The New “Religiosity” Of American Civilization

Apr 17th, 2021 | By | Category: Culture & Wordview, Featured Issues

The mission of Issues in Perspective is to provide thoughtful, historical and biblically-centered perspectives on current ethical and cultural issues.

Timothy Keller, the founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, was recently diagnosed with pancreatic cancer; he is 70 years old.  Keller is one of my favorite authors, and several of his books have had a profound influence on my life and ministry.  He recently published an article in The Atlantic honestly reflecting on his imminent death.  He writes, “A significant number of believers in God find their faith shaken or destroyed when they learn that they will die at a time and in a way that seems unfair to them. Before my diagnosis, I had seen this in people of many faiths. One woman with cancer told me years ago, ‘I’m not a believer anymore—that doesn’t work for me. I can’t believe in a personal God who would do something like this to me.’ Cancer killed her God . . .  So when the certainty of your mortality and death finally breaks through, is there a way to face it without debilitating fear? Is there a way to spend the time you have left growing into greater grace, love, and wisdom? I believe there is, but it requires both intellectual and emotional engagement: head work and heart work.  I use the terms head and heart to mean reasoning and feeling, adapting to the modern view that these two things are independent faculties. The Hebrew scriptures, however, see the heart as the seat of the mind, will, and emotions. Proverbs says, ‘As he thinketh in his heart, so is he.’ In other words, rational conviction and experience might change my mind, but the shift would not be complete until it took root in my heart. And so I set out to reexamine my convictions and to strengthen my faith, so that it might prove more than a match for death.”

Among other things, Keller’s “heart” and “head” found solace and comfort in the truth and promise of the resurrection: “Most particularly for me as a Christian, Jesus’s costly love, death, and resurrection had become not just something I believed and filed away, but a hope that sustained me all day. I pray this prayer daily. Occasionally it electrifies, but ultimately it always calms:  And as I lay down in sleep and rose this morning only by your grace, keep me in the joyful, lively remembrance that whatever happens, I will someday know my final rising, because Jesus Christ lay down in death for me, and rose for my justification.”

I am most thankful for Keller’s transparency as he summarized his grief, his tears, his faith; and as he revealed the genuine battle of heart and head that he and his wife Kathy have gone through processing and accepting his imminent death.  But such faith seems rare in American civilization today.  Indeed, American civilization now seems to manifest a religiosity, not a genuine faith.  As writer Derek Thompson observes, “The nuclear family, God, and national pride are a holy trinity of the American identity” and they are waning in importance, morphing into something else.  What does Thompson mean?  “In 1998, The Wall Street Journal and NBC News asked several hundred young Americans to name their most important values. Work ethic led the way—naturally. After that, large majorities picked patriotism, religion, and having children.

Twenty-one years later, the same pollsters asked the same questions of today’s 18-to-38-year-olds—members of the Millennial and Z generations. The results . . .  showed a major value shift among young adults. Today’s respondents were 10 percentage points less likely to value having children and 20 points less likely to highly prize patriotism or religion.  The nuclear family, religious fealty, and national pride—family, God, and country—are a holy trinity of American traditionalism. The fact that allegiance to all three is in precipitous decline tells us something important about the evolution of the American identity.”  Here is a summary of the evidence supporting this extraordinary claim:

