On the heels of Obama’s remarks in Turkey that got the Religious Right’s knickers in a knot, as I blogged already, the latest Newsweek cover story by Jon Meacham has sparked additional fury and bluster on the part of the fire-&brimstone brigade. Here is some of what’s got them worked up (more than usual):

The End of Christian America

The percentage of self-identified Christians has fallen 10 points in the past two decades. How that statistic explains who we are now—and what, as a nation, we are about to become.

While we remain a nation decisively shaped by religious faith, our politics and our culture are, in the main, less influenced by movements and arguments of an explicitly Christian character than they were even five years ago. I think this is a good thing—good for our political culture, which, as the American Founders saw, is complex and charged enough without attempting to compel or coerce religious belief or observance. It is good for Christianity, too, in that many Christians are rediscovering the virtues of a separation of church and state that protects what Roger Williams, who founded Rhode Island as a haven for religious dissenters, called “the garden of the church” from “the wilderness of the world.” As crucial as religion has been and is to the life of the nation, America’s unifying force has never been a specific faith, but a commitment to freedom—not least freedom of conscience. …

Meacham is not saying that Christianity is dead (because of course, it’s not):

Let’s be clear: while the percentage of Christians may be shrinking, rumors of the death of Christianity are greatly exaggerated. Being less Christian does not necessarily mean that America is post-Christian. A third of Americans say they are born again; this figure, along with the decline of politically moderate-to liberal mainline Protestants, led the ARIS authors to note that “these trends … suggest a movement towards more conservative beliefs and particularly to a more ‘evangelical’ outlook among Christians.” With rising numbers of Hispanic immigrants bolstering the Roman Catholic Church in America, and given the popularity of Pentecostalism, a rapidly growing Christian milieu in the United States and globally, there is no doubt that the nation remains vibrantly religious—far more so, for instance, than Europe.

Still, in the new NEWSWEEK Poll, fewer people now think of the United States as a “Christian nation” than did so when George W. Bush was president (62 percent in 2009 versus 69 percent in 2008). Two thirds of the public (68 percent) now say religion is “losing influence” in American society, while just 19 percent say religion’s influence is on the rise. The proportion of Americans who think religion “can answer all or most of today’s problems” is now at a historic low of 48 percent. During the Bush 43 and Clinton years, that figure never dropped below 58 percent.

What Meacham is saying, then, is not that Christianity is going away; it’s that fundamentalist-Christian politics is flagging:

Many conservative Christians believe they have lost the battles over issues such as abortion, school prayer and even same-sex marriage, and that the country has now entered a post-Christian phase. …

What, then, does it mean to talk of “Christian America”? Evangelical Christians have long believed that the United States should be a nation whose political life is based upon and governed by their interpretation of biblical and theological principles. If the church believes drinking to be a sin, for instance, then the laws of the state should ban the consumption of alcohol. If the church believes the theory of evolution conflicts with a literal reading of the Book of Genesis, then the public schools should tailor their lessons accordingly. If the church believes abortion should be outlawed, then the legislatures and courts of the land should follow suit. The intensity of feeling about how Christian the nation should be has ebbed and flowed since Jamestown; there is, as the Bible says, no thing new under the sun. For more than 40 years, the debate that began with the Supreme Court’s decision to end mandatory school prayer in 1962 (and accelerated with the Roe v. Wade ruling 11 years later) may not have been novel, but it has been ferocious. Fearing the coming of a Europe-like secular state, the right longed to engineer a return to what it believed was a Christian America of yore.

But that project has failed, at least for now. In Texas, authorities have decided to side with science, not theology, in a dispute over the teaching of evolution. The terrible economic times have not led to an increase in church attendance. In Iowa last Friday, the state Supreme Court ruled against a ban on same-sex marriage, a defeat for religious conservatives. Such evidence is what has believers fretting about the possibility of an age dominated by a newly muscular secularism.

