Why Christian Culture Is Unthinkable in the Western World

Why Christian Culture Is Unthinkable in the Western World June 28, 2013

This is a guest post from my friend, Dr. P. Andrew Sandlin, President of the Center for Cultural Leadership. This post is an excerpt from his brief but transformational new book Christian Culture: An Introduction. It is essential reading to understand “what Christian culture was, how we lost it, the high price we’ve paid for losing it,  and what we can do to create a new Christian culture.” Follow his blog here.

Today we live in a radically secular culture.

Secularization does not mean that people no longer believe in God. It means that people no longer believe that God has any interest in culture.

[T]he process of secularization arises not from the loss of faith but from the loss of social interest in the world of faith. It begins the moment men feel that religion is irrelevant to the common way of life and that society as such has nothing to do with the truths of faith. Christopher Dawson [1]

It’s possible for many people in a society to believe in God and Christianity and still live in a secular society. This is precisely the case in the West, and even in the United States.

God Is, But Is Irrelevant

Secularization isn’t the conviction that God doesn’t exist (it isn’t the same as theoretical atheism). It’s the idea that God doesn’t exist in any influential way in a society. Cultural secularists are rarely interested in what we’d call metaphysical issues; they just don’t want God or any religion crimping their style, and especially their sex lives.

Secularization is the abolition of the Triune God from everywhere except between anybody’s two ears or, at best, the family, and the church between 10:00 a.m. and noon on Sunday. Secularization means that God and Christianity simply have no official or formal bearing (and have, in fact, practically no bearing at all) on politics, education, art, science, architecture, music, technology, media and so on.

The Secularist / Marxist Connection

Ironically, this is virtually the same secularization that prevailed in the Marxist regimes like the old Soviet Union. All of them constitutionally guaranteed freedom of religion, and, from their own standpoint, this freedom was not a mirage.

They meant secularized freedom of religion, the freedom to believe in Jesus privately, perhaps in the family, if timidly, and to attend a state-sanctioned church — just as long as you don’t evangelize or proselytize, just as long as you don’t train your children in the Faith at home or in schools, just as long as you don’t bring Jesus into public discourse, just as long as you don’t, well, act like a Christian where anybody can see you.

This is not that much different from secularization in the West. Secularization here is an “invisibility strategy”: “Your Christianity is fine, just as long as nobody sees it.”

In Marxist (and Islamic) regimes, Christians are persecuted. In Western regimes, they are not persecuted, at least not in any active, political way. Rather, their faith is marginalized.[2]

The Power of an Invisible Ideology

Christianity is pressed to the margins of life by secularism’s “invisibility strategy,” but invisibility plays another and related role: secularism itself is an “invisible ideology.”  That is, a belief so widespread that it no longer needs to be defended or even promoted tenaciously. Almost everybody holds it, and to believe differently is not so much to be opposed as to be ignored.

Racial equality (for example) is an invisible ideology (it also happens to be biblically correct). People today in the West who claim that Whites or Asians are superior to Blacks or Hispanics aren’t persecuted; they are ignored as kooks and cranks.  Yet 250 years ago, this was an idea that was hotly disputed in the populace, including by educated elites. By contrast, if you say today that marijuana should be legalized, you’ll get a real fight on your hands. That’s because pot legalization is not an invisible ideology like racial equality is.

Secularization is one of the great invisible ideologies of our time, and perhaps the chief one. If you contend that Christianity in the West should govern science and music and politics and education and sports and architecture and music (say, like it did 400 years ago), people will say, in effect, “This is the kind of arrangement they have in Islamic societies; nobody here believes that. Please get a life and leave the rest of us alone. You’re delusional. Do you also believe in the tooth fairy?”

The fact that it is secularists who would have been deemed delusional 400 years ago shows how invisible ideologies can change dramatically over time.

In 1613 Christian culture was the rule. In 2013 it is not an exception; it is unthinkable.

Continue reading by downloading Christian Culture: An Introduction for your Kindle or by picking up a paperback copy here Christian Culture: An Introduction.

[1]Christopher Dawson, The Historic Reality of Christian Culture (London: Sheed & Ward, 1960), 19.

[2] Alexis de Tocqueville referred to this phenomenon as “the tyranny of the majority” in his classic Democracy in America, George Lawrence, trans. (Garden City, New York, 1969), 250–253.

