Imagine travelling down the expressway, sunroof open, XM dialed in to the “’60’s on 6,” and lost in reverie until you catch a whiff of something—a bouquet with that certain rubbery tang. You glance down and notice the “Temp” indicator is red; you glance back up to catch the first puffs of steam wafting from the hood. You pull over, get out of the car, and raise the hood to an engine belching coolant in gray billows. As you wait for the tow truck, head in hands, the significance of those small puddles of antifreeze on the carport you’ve noticed, but ignored, for the last several days, becomes clear.
Something like that has happened in our nation. The national conscience, which for the better part of 200 years had been informed by Christian principles, developed a leak decades ago. It started as a slow drip, scarcely noticed. Left largely unattended, it progressed from a trickle to a stream to a gush that has led to the de-Christianization of America.
That is not to say that most people don’t identity as “Christian.” They do, although their percentage has declined nearly twenty points since 1960 to 74 percent. Nor is it to say that the transcendent perspective of our founding has been written out of our rule of law—the distinctly Judeo-Christian premises of the Declaration of Independence remain the bedrock of the Constitution. Rather, it is to acknowledge that Christian values no longer shape our moral consensus.
Gallup Politics, documenting the “evolution” of that consensus for over a decade, found that the majority of Americans age 35 to 55 years now consider the following behaviors “morally acceptable”: gay/lesbian relationships (54 percent), non-marital sex (63 percent), divorce (66 percent), out-of-wedlock birth (67 percent), and embryo-destructive research (59 percent) among others.
On the abortion issue, public attitudes are more nuanced. As I pointed out in “Pro-Life Inner Conflict,” although 48 percent of Americans poll “pro-life,” only about one-fourth believe that abortion is morally wrong and that government should pass restrictions on it.
It is a moral slide showing no signs of braking. With 18 to 34 year olds polling up to 20 percentage points higher in moral acceptance of homosexual relationships (74 percent) and non-martial sex (72 percent) than for their elders, and with nearly half having no moral qualms with pornography or sex between teenagers, our plunge is poised to continue apace.
It should come as no surprise, then, that only 44 percent of Americans believe that government should promote traditional values. That represents a drop of 15 percentage points over the last decade. However, the notion that traditional (read: Christian) values should have no role in governance would have been unthinkable to our nation’s founders.
Writes Bill Flax in (Forbes,) “All [the Framers] thought the Bible essential for [a] just and harmonious society.” Quoting historian Larry Schweikart, Flax continues, “The founding documents of every one of the original thirteen colonies reveal them to be awash in the concepts of Christianity and God.”
Even Thomas Jefferson, one of the least Christian among the Founding Fathers, is quoted as saying, “No nation has ever existed or been governed without religion. Nor can be. The Christian religion is the best religion that has been given to man and I as Chief Magistrate of this nation am bound to give it the sanction of my example.”
Fast-forward to 1992.
In the majority opinion in Lee v. Weisman—a case involving prayer at public school commencements—Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy remarked that law cannot be based on the “conviction that there is an ethic and a morality which transcend human invention.”
Fast-forward another 20 years and witness a government that:
--Imposes a health-care law that requires employers, regardless of religious convictions, to provide contraceptives, sterilization procedures, and abortion-inducing drugs to their employees.
--Argues, in Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC,that it can decide who can serve as a minister in religious organizations.
--Revokes a grant to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops for combating sex trafficking because of their stance against abortion.
--Removes conscience exemptions for health care workers intended to protect them from being forced to participate in abortions.
--Is rebranding “freedom of religion” to “freedom of worship.”
Witness also the raft of legal suits and judgments against wedding providers who decline their services for same-sex ceremonies on religious grounds. In one of the most egregious cases, a New Mexico Court ruled that a photographer is obliged to ignore her religious beliefs as “the price of citizenship.”
And such actions aren’t limited to the ruling class. Columbia Law School’s Center for Gender and Sexuality is bringing together a group of “theorists, religious leaders, and activists who are working to contest and reframe the utilization of religious exemptions to civil rights laws.” Those “religious liberty” defenses do stick in the craw of folks yearning to be liberated from standards “which transcend human invention.”
All are the predictable outcomes of the loss of our Christian bearing.
Giving us what we want
Today, Christian teachings on human sexuality, the dignity of life at all stages, and the sanctity of marriage are held and observed by a minority of Americans. And given that the vast majority of Americans who profess to be Christian have rates of divorce, sexual promiscuity, substance abuse, and other behaviors indistinguishable from their non-Christian neighbors, it appears that those teachings hold little sway over “believers” as well.
We complain about a government that has little respect for us or our beliefs—beliefs that stand in the way of its visions for social progress. But if we don’t take our faith seriously, why should anyone else, especially the government?
When Caesar’s subjects neither espouse nor adhere to Christian values, nor want to be ruled by them, what is he to think? What is he to do? Other than give them what they want, what they demand: freedom from “an ethic and a morality which transcend human invention.”
Where do we go from here?
Obviously, we didn’t get to this point overnight. The loss of our moral bearing is the result of decades of de-Christianization that will take decades of re-Christianization to restore, if it can be done at all.
It won’t happen without a new kind of Christian, one whose faith, professed and practiced, matches the faith that Jesus taught and lived. Sadly, that characterizes scarcely 3 percent* of American Christians today. More typical is the spiritual aesthete who wants little more from church than a beautiful building, nice members, a nurturing pastor, uplifting sermons, soul-stirring music, and a 60-minute service.
Producing the “new kind” of Christian will require a new kind of church, radically different from “church as usual”—a church that
--Is a training center and boot camp, rather than a lecture hall and entertainment venue.
--Equips its members to send them out, rather than hires professionals to draw crowds in.
--Understands disciple-making as its raison d’être, integrating discipleship into the whole of church life, rather than relegating it to an optional class or curriculum.
--Determines its “success” by discipleship outcomes (individual spiritual growth and maturity) rather than marketplace measures (attendance, giving, capital projects).
--Is process-oriented for spiritual formation, rather than program-driven for church growth. (More about the process-oriented model can be found in “Getting Intentional About Discipleship.”)
And none of that can happen until the hearts of God’s people become so burdened for a world wobbling on its axis from sin that they call upon God for a movement of the Holy Spirit, the likes of which have not been experienced for two millennia.
*In 2011, George Barna found that “only about 3% of all self-identified Christians in America have come to the final stops on the transformational journey—the places where they have surrendered control of their life to God, submitted to His will for their life, and devoted themselves to loving and serving God and other people.”
Regis Nicoll is a freelance writer and a BreakPoint Centurion. Serving as a men’s ministry leader and worldview teacher in his community, Regis publishes a free weekly commentary to stimulate thought on current issues from a Christian perspective. To be placed on this free e-mail distribution list, e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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