For Christians, the news was presumably disheartening in a report late last year by the respected Pew Research Center: During the preceding decade the proportion of American adults identifying as Christian had plunged precipitously from 77 percent to 65 percent.
That’s a lot of worrisome backsliding.
But, perhaps unsurprisingly, some Christians were still able to find a silver lining in that dark cloud of mass apostacy.
An article I read this week in the eclectic periodical Medium, contained one positive spin on the broad secularizing trend that has been gaining velocity in the U.S. in recent years. The article by retired Christian pastor Ronald Franklin is titled “Fewer Americans Today Identify as Christians — and That’s OK!” The subhead reads: “Reports of steep drops in the number of Americans claiming to be Christians may be misleading.”
The crux of Franklin’s understated and reasonable-sounding argument is that the proportion of real Christians is probably largely static, and that the erosion in numbers is due primarily to the falling away of cowardly “Christians” who don’t really walk the walk of Jesus, anyway, and aren’t willing to pay the cultural price for publicly identifying with the faith in a rapidly secularizing country.
Still, the faith flight not an isolated phenomenon that can be easily waved away, because American Christian commitment manifestly is sagging not just for, say Catholics or Baptists, but across all religious denominations and among the larger population. The headline in Pew’s report accompanying the completion of its 2019 survey of U.S. faith summarized the situation: “In U.S., Decline of Christianity Continues at Rapid Pace.”
However, Franklin, seemingly undaunted by the data, writes:
But what does that really say about the state of the Christian faith in our nation? If media headlines are any indication, American Christianity is in real trouble.
“Millennials leaving church in droves,” trumpets CNN.
“Christians drop, ‘nones’ soar,” says USA Today, and goes on to declare,
“The United States is a significantly less Christian country than it was seven years ago.”
But is the U. S. really significantly less Christian than it was a few years ago? In spite of all the numbers, I don’t think so. Here’s why.
He believes that those fleeing the Christian fold are “really what might be called ‘cultural Christians’” who may have grown up in Christian families and communities but “have never had any significant personal commitment to the faith or to Christ.” These Christmas-and-Easter believers still will casually say they’re Christian, if asked, but actually aren’t, according to Franklin.
So, the Pew data is misleading, he believes. The number of actual Christians is not declining, just the inauthentic poseurs. Writes Franklin:
“In my opinion, what has changed over the last few years is not the number of actual Christians, but the number for whom it is convenient or comfortable to call themselves Christians, even though they have little commitment to living their lives as adherents of the faith.”
That may be true, but that will translate in to less and less political clout moving forward, because in culture-war politics, which includes religious issues, numbers are the name of the game.
Franklin posits that the decline is also due to the negative reputation Christians have acquired in recent years as the American populace has become more secular, and as citizens have grown weary of members of the faith insisting on their right to discriminate as an expression of “religious freedom” against the rights of people who don’t share allegiance to their supernatural doctrines.
“In the ‘culture wars’ of the last few decades, Bible-believing Christians who are committed to maintaining Biblical standards in both their personal lives and in our communal life as a nation, have come to be seen in a decidedly negative light by large segments of the population,” he asserts. “As standards in society have evolved, these believers have stubbornly and loudly refused to evolve with them.”
In this stubbornness lies the rub. All societies and communities evolve, but what makes conservativism conservative is its stubborn refusal to evolve with the times, even when the naysayers become a slim minority. In fact, conservativism, religious or otherwise, actually wants to ever remain in the past, keeping things as they’ve always been. The difference with religion, however, is that it’s rules and values are based on a fantasy of a perfect, all-powerful deity, which if true (which it’s not) cannot be altered one iota or the house of cards comes tumbling down.
It’s hard to be a true Christian in the current American milieu, Franklin believes, where the populace is growing more tolerant of abortion and changing sexual mores that are anathema to Christians.
“Biblical Christians are now widely seen and spoken of as bigoted and hateful reactionaries who are trying to impose their religious beliefs on the rest of society,” Franklin laments. “Who wants to be associated with that?”
But he doesn’t seem to entertain finding an honest answer to this question: “If Christians revile and reject same-sex and other non-‘traditional’ couplings in society that science tells us are part of a normal sexual continuum in our species, and oppose a large national-majority consensus on abortion, how are they not being bigoted?” The definition is clear.
And also people are increasingly saying they’re leaving religion simply because they don’t believe anymore that supernatural realms and entities even exist. That is the reason that will have legs, unless a massive, catastrophic event sends people running back to faith temporarily, although that could last centuries, as it already has.
Europe remains far more irreligious than America, as Pew has reported in various surveys, but faith in the U.S. seems to be following the trajectory of its continental cousins toward greater and greater secularism as a natural evolution of other rich, educated and technologically advanced Western societies.
Probably the most disturbing passage in Franklin’s article is his unshakeable belief that to be good Christians who “stand firm on God’s standards as declared in His word [the Bible],” true believers “should expect to be hated.” He quotes the apostle John:
“If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you.” ( John 15:19, NIV).
No wonder secularists can’t fathom Christians and Christianity. They are self-avowed aliens in reality.
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