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  • Brian Westley

    If you contend that Christianity in the West should govern science and music and politics and education and sports and architecture and music (say, like it did 400 years ago), people will say, in effect, “This is the kind of arrangement they have in Islamic societies…”

    Pretty much, yeah. So Bill, do you think Christianity should govern science and music and politics and education and sports and architecture and music?

  • Jennifer

    Do you think it is possible for Christian culture to exist alongside other cultures (Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism, Bhudism, Judaism…)? Or is the existence of Christian culture dependent on the laws of man mirroring their beliefs? Do Christians need to be able to legally impose their beliefs on others in order to have a culture? And, therefore, do you think it is necessary for laws, politics, music, art, education and science to exclusively reflect Christian religious beliefs to avoid the demise of Christian culture. How would this work in a country that prides itself on individual freedoms?

    • Mike

      Law is an imposition by nature. It punishes those who won’t obey. We have laws now, so we have imposition. The ideology that is imposed now through law is atheism (of the Enlightenment, socialist variety). If you think that this ideology of law allows for individual freedoms, then you agree with the ideology, so the law lets you act according your ideas. For those with different ideas (like Christians) the current law system is tyrannical to some extent. You need to have laws to have a culture, and since all law is an imposition, the question is which ideology’s imposition is rational and moral, not whether we should have legal imposition of an ideology.

      • Jennifer

        Hi Mike,
        My reply to you can be found above as a reply to Jennifer replying to JasonMankey (hope that makes sense!). User error.

  • Timothy Weston

    Some of the most beautiful pieces of music are Christian in nature: Countless masses, requiems, and cantatae are performed annually not just by church music departments but professional symphony orchestras that are tied to their communities rather than a particular congregation.

    The Christian faith used to enjoy a very high level of privilege in an America that was founded by men who believed in the principles of the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment was an answer to the various wars between nations that professed their own versions of Christianity. America’s founding documents do not establish a national church or religion and even the Barbary States treaty stated that America is not a Christian nation. Christian faith is diminishing because it is not adapting or answering the challenges of modernity. There is evidence that the Earth is approximately, 4.5 billion years old and the universe is approximately 13.8 billion years yet about there are Americans believe the Earth to be closer to 6,000 years old (http://www.gallup.com/poll/21814/Evolution-Creationism-Intelligent-Design.aspx) and take the “God says, I believe it, that settles it” thinking. This thinking shows that to be a Christian someone has to turn off their mind. As a result not only does it repel people but it also alienates those who have grown up only to realize that if the age of the Earth was a lie, so is the faith in which they grew up. If Christian culture is put in charge of science, will this still be the case?

    The age of Christian cultural privilege is gone. Secularism and a demographic shift play a part in it. The biggest reason for the decline lies in the overall church itself, especially with demonizing certain groups of people and in the case of politics, using God as a mask to use legislation and debate to rule over others. Author David Barton makes a living of rewriting American history to exaggerate the godliness of founding fathers. His work has been debunked to the point where he has retracted some of his claims. He still has a lot of standing claims that have been debunked but not retracted. Would Christian culture in America involve historical misrepresentation?

    America is the “United States of America” not the “Christian States” or the “United Christian States of America. This country was a product of the Enlightenment with many of its followers being deists and atheists. Today, there is a demographic shift with not only Americans being secularized but immigrants from nations that are not historically Christian. I see “Christian Culture” as more of a multi-billion dollar industry and something that is more “Culture” than it is “Christian.”

  • The advantage of secular culture is that it forces all religions to compete in the marketplace of ideas. If Christianity (or one particular flavor of Christianity) is meaningful and helpful to many people, it will flourish. If it is not, it will decline and other religions will take its place, and it will not have the power to coerce people to support it.

    As a Pagan who honors the Earth and worships many gods – and whose religion is growing, though it’s still very small – I’m thankful for the freedom inherent in secular culture. If the mainstream decides I’m a flake, so be it. I don’t need their approval to live an honorable and fulfilling life.

    I do, however, need to not have to worry about getting fired because my religion is different from my boss’s. I need to not have to worry that our outdoor worship services will disrupted by zealots of another religion. I need to not be forced to participate in another religion as a prerequisite for participation in public affairs.

    I need – and expect – my religion to be treated equally with all other religions, and with no religion. As Timothy Weston said in his earlier comment here, “the age of Christian cultural privilege is gone.”

