As families prepared for Holy Week recently, they saw on newsstands the Newsweek“Decline and Fall of Christian America.” But a close examination of the data cited by Editor Jon Meacham opens serious holes in his misguided declaration that the Christian God is “less of a force in American politics and culture than at any other time in recent memory.” cover story,
Meacham drew many of his conclusions from the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS 2008) and the Newsweek opinion poll “A Post Christian Nation?” by Princeton Survey Research Associates. Those studies, viewed in totality, tell a much different story than what Meacham wrote for his more than 2 million readers.
Here’s a point-by-point explanation of Meacham’s more glaring omissions and mistakes:
1. “Christians are now making up a declining percentage of the population.”
That’s true, but it’s not news. Leading religion scholar Robert Wuthnow of Princeton University has said weekly church attendance reached its pinnacle in 1958, “has never reached that level again” and has fallen a quarter of a percentage point each year since. Nonetheless, the absolute number of Christians is growing, even as the percentage of the population declines. Wuthnow explains:
The total population of the United States has grown by almost 50 percent since 1970, so even though a smaller proportion of the public is attending religious services regularly, the absolute numbers are larger. It’s just that they would have been considerably larger if the rate of church-going had held steady.
That’s an important point Meacham’s essay failed to make.
2. “[T]he percentage of self-identified Christians has fallen 10 percentage points since 1990, from 86 to 76 percent.”
The same ARIS 2008 survey Meacham cited showed that the Christian religion still has no close rivals in America, far surpassing the number who say they’re Mormon (1.4 percent), Jewish (1.2), atheist (0.9), agnostic (0.7), and Muslim (0.6). Those Americans who claimed no religious affiliation — a group ARIS calls “nones”— did nearly double from 8 percent in 1990 to 15 percent in 2008, but the Pew Forum U.S. Religious Landscape Survey found that “it is simply not accurate to describe this entire group as nonreligious or ‘secular’.” Just one quarter of these unaffiliated are atheist or agnostic, while the remaining three-quarters described their religion as “nothing in particular” and half of these reported being somewhat or very important in their lives, despite their lack of a specified affiliation.
Regarding the decline of Christianity, of course it is the mainline Protestant churches that have seen “a significant fall in numbers” since 2001, according to ARIS. The survey reads: “The Protestant denominations, mainly composed of conservatives and sectarian groups, have grown in size and proportion …[which] suggests a movement towards more conservative beliefs and to a more ‘evangelical’ outlook among Christians.” The ARIS authors call this growth an “important historical trend.”
More tellingly, Meacham doesn’t say that his own Newsweek poll found 81 percent of Americans identify themselves as Christian, with the largest subset being “Evangelical Protestant.”
3. The Newsweek poll found that “two thirds of the public (68 percent) now say religion is ‘losing influence’ in American society”
Meacham didn’t share with readers that the same poll found an even greater number — 74 percent — of Americans think it’s a good thing when religion gains influence, or that 81 percent said it’s a bad thing when religion loses influence. Even more remarkable is that 74 percent said they support “old-fashioned values about marriage and family.”
4. “Many Conservative Christians believe they have lost battles over issues such as abortion, school prayer and even same-sex marriage.”
How did Meacham miss the fact that voters in 30 states approved constitutional amendments, most by big margins? It was only after Meacham’s article came out that the genderless-marriage proponents won their first legislative victory, in Vermont — a state not known as an evangelical stronghold. Even so, losing some skirmishes is not the same as losing a war, let alone the same as giving up the battle for such linchpin social issues as the sanctity of human life.
5. “While we remain a nation decidedly shaped by religious faith, our politics and culture are, in the main, less influenced by movements and arguments of an explicitly Christian character than they were five years ago.”
We know from reading back issues of Newsweek that Meacham didn’t overlook the presidential candidate debate hosted by Pastor Rick Warren last year, nor Warren’s unapologetically Christian prayer at President Barack Obama’s inauguration. Perhaps he simply didn’t comprehend their significance.
6. “The decline and fall of the modern religious right’s notion of a Christian America creates a calmer political environment, and for many believers may help open the way for a more theologically serious religious life.”
Meacham favorably quotes three scholars — Mark A. Noll, Nathan O. Hatch and George M. Marsden — on what he thinks Christians in the public square ought to do:
“We have important obligations to do whatever we can, including through the use of political means [emphasis added], to help our neighbors — promoting just laws, good order, peace, education and opportunity.”
Perhaps Meacham is asking those evangelicals who work on behalf of the preborn, who defend “old-fashioned” marriage and who fight the sex exploitation industry — all causes associated with the “religious right” — to find something else to do, or to just shut up altogether. Not surprisingly, this is not something he says to the religious Left.
There’s nothing more that some in the media want than for evangelicals to stay silent, to stop criticizing President Obama for his reversal of President George W. Bush’s pro-life policies, for example. But as Christians recognized during Holy Week, there’s no holding back Christ and His church.
Focus on the Family founder Dr. James Dobson put it this way when he appeared April 14 on the Fox News Channel’s “Hannity”:
“The Left-wing media is itching for members of the pro- family movement to put up a white flag and declare the culture war over and to just hand the country to them,” he said. “Terrible things are going on right now, including using taxpayer money to support abortion around the world. Those things are very, very troubling. But we believe they’re temporary, and whether they are or not, we as speaking of myself as a Christian, we’re not called to be successful. We’re called to be faithful, and that’s what we plan to do.
“In tough times,” Dr. Dobson added, “good people hang in there and wait for things to change — and we pray a lot.”