Ross Douthat, writing in 2012, could have waited just a few more years before penning Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics to include forthcoming distressing events, nicely rounding off his jeremiad observation of Christian decline in the United States. In a few years he could have included on his list the increased reports of shootings (police against citizens and vice versa), the bankruptcy of the city of Detroit, the U.S. Supreme court striking down DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act) which eventually led to gay marriage being the law of the land. Add to that the acquittal of George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch on duty who claimed self defense in the shooting death of an unarmed black teen named Trayvon Martin, stoking renewed racial tensions causing several riots in other cities with demands of justice.
Another critical event Douthat could have included in his book had he waited is the rapid decline in sexual mores. In the 1960’s, the idea was to liberate sexual constraints in the name of progress. To simply say that has changed is an understatement. Since the legal adoption of gay marriage in 2015, our culture now entertains issues of transgenderism, gender dysphoria, non-binary, gender reassignments, etc. The language surrounding this particular issue is confusing, even to experts.
Douthat’s observation of culture decay in the U.S. is a sobering reality that ideas do have consequences. However, and I confess, having studied apologetics at a graduate level, most of my conclusions explaining Evangelical drift is from a social context that seeks to define truth in relativistic terms or an outright rejection of the existence of god. i.e., atheism. Douthat on there other hand is keen to discern that this is not always the case:
“The religious mistake has been to fret over the threat posed by explicitly anti-Christian forces, while ignoring or minimizing the influence that the apostles of pseudo-Christianity exercise over the American soul.”1
James Davison Hunter in his book To Change The World makes a convincing case that our cultural challenges cannot be mitigated through a simple “change of hearts and minds”2 either. Hunter, I believe, overstates his case because in the end he advocates for a “faithful presence within” mindset which is itself an indication of a changed heart and mind. Other experts chime in with their panacea. Rod Dreher proposes that authentic renewal “will have to happen in families and local church communities,” a grass-roots movements retreat, harkening back to the days of the Benedictines in the 10th century, forming communities that extolled the virtues of order, work, prayer, hospitality and a balanced view of life.3
I had a chance to interview Timothy Muehlhoff, professor of communications and author of Winsome Persuasion: Christian Influence in a Post-Christian World. He wrote the book partly in response to Deborah Tannen’s description of our current culture as being the argument culture. Argument culture according to Tannen is a disposition “that urges us to approach the world, and the people in it, in an adversarial frame of mind.”4 I asked him what he thought would be effective in helping turn culture around. He said the solution is for believers to start showing neighborly love and compassion.5 This is easier said than done, but is there any better way? After all this is exactly what the Lord commands of us. In chapter three he expounds specifically what neighborly love and compassion looks like.
Ross Douthat, Os Guinness, Rod Dreher, James Davison Hunter, Vincent Miller and other Evangelical leaders offer timely humble answers to our post-Christian world problems. We may see things get better with the coming generation or not. But we must never lose hope. Even as a self-identified pessimist, Douthat offers great hope:
“In The Everlasting Man, G. K. Chesterton describes what he calls the “five deaths of the faith”—the moments in Western history when Christianity seemed doomed to either perish entirely or else fade to the margins of a post-Christian civilization. It would have been natural for the faith to decline and fall with the Roman Empire, or to disappear gradually after the armies of Islam conquered its ancient heartland in the Near East and North Africa. It would have been predictable if Christianity had dissolved along with feudalism when the Middle Ages gave way to the Renaissance, or if it had vanished with the ancient regimes of Europe amid the turmoil of the age of revolutions. And it would have been completely understandable if the faith had gradually waned during the long nineteenth century, when it was dismissed by Marx, challenged by Darwin, denounced by Nietzsche, and explained away by Freud. But in each of these cases, an age of crisis was swiftly followed by an era of renewal, in which forces threatening the faith either receded or were discredited and Christianity itself revived. Time and again, Chesterton noted, “the Faith has to all appearance gone to the dogs.” But each time, “it was the dog that died.”6
And yet our best hope is Christ.
“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”7
1 Ross Gregory Douthat, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics (New York: Free Press, 2013), 4.
2 James Davison Hunter, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2010), 17.
3 Rod Dreher, The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation (NY, NY: Sentinel, an Imprint of Penguin Random House LLC, 2018), 48-77.
4 Deborah Tannen, The Argument Culture: Moving from Debate to Dialogue (New York: Ballantine Books, 1998), 3.
5 Tim Muehlhoff, Winsome Persuasion: Christian Influence in a Post-Christian World (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, an Imprint of InterVarsity Press, 2017), 53-66.
6 Douthat, 277-278
7 John 16:33