Not So Christian America

Author: Thomas C. Reeves

Not So Christian America

by Thomas C. Reeves

In 1988, the highly respected Gallup Organization reported that nine Americans in ten said they never doubted the existence of God, eight in ten said they believed they will be called before God on Judgment day to answer for their sins, eight in ten believed that God still works miracles, and seven in ten believed in life after death. Moreover, 90 percent prayed, 88 percent believed that God loved them, 78 percent said they had given "a lot" or "a fair amount" of thought to their relationship with God during the past two years, and 86 percent said they wanted religious training for their children.

Natural law? Seventy-nine percent believed that "there are clear guidelines about what's good and evil that apply to everyone regardless of the situation." Traditional moral standards? Gallup found 36 percent were conservative on the subject, 52 percent moderate, and only 11 percent liberal.

A whopping 84 percent said that Jesus was God or the Son of God, about three-quarters had at some time or other sensed Jesus' presence in their lives, and 66 percent reported having made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ. Even 72 percent of the unchurched said they believed that Jesus was God or the Son of God, up from 64 percent in 1978. Almost half of all Protestants described themselves as born-again Christians.

How can that much faith exist in a secular society? If 84 percent of its people believe that Jesus Christ was what he said he was, doesn't that by definition qualify the United States as a Christian country? Gallup concluded that "the degree of religious Orthodoxy found among Americans is simply amazing.... Such a nation cannot by any stretch of the imagination be described as secular in its core beliefs."

A mere 8 percent of Americans were without a religious preference, and even they, in the words of Gallup, "express a surprising degree of interest in religion and religious belief." (That figure was reconfirmed in a 1994 Gallup poll.) In one survey, 69 percent of blacks and 61 percent of all Americans expressed a "great deal" or "quite a lot" of confidence in organized religion. Baby boomers, while less involved in religion than other Americans, were more likely than others to report that they were more interested in religion than they were five years earlier.

In 1990, a poll of 113,000 people around the nation commissioned by the Graduate School of the City University of New York found that only 7.5 percent of those surveyed said they had no religion, while 86.5 percent of Americans were Christians. Jews, with 1.8 percent, were the largest non-Christian faith. (Gallup polls described Jews as highly secular. Only 30 percent called religion "very important" and only one in five attended synagogue in the week before being interviewed.)

Gallup polls taken in 1991 showed a modest rise in religiousness in America over the previous three years. Christians were 82 percent of the adult population. (This figure held steady three years later, with 58 percent of the population being Protestant and 25 percent being Catholic.) About seven out of ten adults reported membership in a church or synagogue (a level reached in the 1970s that remained the same in 1994). Eighty-six percent of teens said they believed that Jesus Christ is God or the Son of God, and 73 percent considered regular church attendance an important aspect of American citizenship. Fifty-nine percent of interviewees said they agreed completely that a personal faith in Jesus Christ was the assurance of eternal life, and another 17 percent agreed "somewhat." Eighty-one percent believed the Bible to be the literal (32 percent) or inspired (49 percent) word of God.

In 1992, the sociologists Roger Finke and Rodney In 1992, the sociologists Roger Finke and Rodney Stark, following a careful analysis of data collected by the Bureau of Census and others, concluded that on the eve of the American Revolution only about 17 percent of Americans belonged to churches. By the start of the Civil War the figure was 37 percent, by 1906 it was slightly more than half, and in 1926 this had increased to 56 percent. The numbers continued to rise until by 1980 church adherence was about 62 percent. In short, America appeared to be more religious in the year Ronald Reagan was elected President than in the days of the Founding Fathers.

In a 1992 poll by the Barna Research Group, 79 percent of those aged forty-six to sixty-four said that religion was "very important to me," a statement concurred in by 65 percent of those twenty-seven to forty-five, and 54 percent of those eighteen to twenty-six. When asked whether they agreed that the Bible is the "totally accurate" word of God, 80 percent of those forty-six to sixty-four years old said yes, and so did 73 percent of those twenty-seven to forty-five, and 65 percent who were eighteen to twenty-six.