  • Wayne Froese

    Many websites, books, sermons and Fox News proclaim that Christians are being oppressed and have to live timidly yet nobody wants to point out the irony.

    Marxism! Are you scared yet?

    “Secularization is the abolition of the Triune God from everywhere except between anybody’s two ears” Is that really the standard? Is the alternative to force our observances on others? Isn’t there a wide area in between?

    My Christianity can thrive in our society (even in Marxism) exactly because it IS the good news and it specifically doesn’t work as something you proscribe for others. Jesus didn’t measure his ministry in how many people he could make bend to his will.

  • JasonMankey

    “In 1613 Christian culture was the rule. In 2013 it is not an exception; it is unthinkable.”

    Thank heavens we don’t live in a Christian culture circa 1613. Perhaps you want to bring back the burning of witches, or maybe women as completely second class citizens? Shall we put stocks in every town square so that we can torment our neighbors due to the breaking of some silly rule?

    In 2013 Christianity remains a litmus test for the White House, and many other political offices. Someone saying “Happy Holidays” results in a hysteria about an imagined “War on Christmas.” While there are less Christians today than there were twenty years ago, you guys are still running the country. It probably hurts to hear “Obama is a Christian” but he is!

    One hundred and twenty years ago there were brothels in most major American cities. Life was cheap and racism plagued society. It’s nice that you were Jesus-rimmed glasses but we are, in many ways, for more “moral” today than we were a hundred years ago.

  • ahermit

    When a religion is good, I conceive it will support itself; and when
    it does not support itself, and God does not take care to support it so
    that its professors are obliged to call for help of the civil power,
    ‘tis a sign, I apprehend, of its being a bad one.

    – Benjamin Franklin

  • Jennifer

    I need some clarification to help me understand what you mean by your statement that “you need laws to have a culture”. Are you meaning “law” in the sense of the rules enforced by police, etc.? Or do you mean that various cultures have sets of rules and guidelines that are followed and which help define the culture? I live in an area that has several distinct cultures (both religiously and ethnically). I am sure that some of these cultures find our laws (in the court sense) to be tyrannical, but it is not my experience that cultures disappear when they are at odds with the current “law of the land” (unless that law includes cultural genocide).

    I hold the currently unpopular belief that males and females are different in some ways (even Christian ones ). And yet I think that both males and females can exist together quite well and even compliment one another. I think that different religions have the possibility of doing the same as long as they share at least some common values – and most do. I don’t think our existence as individuals or as cultures depends on sameness.

    That said, however, You make an Interesting point about the current laws and the ability/inability to act according to your ideas. Is there a particular Christian idea or value that you see as one that a Christian in the United States is unable to observe?

    • Mike

      Do you question whether we need laws to have a culture in either sense? Even if we had pure anarchy, the strong would soon impose there laws on the weak. I was mainly thinking of ones enforced by police because that is what the secularists fear in regard to Christians. I didn’t say anything about cultures disappearing. I don’t know what you are talking about there.

      Your male/female analogy is a false analogy. With ideology, you are talking about mutually-exclusive ultimate commitments, even if there are some areas of superficial agreement. If one ideology requires rapists to be executed, and another one forbids it, then legal neutrality is impossible. You have to choose to make one ideology official public policy.

      As for the freedom of Christians in a secular culture, Christians believe (or should believe) that God should be honored in all areas of life. Therefore if God is not honored in the civil government, then that government is in rebellion against God. Public school teachers should be able to teach the Bible as absolute truth and pray to Jesus Christ in their class. Christian judges should be able sentence rapists to death because the Bible says so, and they should be able to express their rationale in court, although they currently are not allowed under the secular ideology that holds the majority in our U.S. Supreme Court. The alternative, I should probably remind you, is not that no ideology is imposed by the civil government but that some other ideology is imposed. Secularism is currently the official ideology of our civil government that excludes all others.

      • Jennifer

        I do not question your point that Christian culture (along with the culture of other religions) is limited in practice by secular law. I am querying the extent of impact that public law has on culture.

        We usually have one set of laws in any given society and many different cultures – both ethnic and religious. It does not make sense to me that culture is necessarily dependant on law.

        Take the persecution of Christians by the Romans, for instance. Did this decimate Christianity? Or did it ultimately have – as many historians contend – the opposite effect?

