By Shahid Rafi Ansari
August 28, 2013
The intellectual climate became more pluralistic and relativistic and contributed to a decline in church membership
According to Ross Douthat, author of Bad Religion (2012), the mid-century US Christian revival ended rather abruptly in the late 1960s. The death-knell for institutionalised orthodox religion was sounded neither by an ill-conceived crusade against the Muslims nor by an anachronistic horde of Vikings. The requiem came from an apparently innocuous substance: a prophylactic — the birth control pill. By decoupling sex from babies, the Pill ushered in the Sexual Revolution. Increasing political polarisation, globalisation, unprecedented prosperity, and a new secular attitude in the American elite also contributed to the decline of organised religion but the drastic change in sexual mores had the greatest impact. Emancipated and financially independent women — a requirement and also a consequence of the modern economy — were yet another major factor that contributed to the decline. The blow American Christianity suffered from the Sexual Revolution was as catastrophic as the one delivered to it a century earlier by “On the Origin of Species”. Both events threw Christianity into confusion and chaos.
Having children out of wedlock is increasingly becoming acceptable in the postmodern US but traditionally the stigma of illegitimate babies, disease, and possible abandonment of females involved made chastity and monogamy plausible from a Christian as well as a practical point of view. The Pill alleviated the practical concerns associated with promiscuity and the US went wild with sex. Apparently, most believers had never internalised Christian morality; they jettisoned it as soon as it was safe to do so.
Even in the 1940s most Americans were prone to premarital sex but back then this activity was viewed as “a way station on the road to wedlock rather than an end unto itself.” According to a survey conducted in 1940, around 45 percent people married the first person they slept with; by 1965 only nine percent did so.
This change in behaviour had wide ranging implications for US culture and religion. Consensual promiscuity was relegated to the private sphere outside of the jurisdiction of the courts and the government, even outside the control of one’s family. Christian sexual moral ethics came to be viewed as outdated by most Americans and out rightly cruel and repressive by the more ‘enlightened’ secular progressives. In the moral confusion that ensued it became perfectly okay to love Jesus and one’s girlfriend (or boyfriend) too and never see the contradiction in doing so.
The triumph of desire over virtue weakened faith. Christianity became less credible. Church membership started to decline for the first time since the American Independence. Enrolment in religious schools plunged. Top class students turned away from pursuing clerical vocations and seminaries started to produce religious leaders of mediocre intellect and low moral fibre.
Church budgets became more austere, new church construction declined, and churches began to close. Foreign missionary work, something evangelicals were well known for, got scaled down. Churches strapped for cash encouraged their pastors to behave like entrepreneurs, with the consequence that such pastors tended to smile on ‘Mammon’ and materialism in ways that were antithetical to the New Testament’s hard ascetic core.
However, the decline in organised institutional religion was not an indicator that the US was becoming more atheistic. The yearning for spirituality was still there but having discarded Christian morality, Americans were seeking spiritual satisfaction in more personal and less institutional ways. As Mr Douthat puts it, the country became “more spiritual in its sentiments and less pious in its practices.”
The author cites the Vietnam War as another important factor in the decline of American Christianity. The Civil Rights movement was a unifying experience for American churches. The Vietnam War polarised society and splintered this unity along partisan lines. “The leaders of the Mainline denominations and the black churches, who tended to see every new controversy through the lens of the civil rights struggle, were on the leftward side, the side of peace and social justice. The majority of Evangelicals tilted rightward, their identification with the Republican party magnifying their political strength even as it often compromised their moral credibility.” Most Catholics are somewhere in the middle. The debates that surrounded these divisions often compromised religious leaders’ credibility because they tended to argue and behave more like politicians and less like men of God.
According to Douthat, Globalisation was another important factor. The more educated Americans who had ambivalent feelings toward their religion acquired more perspectives on other religions and became even less assured that theirs was the one true path to salvation. The intellectual climate became more pluralistic and relativistic and contributed to a decline in church membership.
Post-war unprecedented American wealth was yet another cause of decline. The hold of religion grew weaker as American society became more materialistic. Mammon won and religion lost. With increasing wealth came suburbanisation. Professionals moved around in search of better economic opportunities. People who moved further and further away from their hometown churches found ‘do-it-yourself’ religions more attractive.
And finally there was the element of class. The old East Coast churchgoing WASP establishment was supplanted by a new elite. It is not certain whether this was a new elite or just the old one with a new more secular outlook, to whom religion and orthodoxy are an anathema. The author does not make this clear. They reject the Christian faith more vehemently than any other social class. Douthat says that even rejection is not the proper word; they are simply dismissive of religion. They consider it below an educated sophisticated person’s intellect to dabble in orthodoxy. A loose Spirituality is more welcome to them than the traditional faith of their ancestors.
According to the author these are the five major trends that hastened the decline of religion in the US. Sociologists probably would cite 10 more but I wonder if American individualism had anything to do with it. And as I mentioned above, perhaps liberated (in many ways) and financially independent women were as big a cause as any other that brought religion down in the US.
Shahid Rafi Ansari is a freelance writer and an electrical engineer.