One of my favorite moments of the show M.A.S.H. is this time when a patient is brought before Hawkeye Pierce and for some reason they have run out of anesthesia. Hawkeye has to improvise and fast so he can do the work that needs to be done, so he distracts the patient by asking him about his hometown. The patient tells Hawkeye the name of his hometown then Hawkeye proceeds to talk about the soda shop on the corner and the church on Main St. and a half a dozen other things. The patient is so excited that Hawkeye knew his hometown that he had lost track of the procedure Hawkeye was performing. The patient asks Hawkeye when he was last in the town, to which Hawkeye responds that he has never been there, he was describing his hometown.
In his book Bad Religion, Ross Touthat declares that religion in the United States hit its peak between the time just after WWII and 1965. His book falls in a long line of other books that have come before it declaring the Christianity in America was better back then — ‘then’ being variable depending on the author — and somehow we have fallen from the peak of what we once were. It almost always has something to do with the sexual revolution, hippies, or a court case. In this way Touthat’s book is not unique. He attempts to be balanced, but generally just ends up putting the blame on everyone who does not share his perspective on everything that happened. And much like Hawkeye he knows what high points to hit and is able to make us think that he understands the struggles we all face as people of faith in the United States.
My biggest problem with jeremiads1 is that they assume that our best days are behind us. It is true that church attendance in the US peaked in the sixties and at some point in the late sixties or early seventies those numbers started to drop precipitously. While that could indicate that people started being more secular in their outlook, it could equally be a sign that people were not that connected in the first place. Christianity in the US has long been just as much about civil appearance as it is about doctrine. When the opportunity came to drop out, it seems a lot of people took that opening.
The other thing about jeremiads is that they often miss all the terrible things that were happening during there chosen period of nirvana. The fifties and sixties were the height of the Jim Crow south. Christians largely supported the McCarthy inquisitions of pretty much everyone they despised and fled urban centers for newer and ‘safer’ (meaning not black) suburbs leaving a wake of destruction along the way.2
The largest religious group in the United States are now the religiously unaffiliated.3 We are heading in the same direction Canada and Europe have headed. Rather than lamenting where we were and how bad things have become, why not look to our Christian siblings in those places to find out how great the church can be in a less welcoming society. Losing the civil religion part of the American church could be a good thing, but it also means we have to work harder and I think that is what people like Douthat are really upset about.
1. Balmer, Randall. “Breaking Faith: ‘Bad Religion,’ by Ross Douthat.” The New York Times. Last modified April 27, 2012.https://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/29/books/review/bad-religion-by-ross-douthat.html.
2. Oppenheimer, Mark. “In ‘Bad Religion,’ Ross Douthat Criticizes U.S. Christianity.” The New York Times. Last modified April 18, 2012. https://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/19/books/in-bad-religion-ross-douthat-criticizes-us-christianity.html.
3. Jenkins, Jack M. “’Nones’ Now as Big as Evangelicals, Catholics in the US.” Religion News Service, Last modified March 22, 2019. https://religionnews.com/2019/03/21/nones-now-as-big-as-evangelicals-catholics-in-the-us/.