The Catholic sociologist Andrew Greeley, after announcing similar data in 1993 from an international study, declared, "In some countries, most notably Ireland and the United States, religious devotion may be higher than it has ever been in human history."

A 1994 /CNN/Gallup poll found that 70 percent belonged to a church or synagogue and that 66 percent attended services at least once a month. David Roozen of the Center for Social and Religious Research, Hartford Seminary, said that overall membership and attendance statistics "have remained stable over the last ten or fifteen years." The same poll showed that nine adults in ten believed in a heaven and that 79 percent believed in miracles.

Gallup reported that same year that 51 percent of the public said grace before meals either always or frequently, and that only 14 percent never did. Seventy-three percent of adults favored a constitutional amendment to allow voluntary prayer in the public schools. Sixty-two percent believed that religion could solve all or most of the day's problems, a figure that had remained steady for twenty years.

A Harris poll taken in July 1994 revealed that 95 percent of those surveyed believed in God and 90 percent believed in heaven. Of the four in five Americans who described themselves as Christians, 89 percent believed in life after death, 87 percent in miracles, and 85 percent in the virgin birth of Jesus Christ. Even 52 percent of the non-Christians surveyed expressed belief in the Resurrection!

A survey of 4,809 Americans released in September 1994 by the Times Mirror Center for the People and the Press found that nine out of ten did not doubt the existence of God, almost eight out of ten said that prayer was an important part of their daily life, and almost nine of ten said they had "old-fashioned values about family and marriage."

A /CBS News poll in December 1994 found that 64 percent of adults believed that "organized prayer" should be permitted in the public schools. Six in ten public school students agreed. Gallup reported that American confidence in and support of organized religion reached a ten-year high mark in 1995. The index number had risen fifteen points since 1988.

Richard John Neuhaus has declared, "Statistically at least, America is as much a Christian nation as it ever was, and perhaps more so." He contends that "one of the most elementary facts about America is that its people are overwhelmingly Christian in their own understanding, and that they and many who are not Christian assume that the moral baseline of the society is the Judeo- Christian ethic."

A great many politicians certainly campaign as though they lived in a Christian country. In 1992, there were constant allusions to America as a religious nation with a special, divinely ordained "mission." All the major presidential candidates declared their personal commitment to the faith. George Bush told a convention of the National Religious Broadcasters, "I want to thank you for helping America, as Christ ordained, to be a light upon the world.... One cannot be America's President without a belief in God, without a belief in prayer." Bill Clinton, interviewed on an interdenominational religious cable network, declared, "If I didn't believe in God, if I weren't in my view . . . a Christian, if I didn't believe ultimately in the perfection of life after death, my life would have been that much more different." Ross Perot was a Presbyterian who backed traditional family values. Pat Buchanan, a Roman Catholic, advocated an America based on traditional Christian moral standards. Dan Quayle was the darling of the Religious Right. And so on.

And yet Billy Graham could declare that America was no longer a Christian or Protestant nation. It is, he said, "a secular country in which thousands of Christians live and have substantial influence." A prominent Roman Catholic theologian, Father Avery Dulles, was of the same mind, arguing that the country's moral breakdown was threatening democracy. In 1994, the Jewish medical educator David C. Stolinsky lamented the loss of the Christian values that dominated America in the 1950s. "The reason we fear to go out after dark is not that we may be set upon by bands of evangelicals and forced to read the New Testament, but that we may be set upon by gangs of feral young people who have been taught that nothing is superior to their own needs or feelings."

Is modern America secular or Christian? We seem to be the most religious nation in the advanced industrialized West but at the same time appear to be blatantly, even aggressively, secular. Scholars, clergy, judges, journalists, and others have pondered the paradox for years.