But American remains America, as Meacham goes on to say:

Religious doubt and diversity have, however, always been quintessentially American. Alexis de Tocqueville said that “the religious atmosphere of the country was the first thing that struck me on arrival in the United States,” but he also discovered a “great depth of doubt and indifference” to faith. Jefferson had earlier captured the essence of the American spirit about religion when he observed that his statute for religious freedom in Virginia was “meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and the Mahometan, the Hindoo and infidel of every denomination”—and those of no faith whatever. The American culture of religious liberty helped create a busy free market of faith: by disestablishing churches, the nation made religion more popular, not less.

America, then, is not a post-religious society—and cannot be as long as there are people in it, for faith is an intrinsic human impulse. The belief in an order or a reality beyond time and space is ancient and enduring. “All men,” said Homer, “need the gods.”

Meacham points out that even some of the evangelicals who had been instrumental in establishing the Religious Right as a political force, have conceded the intrinsic flaws in their program:

The columnist Cal Thomas was an early figure in the Moral Majority who came to see the Christian American movement as fatally flawed in theological terms. “No country can be truly ‘Christian’,” Thomas says. “Only people can. God is above all nations, and, in fact, Isaiah says that ‘All nations are to him a drop in the bucket and less than nothing’.” Thinking back across the decades, Thomas recalls the hope—and the failure. “We were going through organizing like-minded people to ‘return’ America to a time of greater morality. Of course, this was to be done through politicians who had a difficult time imposing morality on themselves!”

Needless to say, the Religious Right has completely misread this story and interpreted as Newsweek having trumpeted “the End of Christianity in the US.” To deal with this the magazine’s editors published an additional clarification, also by Meacham:

Note that we did not say we were discussing the decline and fall of Christianity, or even the decline and fall of Christianity in America. But “Christian America” is something else again.

Unfortunately the Religious Right confuses Christianity, the religion — which comes in myriad forms — with Christianity-as-political-entity, which is, in fact, losing control over the country. They cannot separate the two in their minds. This is why there have been so many irrational or outright non sequitur responses to the Meacham’s piece, such as the following (these were found using a Google blog search):

Here’s to all the anti-God folk at Newsweek. Christianity is still alive and well in the good old U.S.A.

Oh, that’s right – it’s Holy Week. Time to pile on the mockery

In Newsweak’s eyes, a decline of 10% over the last 20 years is the nail in the coffin

To his credit, fundamentalist-evangelical theologian Albert Mohler, who figures prominently in Meacham’s piece, did not misrepresent the Newsweek cover story, although he did offer a clever twist:

The cover story is a serious consideration of the issue Newsweek set as its priority for the week of Easter, and the seriousness of the magazine’s approach is evident in the fact that its editor, Mr. Meacham, wrote the cover story himself. The essay, elegant in form and serious in tone, demands attention. …

One key aspect of Mr. Meacham’s argument is his suggestion that what binds America together is not “a specific faith” but instead “a commitment to freedom” and, in particular, freedom of conscience. There is something to this argument, of course. The founding generation did not establish the young republic on any religious creed or theological doctrine. Still, there is something missing from this argument, and that is the recognition that freedom, and freedom of conscience in particular, requires some prior understanding of human dignity and the origins of conscience itself. Though the founders included those who rejected the Christian Gospel and Christianity itself, Christianity had provided the necessary underpinnings for the founders’ claims.

Did you catch that? Mohler is saying that, while the United States was not actually founded as “a Christian nation” with “a Christian government,” and furthermore conceded not all the Founders were religious — a concession I find surprising coming from him — he’s saying that Christianity nonetheless underpins the country, even in spite of the fact that the Founders had specifically avoided making it “a Christian nation”; and that their effort to do so was itself an expression of Christianity. In essence, Mohler is saying that the US is, in fact, a Christian nation even though it’s not!

I should congratulate Mohler, this is one damned nifty trick of logic. Of course, it’s self-contradictory in itself, which by definition robs it of any veracity, but it’s nonetheless quite inventive.

Eventually the Religious Right will see that “Christianity as a religion that individuals in the US believe in” is NOT the same thing as “the Christianity we worship which we believe to be a political entity whose authority entitles us to run the country as we demand.” Unfortunately they have a lot of growing up to do before they achieve this insight.

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