The Secularization Of American Culture

Jun 1st, 2019 | By | Category: Culture & Wordview, Featured Issues

The evidence that American culture is becoming more secular is overwhelming.   For example, the rise of the religious “nones” is one of the more profound developments within American culture.  They constitute about a quarter of the total population and, about a third of those who became adults in the new millennium, identify with the “nones.”  As The Economist reports, “Comparing 2016-2018 with the last three years of the 20th century, declared participants in organized religion have plunged by nearly 20 points to 52%.  And among millennials, signing up to a church is a minority (42%) pursuit, according to Gallup . . .  Membership in any faith is plummeting much faster among Democrats (71% to 48%) than among Republicans (77% to 69%).”  It is reasonable therefore to conclude that the United States is now on a path towards a secularization already well advanced in Western Europe.

One of the most reliable longitudinal surveys of American religious belief and practice is the Pew Research Center’s US Religious Landscape Study (RLS). The RLS documents that “Christians” can be identified in one of three ways:

  • convictional Christians(those whose beliefs and behaviors closely align with what we would recognize to represent truly evangelical faith).
  • casual Christians(those whose basic affirmation of gospel truth is essentially orthodox but whose participation in church and personal practices diverge from biblical principles).
  • cultural Christians(those who self-identify as “Christian” relative to other religious affiliations but whose beliefs and behaviors are not at all aligned with the Bible’s teachings).

The percentage of convictional Christians has remained stable (at 20-25%) over many decades, even slightly increasing over the past decade.  The percentage of cultural Christians has experienced significant decline as those who traditionally would have identified themselves as “Christian” increasingly report their religious affiliation as “none”—thus, the “nones.”  The three categories of “Christians” have, until recently, exerted cultural, moral, and political solidarity. But that coalition has dramatically shifted over the past decade.

  • Pastconvictional + casual + cultural = majority Christian coalition(+ 75%)
  • Presentcasual + cultural + nones = majority secular coalition(+ 75%)

 

In addition, American culture is more polarized politically than in recent memory.  For example, in a recent talk to the Texas Baptists’ Christian Life Commission, conservative Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson asserted: “We live in a landslide country, where most of us live in areas where either Republicans or Democrats easily win in landslide elections.” In 2016, Gerson noted, 80 percent of counties voted for either Trump or Clinton in a landslide. In the 1970s, that number was 25 percent for presidential elections.

 

What are some tangible evidences of the increasing secularization and polarization of American culture?  Several disturbing examples:

 

  • First, there seems to be a concerted effort in the Democratically-controlled House of Representatives to omit the phrase “so help me God’ when administering witness oaths. Examples include the Judiciary, Energy and Commerce and Natural Resources committees.  The Center for Inquiry, a nonprofit group dedicated to fostering “a secular society based on reason, science, freedom of inquiry and humanist values,” has advocated support for Democratic committee chairs who omit this phrase.  Although arguably symbolic, such a subtle change, even if not widespread, indicates an important shift toward secularization.
  • Second, early in 2019, another rather shocking example centered on Vice President Mike Pence’s wife, Karen. She announced that she would teach art part-time at Immanuel Christian School in Northern Virginia, a small K-8 academy.  The school is a rather standard Christian school, affirming values and practices consistent with conservative, biblical Christianity, which would include a biblical view of human sexuality.  [The school’s teacher contract reads: “I understand that the term ‘marriage’ has only one meaning; the uniting of one man and one woman in a single, exclusive covenant union as delineated in Scripture.”]  How did the larger culture respond to her announcement?  John King of CNN declared that taxpayers should no longer fund her Secret Service protection.  The ACLU argued that she “was sending a terrible message to students.”  The Guardian viewed Mrs. Pence as a reminder of “the vice-president’s dangerous bigotry.”  During a Las Vegas performance, Lady Gaga heralded that Mrs. Pence and her husband are “the worst representation of what it means to be a Christian.”  Wall Street Journal columnist, William McGurn, is certainly correct when he stipulates that “Today’s militant secularists ironically resemble the worst caricatures of religious intolerance of early America.  Where the Puritans humiliated sinners with the stocks, the modern intolerant have Twitter. . .  And whereas in Hawthorne’s novel Hester Prynne was forced to wear a scarlet ‘A’—for adulterer—today we have folks such as Jimmy Kimmel using their popular platforms to paint the scarlet ‘H’—for hater—on people such as Mrs. Pence.”
  • Third, one of the numerous Democratic presidential candidates, Pete Buttigieg, represents a similar commitment to this secular gospel. A Harvard and Oxford graduate, Buttigieg is a gifted musician, linguist and scholar.  He also joined the Navy Reserve and was briefly deployed to Afghanistan.  He has been the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, gaining the reputation as a political problem solver.  Finally, he frequently quotes from or alludes to the Bible, which he uses as evidence of his personal faith as a Christian.  He openly affirms his own same-sex marriage as biblical and ethically right.  Apparently to appeal to the secular Democratic voters, Buttigieg has taken out after Mike Pence, whom he has called “fanatical” and a “social extremist.”  His most poignant attack has been in one of his stump speeches:  “If me being gay was a choice, it was a choice that was made far, far above my pay grade.  And that’s the thing I wish the Mike Pence’s of the world would understand.  That if you got a problem with who I am, your problem is not with me.  Your quarrel, sir, is with my creator.”  In another speech, Buttigieg declared that “You’re not free if the county clerk gets to tell you who you ought to marry because of their idea of their political beliefs.”  He added: “The chance to live a life you choose, in keeping with your values—that is freedom in its richest sense.”  Any democratic society must grapple with issues of liberty and conscience—a fundamental issue in American culture today.  Candidate Pete Buttigieg beautifully defined freedom as “keeping with your values—that is freedom in its richest sense.”  But he apparently does not include in his definition of freedom those who cannot embrace his definition of marriage.  That not only evidences discrimination and intolerance; based on his definition of freedom, it also evidences gross hypocrisy.

 

The growing secularization of American culture is moving America towards an intolerant society based on a perverted understanding of freedom and liberty:  A society that defines freedom as total personal autonomy, but an autonomy that cannot tolerate disagreement with or rejection of lifestyle choices when it comes to marriage, gender or employment opportunities.  Who is really guilt of bigotry?

 

See The Economist (27 April 2019), p. 24 and (20 April 2019), p. 32; Wall Street Journal editorial (16 April 2019); William McGurn editorial in the Wall Street Journal (22 January 2019); and Catie Edmondson in the New York Times (11 May 2019).

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