  • “Millennials are nearly three times more likely than Boomers to say they don’t believe in God . . .  If you think that Judeo-Christian values are an irreplaceable keystone in the moral arc of Western society, these facts will disturb you; if you don’t, they won’t.”
  • “Millennials and Gen Z are not only unlikely to call themselves Protestants and patriots, but also less likely to call themselves Democrats or Republicans. They seem most comfortable with unaffiliation, even anti-affiliation. They are less likely than preceding generations to identify as ‘environmentalists,’ less likely to be loyal to specific brands, and less likely to trust authoritiesor companies, or institutions. Less than one-third of them say they have ‘a lot of confidence’ in unions, or Silicon Valley, or the federal government, or the news, or the justice system.”
  • Researchers Kathryn Edin and Timothy Nelson at Princeton University, Andrew Cherlin at Johns Hopkins, and Robert Francis, now at Whitworth University, published a paper based on lengthy interviews conducted from 2000 to 2013 with older, low-income men without a college degree in black and white working-class neighborhoods in the Boston, Charleston, Chicago, and Philadelphia areas.  The results:  “First, these low-income working-class men are turning away from organized religion even faster than Millennials and Gen Z. Since the 1970s, church attendance among white men without a college degree has fallen even more than among white college graduates, according to the paper.” They remain deeply spiritual without being traditionally devout, avoiding church and preferring instead to browse the internet and libraries for makeshift pieces of “a religious self.” “They [are] attempting to renegotiate their relationship with religion by picking and choosing elements of various religious traditions they found appealing,” the authors write.  Second, many poor working-class men now reject the nuclear family, in their own way. “Their marriage rates have declined in lockstep with their church attendance. But the authors note that a number of these men were eager to have close relationships with their children, even when they had little relationship with their mothers. While many of them had given up on romance, they saw opportunities to have relationships with their kids as a way of fixing their own mistakes, thus giving back to their communities “in ways that they believe[d] can make the world a better place.” Finally, as the “older working class and younger generations struggle to renegotiate their attachments to faith, family, and community, they face similar challenges with regard to their mental health. Anxiety, depression, and suicidality have increased to unprecedented levels among young people. Meanwhile, deaths from drugs and suicide—so-called deaths of despair, which are concentrated in the white working class—have soared in the past two decades, recently reaching the highest levels ever recorded by the federal government. Across generations, Americans seem to be suffering from, and dying of, new levels of loneliness in an age of crumbling institutions.”

As religious faith has declined, ideological intensity, the new “religiosity,” has risen. Will the quest for secular redemption through politics doom the American idea?  As writer Shadi Hamid demonstrates, “From 1937 to 1998, church membership remained relatively constant, hovering at about 70 percent. Then something happened. Over the past two decades, that number has dropped to less than 50 percent, the sharpest recorded decline in American history. Meanwhile, the ‘nones’—atheists, agnostics, and those claiming no religion—have grown rapidly and today represent a quarter of the population . . . As Christianity’s hold, in particular, has weakened, ideological intensity and fragmentation have risen. American faith, it turns out, is as fervent as ever; it’s just that what was once religious belief has now been channeled into political belief. Political debates over what America is supposed to mean have taken on the character of theological disputations. This is what religion without religion looks like.”

Hamid further observes “No wonder the newly ascendant American ideologies, having to fill the vacuum where religion once was, are so divisive. They are meant to be divisive.”

  • On the left, the “woke” take religious notions such as original sin, atonement, ritual, and excommunication and repurpose them for secular ends. Adherents of wokeism see themselves as challenging the long-dominant narrative that emphasized the exceptionalism of the nation’s founding. “Whereas religion sees the promised land as being above, in God’s kingdom, the utopian left sees it as being ahead, in the realization of a just society here on Earth. After Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died in September, droves of mourners gathered outside the Supreme Court—some kneeling, some holding candles—as though they were at the Western Wall.”
  • On the right, adherents of a Trump-centric ethno-nationalism still drape themselves in some of the trappings of organized religion, but the result is a movement that often looks like a tent revival stripped of Christian witness. “Donald Trump’s boisterous rallies were more focused on blood and soil than on the son of God. Trump himself played both savior and martyr, and it is easy to marvel at the hold that a man so imperfect can have on his soldiers. Many on the right find solace in conspiracy cults, such as QAnon, that tell a religious story of earthly corruption redeemed by a godlike force.”

Hamid ponders, “Absent some new religious awakening, what are we left with? . . . Can religiosity be effectively channeled into political belief without the structures of actual religion to temper and postpone judgment? There is little sign, so far, that it can. If matters of good and evil are not to be resolved by an omniscient God in the future, then Americans will judge and render punishment now. We are a nation of believers. If only Americans could begin believing in politics less fervently, realizing instead that life is elsewhere.”  Indeed!

See Timothy Keller, “Growing My Faith in the Face of Death” in The Atlantic (7 March 2021); Derek Thompson, “Elite Failure Has Brought Americans to the Edge of an Existential Crisis” in The Atlantic (5 September 2019); and Shadi Hamid, “America Without God” in The Atlantic (April 2021).

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