Conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat muses over rising Christian cultural anxiety in the United States today. Douthat summarizes the arguments of two relatively new books on the topic, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us by Robert Putnam and David Campbell and James Davison Hunter's To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and the Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World, as follows:
…both books come around to a similar argument: this month's ubiquitous carols and crèches notwithstanding, believing Christians are no longer what they once were — an overwhelming majority in a self-consciously Christian nation. The question is whether they can become a creative and attractive minority in a different sort of culture, where they're competing not only with rival faiths but with a host of pseudo-Christian spiritualities, and where the idea of a single religious truth seems increasingly passé.
Or to put it another way, Christians need to find a way to thrive in a society that looks less and less like any sort of Christendom — and more and more like the diverse and complicated Roman Empire where their religion had its beginning, 2,000 years ago this week.
I argued a couple of years back in my article, "The New Age of Reason," that Americans were becoming increasingly secular as the Fourth Great Awakening ebbed:
American society periodically weathers decades-long storms of moral renovation set off by thunderclaps of Christian evangelism. Old spiritual and moral doctrines get reinterpreted in a new light, producing far-ranging, and not always welcome, political change. Scholars commonly refer to these tumultuous periods as "Great Awakenings."
Historians date the First Great Awakening to the mid-18th century, when widespread Presbyterian and Baptist revivals helped beget the American Revolution. The second came in the early 19th century, when evangelical Christians launched temperance, abolitionist, and other reform movements, culminating in the Civil War. The third was a response to Darwinian theory and to the social problems caused by rapid industrialization and urbanization in the late 19th century, ending with the Progressive Era in the early 20th century. The fourth unleashed the "culture war" that began in the 1960s and has dominated political debate ever since. But thankfully, there are signs that the Fourth Great Awakening is finally coming to a close. Among other beneficial side effects, this ending of an era likely will reduce calls for censorship and other legal intrusions into private activities while broadening tolerance for new and different ways of life. …
Awakenings … go through three phases: revival, when cultural stresses produce religious revitalization movements; reform, when activists persuade governments to adopt moral improvement programs; and resistance, when religious fervor wanes and the forces of moralization encounter stiffened cultural opposition. The Fourth Great Awakening has reached the stage where moral hectoring is being resisted.
As evidence I cited a bit of suggestive survey data:
Perhaps the best evidence that the evangelical phase of the Fourth Great Awakening is winding down is that large numbers of young Americans are falling away from organized religion, just as the country did in the period between the first two awakenings. In the 1970s, the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago found that between 5 percent and 7 percent of the public declared they were not religiously affiliated. By 2006 that figure had risen to 17 percent. The trend is especially apparent among younger Americans: In 2006 nearly a quarter (23 percent) of Americans in their 20s and almost as many (19 percent) of those in their 30s said they were nonaffiliated.
The Barna Group finds that only 60 percent of 16-to-29-year-olds identify themselves as Christians. By contrast, 77 percent of Americans over age 60 call themselves Christian. That is "a momentous shift," the firm's president told the Ventura County Star. "Each generation is becoming increasingly secular."
Whole Douthat op/ed here.
Disclosure: Some of my best friends are Christians.