In the first place, the polling data declare emphatically and unanimously that the United States continues to be a Christian nation-at least of a sort. The level of faith in the Christian gospel expressed by Americans is indeed, in Gallup's words, "simply amazing."

A truly secular society would have numbers approximating those found in, say, Great Britain, France, or Scandinavia, where interest in God is minimal and church attendance is extremely low (about 2.2 percent in the Church of England on an average Sunday). The historian Alan D. Gilbert has defined a thoroughly secular culture as "one in which norms, values, and modes of interpreting reality, together with the symbols and rituals which express and reinforce them, have been emancipated entirely from assumptions of human dependence on supernatural agencies or influences." That is not a description of American culture-at any time.

When nine out of ten Americans tell pollsters they believe in "old-fashioned values about family and marriage," there is widespread agreement about what that means. Most people do not condone burglary, rape, or Nazism. Charles Manson, Charles Keating, and Aldrich Ames are not heroes. Not many condemn honesty, courage, or fidelity. Indeed, people yearn for Presidents, bosses, and spouses who have such qualities.

Still, the public tells pollsters (64 percent in 1991) that there are few moral absolutes. More people (43 percent) say they rely upon their personal experience instead of outside authorities when weighing issues of right and wrong. Only three persons in ten view Scripture as the ultimate authority in matters of truth. That this seems to contradict other polling data about faith and morals has not escaped the attention of the pollsters themselves, who talk about public ambiguity in distinguishing good from evil.

This ambiguity is in part a reflection of the individualism inherent in Protestantism and the Enlightenment. Americans, among many others, have long claimed the right to define truth as they see it. The uncertainty also reveals the genuine difficulty facing all of us in knowing exactly how to respond to complex issues in the modern world. The great principles by which we live do not always provide us with clear-cut commandments. The historian Jacques Barzun once exclaimed, "The great difficulty of the moral life is that our knowledge of right conduct, as embodied in the Decalogue, the Sermon on the Mount, or the Analects of Confucius, is abstract-like the articles of a constitution." George Weigel has written, "The suggestion that Christian orthodoxy yields a single answer to virtually every contested issue of public policy is an offense, not simply against political common sense, but against Christian orthodoxy."

Abortion is the classic case. A CBS News poll taken in January 1995 showed that while 46 percent of the respondents said that abortion was the same thing as murder, half of those said it still was sometimes necessary. Two presidential families, the Reagans and the Bushes, were divided over the issue. Quarrels over economic redistribution, immigration, welfare, the legalization of drugs, gun control, capital punishment, human embryo research, and other issues are commonplace and inevitable.

And yet for all our disagreements, we are far from being moral idiots-without a past, bereft of authority, and compelled to reinvent basic truths as we go. Pre-Christian peoples, of course, had a strong sense of right and wrong. As the Lutheran theologian Carl E. Braaten has observed, "The idea of a law rooted in the nature of humanity and the world and discoverable by reason has been traced back to the 'dawn of conscience."'

No civilization has been completely at bay about right and wrong. There have been differences about morality, to be sure, but they have not been total. For all of the rich diversity of detail, there is, and has always been, a vital framework written on human hearts and minds by the Creator. C. S. Lewis has written, "Think of a country where people were admired for running away from battle, or where a man felt proud of double-crossing all the people who had been kindest to him. You might just as well try to imagine a country where two and two made five.... Men have differed as to whether you should have one wife or four. But they have always agreed that you must not simply have any woman you liked."

The English sociologist David Martin has cited the International Values survey to conclude that "we are mostly agreed about good and bad." He observed, "People are, it seems, adamantly opposed to lying, stealing, cheating, coveting, killing, and dishonoring their parents." Imagine responses to the following questions, says Martin: "Grinding the faces of the poor, the widowed, and the fatherless is reprehensible/admirable? Drinking and driving is irresponsible/responsible? Causing a little child to stumble is perverse/life-enhancing? Taking your share of the chores is wicked/virtuous? Poking a sharp shard in another person's eye is revolting/entertaining?"

