Christianity After Religion: Questioning The Old Gods

The charismatic Christians in the church of my childhood viewed the Presbyterian and Lutheran Christians in the churches of their childhood with suspicion. As much as speaking in tongues and faith healing, a merciless judgment of the institutional church–especially its catholic expressions–was a key component of being “saved.”

Perhaps that’s why I’ve never had any sympathy for the “renewal” movements that have divided mainline Protestantism these last two decades. What exactly, I’ve always asked of Presbyterians for Renewal (to take one example), would you like to renew?

Advocates for renewal of Christianity in America have a problem that Diana Butler-Bass clearly exposes in “Questioning The Old Gods,” the third chapter of her new book Christianity After Religion: The End of The Church And The Beginning of A New Spiritual Awakening.

In short, their problem is that people lie. Every measurable marker of religious participation in the U.S. has declined over the past 40 years. That much is irrefutable. Yet researchers are increasingly accepting that measurements of religiosity in previous generations were artificially inflated. After citing the work of several sociologists of religion that found survey-based information about church attendance in America from the 1970’s on to be unreliable, Butler-Bass concludes: “Put simply, Americans do not tell the truth to survey takers. They want to be seen as good churchgoers, even if they do not go to church.”

This could be seen as a relatively minor point, and it would indeed be a mistake to cite it as a good reason for denying the rest of the overwhelming evidence demonstrating decline in American church life. But it’s important to get clear what exactly is declining and whether or not it should be saved.

The distinction made here is between beliefs and social norms. Sociologist Will Herberg studied typical American religious beliefs in 1960 and noticed as he did that significant discrepancies existed between what people said they believed about God, Jesus, and the Bible, and the amount of influence they allowed those beliefs in their political, economic, and civic behavior. “These views were as much norms as they were committed beliefs,” Butler-Bass summarizes. “And perhaps they were more the former than the latter.”

Renewing the Christianity of post WWII America, then, would involve re-creating social norms that compel the (overwhelmingly white) faithful to, among other things, lie to survey-takers about their attendance at racially segregated churches led exclusively by men. Any takers?

The crux of the matter is that people have the freedom to exercise choice in religious participation in ways that the social norms of previous generations didn’t really allow. Fear of the neighbors’ stink eye for missing church–to say nothing of the fear of actual damnation–is no longer a reliable motivator for going to church. Praise God for that. But in the absence of that motivation, churches have struggled to present a compelling substitute to an increasingly disinterested public. Some evangelicals have doubled down on Hell. Others have offered wealth and personal “victory.”

Mainline Protestants, for their part, have fiddled with the gears of their polity and theological standards in a push-and-pull battle to renew their theological vitality while at the same time adapting to dramatically changing social norms. It’s hard to see much positive effect in that.

What compels you, then, to go to church? And do you think it’s the same thing as compelled previous generations of American Christians? What ought Christianity to be compelling people to do in 21st century North America?

Previous posts on Christianity After Religion:

The End of The Beginning

The Beginning



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