Another shooting happened this past week. Mass killings are happening with such frequency that it is difficult to keep track of the whos, whats, wheres and whys. But this one was different. It occurred outside the Washington, DC offices of the Family Research Council, a social conservative advocacy group. A security guard was wounded in the attack. Condemnation of the attack has poured in from all sides in the culture wars. However for social conservatives, this physical, violent attack on a major conservative values advocacy group has underlined just how much has been lost in recent decades when it comes to traditional, predominantly Christian values. A Time Magazine article on the consequences of the shooting states:
The aftermath has highlighted the feeling of besiegement from opponents of gay marriage, who feel their values are being increasingly marginalized across the U.S. As more and more Americans support gay marriage, they say, the national public has exhibited hostility toward groups that do not support gay rights.
Gay marriage has become the latest flash point in the struggle for the American soul. In the past, there was something of a consensus as to what was right and what was wrong, or perhaps what was acceptable and what was unacceptable. That being said, there were always vigorous subsets in American culture who played by a different sets of rules. Not to mention the large numbers of individuals in the majority who gave lip service to majority values but who made hypocrisy into an art form.
Particularly when it comes to sex, American values have changed drastically since I was a boy. There is still a substantial number of people, perhaps even half of the population, who still cling to ‘traditional’ values and anchor them in some sort of meaningful religious beliefs. But the number of the faithful and the righteous has been eroding. And those professing Christian faith will not be in the majority much longer.
Outrage over the determined and politically savvy advance of a gay rights agenda has been a fixture among conservative Americans for many years. But that fight is over. Conservative Christians have been outflanked and have suddenly discovered that the high ground in this debate no longer belongs to them but to LGBT people, who have discovered that it is much more politically appealing in our post-modern culture to say ‘yes’ than it is to say ‘no’. This is why the Family Research Council, as well as other conservative groups and churches are being labeled as hate mongers and bigots. Those of us who are conservative in our values have very suddenly found ourselves on the sharp end of this debate, and it is not a very happy or comfortable place to be.
For this and many other reasons, I believe we are witnessing the death throes of American Christendom. For its entire history, the majority of people in the US have been professing Christians, and their values have been the context in which the nation’s laws and culture and public discourse have emerged. Christian hegemony was never really debated, it was assumed. And the sense of American exceptionalism was nurtured from Christian assumptions, as well as an unfortunate conflation of Old Testament Israel with contemporary Christian America.
The great challenge is that there are less and less people who take any of that stuff seriously. Christianity, and Christians are becoming increasingly marginalized, especially in the places where the cutting edge ideas that move our society are generated – the universities. Christians are having less and less impact in the political scene, the intellectual scene, the arts scene, the media scene. And whatever voice we might have had has been taken over by people and agendas that are often very different from us and ours.
The trajectory is, unfortunately, clear. Christians and Christianity are losing our place in our world. We are no longer a majority defining the culture, but increasingly a minority standing against the prevailing culture. What is notable is that Christians today are still behaving as if we have the right to cultural hegemony and national prominence and universal respect, and the sense of outrage and alarm (along with the incessant whinging) when it begins to dawn on us that it simply is not so is very telling.
Truth be told, we Christians have had our time in America, and I’m not so sure we have been effective stewards of the opportunity. But taking a wider perspective, Christians in any nation or culture who have achieved majority status and then used that status to impose their values and agendas on everyone have almost always not been a credit to their faith. Here we are today wringing our hands about the morality of people who are different from us and who are trying to impose their perspectives on us (irony, here, is thick), when we should rather be figuring out ways to engage the people around us with Christian love and how to be effective witnesses to those with whom we disagree. Christians throughout the world and throughout history have often found themselves as a minority in a hostile culture, often facing persecution, from the petty to the ultimate. This is, in fact, the norm for Christians seeking to follow Christ. Our witness comes not from our ability to control, shape or even influence culture. Rather our witness comes from the quality of our lives and relationships in the midst of a hostile culture. Like so many Christian hegemonies that have gone before our American one, we seem to have substituted institutional identity, personal fulfillment and political engagement for transformed lives and relationships. All Christendoms have eventually discovered their moral and spiritual bankruptcy and crumbled (Think of Western Europe, think of Byzantium, think of the UK).
The day may come when our fine and colossal worship palaces and mega churches, the ‘campuses’ in which congregations have invested so many millions of dollars, the big steeple churches that were such a draw for our parents’ generation, that all of these will have been turned over to some other organizations for some other uses, and that Christians in America will be vastly reduced in number meeting quietly in homes. This isn’t the first time that another world view has looked upon Christians as being dangerous and haters of humankind. If I may be so bold, we American Christians have had it easy, in that it has been easy to be a Christian in the US. This state of affairs looks to be changing. We may be entering a time when it is not so easy a thing to identify with Christ and His Church and become a Christian, especially if that means ostracization, loss of educational opportunities, loss of employment opportunities, etc. Especially if that means outright persecution. Right now, still, in many places, it is difficult to tell a Christian from the rest of the world around him or her. The time is coming when it will be increasingly easy to tell those who are genuinely followers of Christ apart from the rest of the population. And despite the difficulties which that may bring, it can only be a good thing for American Christians and American Churches.
American Christendom has existed for several hundred years and defined our context as Americans at every level. This is coming to an end, as American culture continues its rapid change, as the earlier consensus on morality erodes, as Christians find themselves increasingly on the defensive at every level of discourse. American Christianity has been resilient and for a number of reasons to this point. And American Christians and Christian institutions are putting up a brave fight. But the trajectory is rather clear and the prognosis is not good. American Christendom is on life support. And it’s only a matter of time before somebody, against our will, pulls the plug.