevant’? Jesus made God’s Word relevant during his ministry.


  3. Here’s a discussion where Lig, Lucas, and Jemar discuss southern presbyterians and race in the 20th century. “Cultural captivity” is blamed for their intransigence on race. Billy Graham is praised as a wonderful influence. Near the middle Lig makes the helpful point that one of the reasons for resistance to the proponents of social change in the 50’s and 60’s was the activists’ association with liberal theology. How about a golf clap for the old bastards instead of demanding retroactively that they strike just the right balance between ecclesial, theological, racial, social, and political issues. Wow, just reading that sentence makes spirituality of the church look better and better. The irony is that the PCA will be getting “right” on race at the same time that it drifts towards more dangerous ecclesial and doctrinal waters. What a surprise.


  4. DGH, on one hand I find it hard to find anything in your comments or the Leithart article to disagree with. Your last sentence encapsulates a lot of my feelings based on my experience.

    On the other hand, there was a lot going on in the 60’s besides the sexual revolution that eroded the sense– prevalent certainly in the mid-60’s– that there was a pecularily American consensus. By the time I started college in 1968, that very notion was under attack– and just as vigorously defended. That the mainline churches were part of this consensus is beyond doubt, but so were other institutions. I’m just not sure that any theology they could have espoused would have saved them- uniquely- from declining influence.


  5. Dan, agreed.

    And what would the mainline look like today if they hadn’t embraced the consensus, whether in the Progressive era or the age of Mad Men.

    America would look different. The church would look different.

    How’s that for analysis?


  6. DGH, I doubt that America would look much different. The mainline denominations would have just been marginalized sooner, as the neo-evangelicals are in the process of being now.


  7. @CW

    I’m not buying the Lucas-Duncan thesis on that point. I agree that race was probably not the motivating cause. Race was simply the pressure point for cultural change. And these were folks who simply didn’t see a reason for culture to change. And, even if they did see the need for certain change, they weren’t certain that the proposed changes wouldn’t end up making things worse. They were simply fighting to preserve the right to accept social change on their own terms.

    In today’s America, social change moves along at a rather slow pace, until about 55% of people approve of something. Then, the pace accelerates, especially if the percentage of those who favor change correlates with income and education.

    I read Lucas and Duncan as saying, “We’d have much more credibility in resisting same-sex marriage if we had not resisted dismantling Jim Crow.” But that won’t change a thing. The story line has already been set. More than 60% of Americans favor same-sex marriage. About 90-95% of white-collar professional whites outside of the South favor same-sex marriage. The holdouts are going to be expected to get in line, lest they be excommunicated from polite society. And, as pastors of wealthy, prominent churches in Mississippi, that’s probably the bigger fear for Lucas and Duncan. I’d guess that they both preach to a substantial number of unconverted folks who come to First Pres for nothing other than social and economic benefit. If the church’s stand on same-sex marriage makes it a less socially beneficial club to join, Lucas and Duncan are in some real trouble.


  8. C-dubs, but take Falwell. Before the Moral Majority, Falwell resisted the civil rights movement on ostensibly SOTC grounds. But once the late 60s rolled around and the cultural upheaval happened, out pops the MM, which suggests the problem hadn’t been liberal theology so much as an association with the wrong kind of cultural Christianity. In other words, don’t get involved with socio-political issues when you already have cultural clout (and say something about liberal theology), but once that wanes toss aside 2k principles and fight baptized fire with social gospel fire.


  9. Bobby and Z, lest you doubt Lig’s street cred and authenticity….

    And it is real. Real bad. That’s his real life brother. I bet they were hell in the department store with mom.


  10. Bobby
    Posted July 25, 2015 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

    I’m not buying the Lucas-Duncan thesis on that point. I agree that race was probably not the motivating cause. Race was simply the pressure point for cultural change.

    I read Lucas and Duncan as saying, “We’d have much more credibility in resisting same-sex marriage if we had not resisted dismantling Jim Crow.”

    There’s no doubt that once SSM proponents succeed in making race = sex orientation, the game’s over. [Loving v. Virginia, the famous case about interracial marriage].

    The story line has already been set. More than 60% of Americans favor same-sex marriage. About 90-95% of white-collar professional whites outside of the South favor same-sex marriage.

    Of course, the polls are usually manipulated to left, and further, people tell pollsters different things than they say in the privacy of the voting booth.

    a third poll by the AP found that only 42 percent of Americans support same sex marriage. This is a decline of 6 points from the organization’s last poll on the issue in April. It also found a significant increase in percentage of people — 59 percent in June vs. only 52 percent in April — who said wedding-related businesses with religious objections should be allowed to refuse service to gay and lesbian couples.