        “Though beheaded, and crucified, and thrown to wild beasts, and chains, and fire, and all other kinds of torture, we do not give up our confession; but, the more such things happen, the more do others in larger numbers become faithful.”

        — Justin Martyr

        I think I recall (and this goes back to high school history in a secular school – so I’m open to correction!) that the Christian apologists arose and/or gained religious momentum from the Roman persecution and had great impact on Christianity.

        It is my view that religious culture is affected, but not dependant, on the laws of the land. I think I misinterpreted you to be meaning that since religious culture needs law, an absence of supportive law would eventually lead to the loss of the unsupported culture.

        My philosophical brain twister (from my original posted question) went something like this:
        -IF the existence of Christian culture is dependent on law (in the sense of public law).
        -AND IF the existence of other religious cultures are also dependent on law.
        -CAN multiple religious cultures exist together.

        My ultimate question would be: Is religious freedom possible if more than one religion exists.

        I haven’t had my morning cup of tea yet, so go easy 🙂

        • Mike

          I am not disputing that Christianity and other belief systems can exist without legal support. My point is that any law-system presupposes an ideology, a worldview, a commitment to ultimate standards of good and evil. While Christianity and other belief systems can exist without legal support, they all have their own view of “the Good,” which has implications for the nature of the political justice system. A political justice system has to make a choice about it’s political philosophy, because different philosophies of law will require the legal system to do different things. Secularism in the U.S. is viewed as religiously neutral, but in fact it’s as exclusionary as any theistic belief system, at least in protecting the ideology’s dominance in the legal system. Secularism allows other religions to be practiced, but only as long as those practices don’t undermine the secular view of law, just as Islam allows non-Muslims to live in Islamic countries, as long as Islamic dominance is not undermined (although they may have different levels of sensitivity as to when that dominance is being undermined, and how harsh the penalties are for violators).

          • Jennifer

            We are in agreement that any law system presupposes an ideology including stated standards of good and evil. We are also in agreement that the current ideology – secularism – is not religiously neutral. I suspect we are also in agreement that legal/political ideology has an impact on many aspects of religious culture and that even though Christianity remains a religious majority in the U.S., the current legal structure and trend is unsupportive (in a formal/legal sense) of many Christian values.

            The author of the original post declares Christianity “unthinkable” in a society formally dominated by a secular ideology. His book details “what Christian culture was” and “how we lost it”. And although we could probably spark a heated debate about the merits of Christian culture circa 1613, most people might agree to the generality that Christian values ARE in decline. Most might also agree with the author’s observation that it is ok to have whatever religion you like as long as you aren’t obvious about it or as long as practicing your religion doesn’t impact the laws of the prevailing secularist ideology. I’ve personally noticed an increased trend in Canada towards not hurting anybody’s feelings or stepping on anybody’s toes. To hold secularism completely to “blame”, however, gives it a power that I am uncomfortable with. Probably because it places responsibility outside of ourselves.

            So…. is it possible to restore Christian values and culture within the current secular climate? To what extent is Christian culture dependant on the formal/legal support of society? Are there other factors involved in the decline of Christian culture (i.e. literacy levels increasing the exposure to “new” ideas, increase in population affecting the physical structure of society, exposure to other viewpoints via. the media and internet, ability to travel and exposure to other cultures/ways of life, etc). Are people changing their way of thinking and acting because of the secular laws? Or are the laws of society changing because of the way people are thinking and acting? It’s a bit of a chicken/egg question and the truth likely lies messily somewhere in the middle.

            And my big question: Is it possible for different religious cultures to co-exist? Or maybe the question should be rephrased as: Is it possible for different religious cultures to THRIVE in the same society?

            I have no wonderful answers. I do, however, thank you for the conversation as it has helped me to think through some things.

          • Jumping in on this stimulating conversation, Mike and Jen. Two thoughts. 1) All cultures are religious as culture is simply religion externalized. Beliefs lived out. 2) Some ideas are mutually exclusive; therefore, not all religions can thrive together. That’s why the Christians were martyred in Rome. Their religion of supreme obedience to God clashed with the then thriving religion of supreme obedience to man as embodied in the Emperor/Empire. Rome didn’t mind Christians worshiping another god, as long as at the end of the day, they bowed to Caesar.

            Nothing is neutral.