Right now I’m reading “The Reactionary Mind,” a biting critique of conservatism by Coren Robin; and “The End of White Christian America,” in which Robert Jones of the Public Religion Research Institute chronicles white Christian America’s waning cultural and sociopolitical influence in the country. While one is polemic and the other more explanatory, both books have helped me understand the historical, philosophical and theological underpinnings of what I think conservatism gets wrong about Christianity.
There’s a narrative amongst many on the right that Western society is increasingly moving away from its Judeo-Christian core values. The issues that highlight this divergence are abortion, gay marriage and transgender rights. In some ways this is true, as a growing share of Americans are non-Christian and/or religiously non-affiliated. A key part in the story is the amount of young people who are either leaving or not entering the church. The number of Americans age 18–29 who have no religious affiliation has nearly quadrupled between 1986 and 2016. Jones wrote that if current trends held, “religiously unaffiliated Americans could compromise as large percentage of the population as Protestants…” by 2051.
If you ask conservative Christians, they may give you different reasons for the church’s decline and our cultural disarray: the Sexual Revolution of the 60s and 70s, Marxist and egalitarian intellectual movements, non-traditional interpretations of the Bible, the “gay agenda,” our societies emphasis on pluralism and cultural relativism, the acceptance of moral vice under the guise of “tolerance,” a byproduct of technocracy and hyper-individualism, the attack on traditional family values, etc.
People interpret the Bible differently depending on their background and environment (the most dichotomous example that comes to mind from theologian James Cone, on how those on the deck of a slave-ship are going to have a different idea of God than the people in the hull). People have messy, but valid theological arguments over what parts of the Bible are culturally specific or divinely dictated by God, which divine dictates are fluid with the time and which ones are not. There are also some fundamental paradoxes that ultimately can’t be solved through “reason” but only by faith (the central one, if a Higher Power is real, why is it not tangible?).
I didn’t want to debate whether or not the conservative rationale was true, valid or accurate, but I do want to give a possible explanation of the decline of Christian America from a perspective on the left.
To put it neatly, I’d argue that the most relevant reason why younger Americans are leaving the church is because of hypocrisy. I don’t mean in the “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” sense of the word, but more in its literal meaning: you say you believe one thing, but you do another. Younger Americans imagine themselves as rejecting a religion that doesn’t live out what they consider to be (or should be) its prime directive: treat all of God’s children as if they were all God’s children.
A 2006 survey found that the top three attributes young Americans associated with “present-day Christianity” were being anti-gay, judgmental and hypocritical. These perceptions manifest themselves in politics, primarily in the perception that Republican Party promotes (asserts) itself as the Christian party.
To be fair, this goes deeper than capital “P” politics. In my personal experience as a Christian man, people ranging from the faithful who stopped going to church to those who were once Christians but now are atheists seem to all voice different iterations of that same famous Gandhi quote: “I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”
People see pastors of megachurches live in mansions and drive sports-cars while the less fortunate starve and are homeless the next block over. They see religious leaders warning against the evils of gay sex on Sunday, who are revealed to have cheated on their spouse with another man on Wednesday. They see people arguing against abortion one moment, then arguing for something as morally indefensible as the death penalty the next. But as critical as this statement is, I truly believe that many of the negative connotations that younger generations feel towards the Republican Party is getting mapped on to Christianity through association.
Not arguing whether it is true, valid, accurate or not, but in a diverse country, many people see the GOP as a kind of “(conservative) whites only” party. In an era of massive inequality, they see it as not just greedy, but valuing the free market over the needs of the poor, the sick, the environment, etc. In a country that professes “all men are created equal,” they perceive the GOP as defining “true” Christianity as being intolerant to gay people, Muslims and immigrants. They understand the faith, at its base, as a religious project to make you a “good person,” yet see a party support a man who seems to equate decency with inferiority, and once said he’s not sure he’s ever asked God for forgiveness. They see a party that lambasted the first African American president over the most trivial things, but remains silent when President Trump says something at most bigoted, at least un-Christian. They ask why conservatives see the specks in everyone else’s eye yet don’t see the log in their own. They see a party that honors God with their lips, but whose hearts are far from Him.
As a person of faith, I don’t think that feeling of hypocrisy can be so easily dismissed as a misinterpretation of the Bible or leftist dogma. Even for those who grew up with the conservative Christian political movements as Christianity’s dominant expression, “seven of the top ten attributes they used to describe contemporary Christianity were negative.”
Overall, this phenomenon makes me think of James Baldwin when he talks about how you can’t fool a child, because they watch what you do, not what you say. They ask “If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar: for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen?”
Young Americans see Christians (conflated with conservatives) as the group who care the least about the “least of these.” That’s why the influence of Christianity is declining in America.