Martin notes that consistent moral relativism, in practice, is hard to find. In contemporary liberal circles, where tolerance and moral relativism are said to reign supreme, "you are continually confronted by a noble rage about the delinquent condition of the world. Here is little else but moral passion for purity: pure jokes, pure speech, pure earth, sky, and sea, pure food and pure bodies, even undiluted equality."

Christian thinkers have long believed that the Law of Moses reinforced and clarified natural law, and that the Savior fulfilled it. As the puts it, "The moral law finds its fullness and its unity in Christ. Jesus Christ is in person the way of perfection. He is the end of the law, for only he teaches and bestows the justice of God."

The existence of natural law is scriptural (although there is only a single reference to it in the New Testament and none in the Old Testament), and it has been official Roman Catholic teaching for many centuries. The Protestant reformers, with the possible exception of Zwingli, also endorsed natural law and its consummation in the gospel. Calvin wrote in his , "It is a fact that the law of God which we call the moral law is nothing else than a testimony of natural law and of that conscience which God has engraved upon the minds of men."

All major American reform movements have appealed to eternal truth to buttress their crusades. The civil rights movement is an obvious example. Martin Luther King, Jr., in his famous letter from Birmingham jail, wrote of "the most sacred values in our Judeo-Christian heritage" and contended "that there are two types of laws: just and unjust.... I would agree with St. Augustine that 'an unjust law is no law at all.'" The pro-life movement claims unequivocally that it is rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition, arguing, as reformers do, that what may be legal can still be immoral.

When 79 percent of the American people declare faith in clear guidelines about what is right and wrong, they are expressing a commitment to what Neuhaus calls a "moral baseline" long accepted in our culture and elsewhere. A majority of Americans understand, at least in general, what is expected of them by a power beyond their own wills. They know, for example, that personal integrity, being generous to the poor, and honoring marriage vows are virtues that do not go out of style. (The University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center found in 1992 that 91 percent of the American people think extramarital affairs are bad and that the overwhelming percentage of married people remain faithful.) In 1994, the social scientist Robert Wuthnow published a study in which he asked two thousand working Americans what was "absolutely essential" or "very important" to their basic sense of worth as a person. "Your family" ranked first, followed immediately by "Your moral standards." Ninety-seven percent of weekly churchgoers and 93 percent of the total labor force endorsed this choice.

Simply labeling America Christian, however, is inadequate. We must ask what sort of Christianity lives in the hearts and minds of most Americans in the late 1990s. It is clearly something unlike the faith practiced by third-century hermits, St. Francis of Assisi, or Martin Luther. Christianity has always absorbed elements of the culture of its adherents, and it is important to consider how extensively the classic faith has been altered by a modern, literate, prosperous, technologically driven society undeniably absorbed with obtaining prosperity, security, and pleasure. In short, what is the content of our Christianity?

First, our faith is not inextricably tied to our churches. Polls show that a majority of Americans have confidence in organized religion. But in 1988, according to Gallup, 44 percent of Americans were unchurched (people who said they were not members of any church or had not attended services in the previous six months other than for special religious holidays, weddings, funerals, or the like.) That figure amounted to about seventy- eight million adults. Gallup found that overwhelming majorities, churched and unchurched, agreed that people "should arrive at their religious beliefs independent of any church or synagogue" and that one can be a good Christian or Jew without attending a church or synagogue. Gallup discovered in polls taken in 1992 and 1995 that confidence in the clergy was at 54 percent of the populace, down from 67 percent in 1985.

When asked why they attended church less often, very few of those interviewed gave reasons that reflected a deep animosity toward organized religion. Only 8 percent said they disagreed with policies and teachings. A mere 5 percent said they were atheists or agnostics. For many, going to church just did not seem that important. Leading the list were 34 percent who said they were too busy.