    Gay marriage as a legal reality [actually it’s a legal fiction, but you know what I mean], so that ship has sailed. The last battle is one of religious freedom–one that even the most gutless of 2kers have a legitimate interest in. If you’re going to sit out this battle like you did the last one, at least this time please stay on the sidelines instead of helping the left steamroll religion in public life.


  11. Mr. Hart,

    I’m confused by your take on this article. You are the great proponent of Christians living and behaving just like anyone else. The only difference between yourself and the next man in the pub is you claim to believe certain doctrines found in the Bible. In the eyes of the world, however, there is no difference. You are not a threat because you are happy to let people outside the church- and indeed, inside the church to a great extent- do what they want.


  12. I had a conversation last night with a friend who’s a Southern Baptist youth pastor. The church is very elderly and very white, but the surrounding area is becoming more black, violent, and full of drugs and single moms. So the church has started some outreach programs to the community: Wednesday night dinner and play time and Bible message for kids, and single moms dinners and Bible message. I found it interesting that they are having some conflicts of interest: the church members don’t want people who are

    – on drugs
    – in possession of drugs
    – violent
    – convicted criminals
    – on welfare and not seeking employment
    – having more kids so they get more welfare money
    – chronic thieves

    … coming to “church” (outreach) regularly and hearing maybe the gospel but also maybe just moralistic lessons. This seems like a good example of the perils of the church trying to fix social problems. Granted, the murder rate would likely decrease as a result of people hearing and believing the gospel, but the church does not preach to lower the murder rate. Isn’t it the individual who is called to feed widows and orphans (maybe even collectively with other Christians and pagans???) and the church who is called to preach the gospel and shepherd the flock?


  13. The goal of all that was really to emphasize the conflict of interest. By restricting church programs to people not exemplifying the qualities on that list (with the intent to stop drug deals from happening during church programs/events) you are going against the “outreach/for the city” principle. But as soon as you include them, you can’t stop drug deals from happening at church programs/events. Unless you hire policemen to attend your events too. Which is probably even more problematic, but definitely not unheard of.


  14. Walton, nobody wants the po-po around unless they are committed to exclusive work in that area.

    See the diffs exhibited in church concerns between yours and Alexander’s right above your two entries?

    And I hate to break it to the “good” members, but their kids are doing and dealing drugs and fornicating and boozing it up. By the time they start to honestly worry it is too late, the kid is going to do these things no matter how good or bad you raise them, they are marked out very quickly.


  15. Alexander, that’s a fair reading.


    Just for kicks, why do you think I co-wrote With Reverence and Awe? Or why do you suppose I serve in part of my waking hours as an elder? I’m not trying to take credit for being spiritual. I am curious, though, what you do with people whom you regard as libertine serving in positions of some responsibility?

    And while we’re at it, did you think Paul too antinomian when he said everything is lawful? EveryTHING!?

    There is a difference, which you can’t tell, between a thus saith the Lord and the Lord doesn’t say. 2k is not anything goes. It is you better have something better than w-w to make me submit to your Christian practice.

    Perfect illustration: establishment principle. You don’t have a biblical case. You just keep stomping your foot about Scottish history.


  16. Mr. Hart,

    I have Isaiah, I have the Psalms, to back me up on the Establishment principle for starters. As well as a whole host of learned, Reformed scholars. When you stop bleeting on about Machen, I’ll stop referring back to every other Reformed theologian.

    Paul also condemned a lot of stuff, unless Galatians 5 isn’t in your Bible. In that list parties are even condemned as works of the flesh. You think your boozing sessions get a pass? The only reverence you seem to show around here is to smoking and drinking.


  17. Alexander, Paul didn’t comment on the establishment principle. And your beloved Westminster Divines recognized that Israel’s civil laws were kaput:

    To them also, as a body politic, he gave sundry judicial laws, which expired together with the State of that people; not obliging any other now, further than the general equity thereof may require.

    I’m not sure you’ve figured out how to read the Bible other than as a theonomist.


  18. Mr. Hart,

    And yet they held to the Establishment principle? Curious. Or not.

    And I see you didn’t address Paul in Galatians. Because you can’t.


  19. Alexander, what does Galatians 5 have to do with the establishment principle? Help me out here.

    Hebrews 12:22. You didn’t address that.

    Anyone can play that game.


  20. It be bad enough when Americans make that stretch for their country being a Holy Land (at some point), but when Scotland does it I laugh so hard I think that I will die .


  21. From MichaelTX:

    Hey everybody, Tom is posting this for me. I am not
    sure what is happening but I have not been able to post for three
    days. I have used my different email addresses and even different
    computers. Anyway, I just wanted everyone to know I am not ignoring
    anyone and truly wish I could post on the conversation which I
    started. I will continue to try and post and hope the problem clears

    God’s blessings and grace to all.


  22. Sorry for any confusions, readers. The comment from TVD above was meant to go in a different post.(When Did Christian America…)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.