Tough sea­son for be­liev­ers hints at many yet to come


Christ­mas is hard for ev­ery­one. But it’s par­tic­u­larly hard for peo­ple who ac­tu­ally be­lieve in it.

In a sense, of course, there’s no bet­ter time to be a Chris­tian than the first 25 days of De­cem­ber. But this is also the sea­son when Amer­i­can Chris­tians can feel most em­bat­tled. Their piety is over­shad­owed by ma­te­ri­al­ist ticky-tack. Their great feast is com­pro­mised by Christ­mukkwan­zaa mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism.

And the once-a-year church­go­ers crowd­ing the pews be­side them are a re­minder of how many Amer­i­cans re­gard re­li­gion as just an­other form of mid­win­ter en­ter­tain­ment, wedged in be­tween “The Nutcracker” and “Mir­a­cle on 34th Street.”

These anx­i­eties can be over­drawn, and they’re fre­quently turned to cyn­i­cal pur­poses. (Think of the an­nual “war on Christ­mas” drum­beat, or last week’s com­plaints from Repub­li­can sen­a­tors about the sup­posed “sac­ri­lege” of keep­ing Congress in ses­sion through the hol­i­day.)

But they also re­flect the pe­cu­liar and com­pli­cated sta­tus of Chris­tian faith in Amer­i­can life. Depend­ing on the an­gle you take, Chris­tian­ity is ei­ther dom­i­nant or un­der siege, ubiq­ui­tous or mar­ginal, the strong­est re­li­gion in the coun­try or a wan­ing and in­creas­ingly ar­chaic faith.

Hap­pily, for any­one who needs a last­minute gift for the anx­ious Chris­tian in their life, the year just past fea­tured two thick, im­pres­sive books that wres­tle with ex­actly these com­plex­i­ties.

The first is “Amer­i­can Grace,” co-writ­ten by Har­vard’s Robert Put­nam (of “Bowl­ing Alone” fame) and Notre Dame’s David Camp­bell, which ex­am­ines the role that re­li­gion plays in bind­ing up the nation’s so­cial fab­ric.

Over­all, they ar­gue, our so­ci­ety reaps enor­mous ben­e­fits from re­li­gious en­gage­ment, while suf­fer­ing from few of the po­ten­tial down­sides.

Wide­spread church­go­ing seems to make Amer­i­cans more al­tru­is­tic and more en­gaged with their com­mu­ni­ties, more likely to vol­un­teer and more in­clined to give to sec­u­lar and re­li­gious char­i­ties. Yet at the same time, thanks to Amer­i­cans’ ev­er­in­creas­ing tol­er­ance, we’ve been spared the kind of sec­tar­ian con­flict that of­ten ac­com­pa­nies re­li­gious zeal.

But for Chris­tians, this sunny story has a dark side. Re­li­gious faith looks more so­cially ben­e­fi­cial to Amer­ica than ever, but the in­sti­tu­tional Chris­tian­ity that’s his­tor­i­cally gen­er­ated most of those ben­e­fits seems to be grad­u­ally los­ing its ap­peal.

In the last 50 years, the Chris­tian churches have un­der­gone what “Amer­i­can Grace” de­scribes as a shock and two af­ter­shocks.

The ini­tial earth­quake was the cul­tural revo­lu­tion of the 1960s, which un­der­cut re­li­gious author­ity as it did all author­ity, while deal­ing a par­tic­u­lar blow to Chris­tian sex­ual ethics.

The first af­ter­shock was the rise of re­li­gious con­ser­vatism, and par­tic­u­larly evan­gel­i­cal faith, as a back­lash against the cul­tural revo­lu­tion’s ex­cesses.

But now we’re liv­ing through the sec­ond af­ter­shock, a back­lash to that back­lash — a re­volt against the as­so­ci­a­tion be­tween Chris­tian faith and con­ser­va­tive pol­i­tics, Put­nam and Camp­bell ar­gue, in which mil­lions of Amer­i­cans (younger Amer­i­cans, es­pe­cially) may be aban­don­ing or­ga­nized Chris­tian­ity al­to­gether.

Their ar­gu­ment is com­ple­mented by the Uni­ver­sity of Vir­ginia so­ci­ol­o­gist James Dav­i­son Hunter’s “To Change the World,” an of­ten-with­er­ing ac­count of re­cent Chris­tian at­tempts to in­flu­ence Amer­i­can pol­i­tics and so­ci­ety.

Hav­ing pop­u­lar­ized the term “cul­ture war” two decades ago, Hunter now ar­gues that the “war” foot­ing has led Amer­i­can Chris­tians into a cul-de-sac. It has en­cour­aged both con­ser­va­tive and lib­eral be­liev­ers to frame their mis­sion pri­mar­ily in terms of con­flict, and to ex­press them­selves al­most ex­clu­sively in the “lan­guage of loss, dis­ap­point­ment, anger, an­tipa­thy, re­sent­ment and de­sire for con­quest.”

Thanks in part to this bunker men­tal­ity, Amer­i­can Chris­tian­ity has be­come what Hunter calls a “weak cul­ture” — one that mo­bi­lizes, but doesn’t con­vert, alien­ates rather than se­duces, and looks back­ward to­ward a lost past in­stead of for­ward to a vi­brant fu­ture.

In spite of their nu­mer­i­cal strength and re­serves of so­cial cap­i­tal, he ar­gues, the Chris­tian churches are mainly in­flu­en­tial only in the “pe­riph­eral ar­eas” of our com­mon life. In the com­mand­ing heights of cul­ture, Chris­tian­ity punches way be­low its weight.

Put­nam and Camp­bell are quan­ti­ta­tive, lib­eral, and up­beat; Hunter is qual­i­ta­tive, con­ser­va­tive and con­flicted. But both books come round to a sim­i­lar ar­gu­ment: this month’s ubiq­ui­tous carols and crèches not­with­stand­ing, be­liev­ing Chris­tians are no longer what they once were — an over­whelm­ing ma­jor­ity in a self-con­sciously Chris­tian nation.

The ques­tion is whether they can be­come a cre­ative and at­trac­tive mi­nor­ity in a dif­fer­ent sort of cul­ture, where they’re com­pet­ing not only with ri­val faiths, but with a host of pseudo-Chris­tian spir­i­tu­al­i­ties, and where the idea of a sin­gle re­li­gious truth seems in­creas­ingly passe.

Or to put it an­other way, Chris­tians need to find a way to thrive in a so­ci­ety that looks less and less like any sort of Chris­ten­dom — and more and more like the di­verse and com­pli­cated Ro­man Em­pire where their re­li­gion had its be­gin­ning, 2,000 years ago this week.

Ross Douthat writes for The New York Times.

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