America’s National Conversation about Christianity is ‘Fundamentally Unserious’ — But Not in the Way You Think

As I’ve argued before, the United States, an ostensibly secular country, has a de facto Christian public sphere. When conservative, mostly white Christians make headlines for doing something illiberal, like raising hundreds of thousands of dollars for the legal defense of a racist murderer, social media explodes with the accusation that they are “fake Christians”—thereby implying that “real” Christians can only ever be good, and thus reinforcing Christian supremacism and undercutting pluralism.

When Democrats raise an outcry because a Republican elected to Congress blithely discusses his efforts to convert Jews to Christianity, we are told in a generally high-quality news outlet that the outrage is merely partisan, and that objecting to conversion attempts represents a “fundamentally unserious” approach to Christianity. Let’s not bother to acknowledge that the writer lobbing the accusation is a columnist for the evangelical publication Christianity Today and a contributor to the outright reactionary American Conservative, so she might be just a little biased with respect to what Christianity requires. 

And speaking of The American Conservative, it recently treated readers to yet another example of the “why kids these days are leaving the evangelical church” genre—without, of course, quoting any of the “kids” in question, because why would we actually talk to America’s ex-evangelicals when we can instead use them as props for our laments about a “crisis” in the church?

America’s elite discourse about Christianity is indeed “fundamentally unserious,” but not for the reasons conservative Christians would have us think. Their privilege has made them accustomed to being coddled, so they consider a conversation about Christianity “unserious” if those who have objections to things like Christian proselytizing are heard at all. In fact, the opposite is true. 

If we want to have a serious conversation about Christianity in the United States, we must consider the ways in which Christian hegemony harms others, including through its normalization of Christian extremism. Instead of systematically silencing the voices of leavers, nonbelievers, and religious minorities in discussing Christianity and “religious freedom,” any serious discourse on these matters must include us as stakeholders in hashing out a fair and equitable approach to American pluralism.

Indeed, any serious discussion needs to start from a place of acknowledging the ways in which the often unacknowledged white Christian hegemony in this country harms those who are othered by conservative Christians—not least youth raised in conservative Christian environments who are unable to conform, and LGBTQ youth in particular.

This week, American Atheists released a new report on young nonreligious Americans, derived from the findings of its 2019 Secular Survey. That survey gathered data from 33,987 respondents, 3,421 (10.1%) of whom were 18-24 years old at the time they took the survey. The new report’s title, “The Tipping Point Generation: America’s Nonreligious Youth,” points to one of the major social shifts of our time, sometimes referred to as “the rise of the nones” (i.e. the religiously unaffiliated) and to the significance of this shift for the Democratic Party. In yet another example of Christian privilege, however, the party’s recent efforts to recognize and include its large nonreligious contingent have been kept out of the limelight, while God-talk dominated President-elect Joe Biden’s presidential campaign and victory speech.

Major social shifts tend to spark backlash from those who feel that their power and privilege is threatened, and the rapid secularization of the United States, whose public sphere is still largely defined by Christian hegemony, is no exception. “It is true that the U.S. is becoming more secular,” American Atheists’ new report notes, “But this is a process marked by pockets of intolerance and reactionism, a growing skepticism of basic civil rights protections, and a national discourse that favors the religious interests of a few powerful groups over the lives and well-being of everyone else.”

That situation puts nonreligious youth at particular risk. As “The Tipping Point Generation” observes, nearly 22% of Secular Survey respondents under 25 reported that their parents or legal guardians were unaware of their secular views. Meanwhile, 37.5% of respondents under 25 whose parents were aware of their nonbelief “reported that their parents were somewhat or very unsupportive” of their views, while a full 40.4% of LGBTQ nonreligious youth reported the same (compared to 34.9% of cisgender, heterosexual youth respondents).

The kind of stigmatization that causes people to conceal important aspects of their identities or to face family rejection, leads to psychological harm with long-term consequences, such as lower educational achievement, to use an example covered in the report. And, through their court packing under Trump and legislative initiatives like those developed by the Christian Nationalist initiative Project Blitz, America’s conservative Christians are working overtime to keep lack of religion stigmatized. 

Citing Christian Right attempts to have “In God We Trust” posted in public school classrooms and similar efforts, “The Tipping Point Generation” notes, “It is increasingly clear that Christian nationalists, and those who would like to upend America’s traditional guarantees of religious equality, target young people with coercive laws and policies.”

In addition, right-wing Christians and white nationalists continue to isolate their children through Christian schools and homeschooling, so they can indoctrinate them with young earth creationism, Christian nationalism, and other right-wing extremist views. Add to the mix that LGBTQ youth are vastly overrepresented among homeless youth, at about 40% of the total—often because they are rejected by their conservative Christian families—and it’s easy to see why young Secular Survey respondents place high priority on both LGBTQ equality and protecting youth from religion-based harm as issues to be addressed by secular advocacy organizations. With respect to the latter, a federal court stacked with Trump judges recently overturned a local ban on the abusive, psychologically harmful practice of “ex-gay” so-called “conversion” therapy.

So, let’s have a serious conversation about religion in America, shall we? Let’s start from the premises that nones and leavers, religious minorities and atheists, should be given a voice, and that we cannot successfully dismantle white supremacist patriarchy without simultaneously dismantling Christian supremacism. Anything less would be “fundamentally unserious.”