The terrain is indeed shifting as the latest Pew survey results suggest, but it’s not a simple matter of secularization or non-affiliation. My own working assumption is that many of those who will no longer answer “Christian” in answer to polling questions will still be drawn to Jesus as an ethical icon, as a theophanous human being, and as a social revolutionary, for a long time to come.
They may even see Jesus (quite accurately in my view) as someone standing eternally against ossified religious expression and formalized religious observance: as a kind of freedom fighter against the strictures of dead orthodoxies.
Similarly, I expect that what philosopher Daniel Dennett calls “transparency” will lead to more and more people coming out as non-theists within the churches and within their personal circles. But I do not expect that this will lead to less interest or involvement in mystical experience or in religious ritual or in the traditional spiritual disciplines: prayer, fasting, and direct compassionate engagement with those who suffer.
In some ways I see experiential/devotional attachments ascending even as more traditional “propositional” faith (i.e., a faith that is defined by adherence to certain dogmas) rapidly declines.
What is coming, I believe, is a not-untenable and in some ways predictable separation between the arena of ultimate belief and the arena of ultimate commitment.
I say this in full awareness that the Pew report indicates that roughly a quarter of the U.S. population still identifies as evangelical and that 35 million persons in this country consider themselves to be among the twice-born. My take: In a ruthless new economy that puts middle-class security beyond the reach of many, the craving for a heavenly home is quite understandable.
I should also be clear that in expecting Jesus-oriented practice to continue absent traditional Christian identification and traditional Christian belief, I am speaking here about clear-thinking younger people and not about the older people who are permanently stuck in old forms and old unthinking orthodoxies. These people will still be around, and in some instances they will still have a toxic impact in public life. But it seems obvious that they represent the receding past of U.S. Christianity and not its future.
The wild card in this scenario concerns whether the rising numbers of new immigrants steeped in charismatic Christianity will somehow give Christian-inspired culture wars another encore; I personally think this is doubtful, but I could be mistaken.
Among the dwindling numbers of those whom we usually regard as religious moderates—the white bread Protestants and suburban Catholics—there is one issue that I believe could become transformational. The climate change crisis is going to shake old ways and old assumptions to the foundations.
In California, where I live, I can already see stirrings of radical environmentalism among groups like a congregation of fairly well-off Presbyterians in Newport Beach. The further test will come when the full-on catastrophe actually arrives—e.g., severe famines in many parts of the world, huge hunger-driven migrations, and the exposure of poor people in the U.S. to a horrific series of environment-related plagues—and good middle-class Christian people are forced to decide whether their faith impels them to give refuge and support to the victims or whether they can simply join the sauve-qui-peut scramble for higher ground.
Faced with this decision, there will be a clear separation between those who will stand and serve and those who will flee and basically ignore the groans of the sufferers. The Christian moderates who are now awakening to looming climate catastrophe are also, in many cases, awakening to the virulently antisocial nature of advanced finance capitalism, which externalizes all social costs while reaping huge individual payoffs for elite members of the big investor class. This latter awakening could conceivably have a major impact in political life sooner rather than later.
Turning again to the rising generation, here are three other things that bear watching in my opinion:
- A radical gospel-based critique of the Gospel of Wealth and of sharply rising inequality in U.S. society. There is already a large cohort of Jesus-identifiers within the movement against usurious college lending.
- A rapid fade-out of any anxiety about gender identification or anything related to fluid sexuality (e.g., I have been impressed by the number of youth in the Black Lives movement who are both Jesus-identified and queer-identified). The easy acceptance among the young of sexual and gender diversity also means that remaining images and remaining worship language reflecting a gendered deity—God the Father, etc.—will fall away at an accelerating rate.
- A growing interest in the Jewishness of Jesus and an increasing willingness (with all its problems) of younger folks who identify with Jesus to assert that they are both Christian and Jewish in their religious orientation.
In respect to media reports and representations related to U.S. Christianity, the problem now as always is the MSM’s tendency to pay too much attention to the loudest voices (Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Ralph Reed, etc.) along with a tendency to oversimplify complex phenomena such as the rise of the “nones.”
One example of oversimplification: in regard to a social justice struggle that I am personally committed to—the struggle against mass incarceration—I have observed that while a few reporters have been willing to take notice of increased Christian involvement in that struggle, no news report or news analysis that I have seen to date has bothered to look at the underlying and growing Christian theological challenge to our punishment-only incarceration system.
Similarly, no reporter or analyst that I know of has dug into the radically different visions of what Christianity is about between the gun rights people and the stop-gun-violence movement.
Instead of close attention to the inner currents of change, what we tend to get from the mainstream media is mainly undigested dissemination of unilluminating polling numbers, sensationalized stories about the rise and fall of various personalities (e.g., the Robert Schuller family feud, Brad Braxton’s expulsion from the Riverside Church pulpit), and speculative stories about black-box questions like the possible impact of Hillary Clinton’s early exposure to United Methodist social justice values.
Mainstream media types also never quite seem to grasp that the answers to some questions can be both/and, not either/or. A perennial example of this kind of question: Are we still a puritanical culture, or are we now an unapologetically hedonistic culture—one quite happy to prefer the fleshpots of Egypt to the manna of righteous wilderness wandering?
Both things are true, of course, and the really interesting story is how both can be true and how puritanical values and fleshly behaviors are intimately related.