A Post-Christian America? Not Quite—Though Devoutly to be Wished

When the managing editor of this fine journal asked yesterday whether any of his Christian blogheads had anything at all to say about Jon Meacham’s Newsweek piece on the fairly sharp fall-off in the number of Americans self-identifying as Christian (in the newly-released ARIS survey), this bloghead initially demurred.

I mean, the amiable and well-informed Meacham said what I would have said: on balance, it’s a good thing that the various and dangerous forms of grievance associated with “Christian nation” thinking should now recede. It’s a good thing that more have come to appreciate the wisdom of separating church and state.

And yet I’m not sure the road ahead is completely sunny. This morning I awoke with two thoughts in relation to Meacham’s piece:

1) There’s got to be a connection between the smaller number of people, especially young people, wishing to claim the name “Christian” and the cultural prevalence of toxic forms of Christianity in recent years—and there’s growing anecdotal evidence to support such a connection;

2) If conservative Christians are losing adherents and losing cultural power, why are the Democrats so intent on cultivating them—on fighting the last war, so to speak?

The first point seems pretty self-evident. You grow up Christian, then you come to some degree of intellectual and political maturity only to see Falwell, Robertson, Mohler, and various Catholic prelates make complete asses of themselves on a regular basis. Wouldn’t you duck when given a chance, on a confidential survey, to say “I’m not with them”? You witness the Terri Schiavo madness, the loony 9-11-related comments of Falwell and Robertson, Ralph Reed’s embrace of Jack Abramoff, the Ted Haggard melodrama—who wouldn’t cringe in embarrassment? Who wouldn’t want to have another religion, or no religion, rather than be identified with the Christers?

The second point deserves some discussion. Frances Kissling posted a fine piece in this magazine earlier on the god-awful composition of the advisory panel to Obama’s Office of Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. Kissling wrote, aptly, that “junk religion”— conservative Christianity in particular—is extremely well represented on the panel. Moreover, she makes this important observation:

…under the Bush administration the views of Council members on these issues were largely irrelevant. President Obama has made these views important as a substantial part of the Council’s mission relates to women’s role and sexual and reproductive rights.

So what’s this about? I have a theory, and I admit it’s only a theory, that the Obamans continue to overreact to 2004, when Bush and the Republicans retained governing power by vacuuming up the votes of religious conservatives. Since then the Democratic establishment has been trying to cozy up in various ways to white Evangelicals in particular, while distancing itself from feminism and LGBT advocacy.

That’s what I mean by fighting the last war. I hope they’ll rethink it. Making nice with bad religion isn’t good for the Party—and it’s most definitely not good for the country.

peterlaarman@gmail.com'

Peter Laarman is a United Church of Christ minister and activist who recently retired as executive director of Progressive Christians Uniting in Los Angeles. He remains involved in numerous justice struggles, in particular a campaign known as Justice Not Jails that calls upon faith communities to critique and combat the system of racialized mass incarceration often referred to as The New Jim Crow.