Religious individualism seems to be at the core of American Christianity. This is a characteristic in harmony with our historic sense of personal independence as well as the considerable socioeconomic mobility we have long enjoyed. Wade Clark Roof and William McKinney concluded, "Typically Americans view religious congregations as gatherings of individuals who have chosen to be together, in institutions of their own making and over which they hold control-fostering what sometimes, in the eyes of observers from other countries, appears as 'churchless Christianity.'" For Americans, "religious authority lies in the believer-not in the church, not in the Bible, despite occasional claims of infallibility and inerrancy on the part of some."

This is true of modern American Roman Catholics as well. The massive changes made since Vatican II, consistently celebrated by liberal Catholics, have had unintended results. Gallup reported that 77 percent said they relied on their consciences rather than papal teaching in making difficult moral decisions. Polls show Catholics lending strong support for legal abortion, artificial birth control (they are more likely than Protestants to be childless), "safe sex" education in schools, and the ordination of women, all positions officially opposed by their church.

According to Gallup, Catholic church attendance (people saying they had gone to church in the past seven days) fell from 74 percent in 1958 to an all-time low of 48 percent in 1988. A study published in 1994 by the University of Notre Dame sociologists Mark Chaves and James C. Cavendish found that the national average was a mere 26.7 percent.

Some, including Humphrey Taylor, president of the Louis Harris poll, now think that all church attendance figures reported by pollsters have been exaggerated. In 1993, Gallup found that 41 percent of Americans went to church within the last week. That figure had remained consistent for over a decade. But to some there just did not seem to be that many people in church on Sunday.

In 1993, a much publicized and controversial study conducted by the sociologists Mark Chaves and Kirk Hadaway and the religion professor Penny Long Marler concluded that only 19.6 percent of Protestants and 28 percent of Catholics were in church in any given week. Only about 16 percent of self-defined Episcopalians attended worship during a typical week. The researchers challenged the many telephone surveys conducted by Gallup and other pollsters, and suggested that Americans felt a need to appear more religious, and more respectable, than they really were.

The widely noted Catholic sociologist Andrew Greeley called the study "a sloppy piece of work," and others were also critical. The research was conducted among Protestants in a single rural Ohio county and among Catholics in only eighteen dioceses. But in any case the study again pointed to the chasm between the professed faith of the American people and their ambivalence about churches. Ironically, it also bolstered the belief that America remained a Christian society, for if the nation were truly secular, why would millions feel compelled to lie in this way to pollsters about church attendance?

Christianity in modern America also tends to be superficial. For one thing, its adherents are poorly educated in the faith. Gallup refers to "a nation of biblical illiterates" and presents solid evidence: only four in ten Americans know that Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount; fewer than half of all adults can name the four Gospels of the New Testament; only three in ten teenagers know why Easter is celebrated. "More than half of all Americans read the Bible less than once a month," Gallup reports, "including 24 percent who say they never read it and 6 percent who can't recall the last time they read the Bible."

Of course, given the fervently secular nature of the media and education at all levels, this illiteracy should not be surprising. It will no doubt increase. The young people who leave the mainline churches in droves are surely no exceptions. If Sunday Schools are teaching about condoms and poverty in Rwanda, there is little time for things like Scripture and church history. And if the clergy present the faith merely as a branch of anthropology or social work, there is little need for anyone to be informed.

A study by the Search Institute of Minneapolis in 1990 revealed that large majorities of mainliners did not read the Bible when alone. The Presbyterians headed the list (77 percent), followed by the Lutherans (75 percent), the United Church of Christ (68 percent), the United Methodists (65 percent), and the Disciples of Christ (62 percent).

According to Gallup, only slightly more than half of the Lutherans, Methodists, and Presbyterians believe in the devil, while roughly the same numbers accept ESP. Fifty-six percent of the Lutherans and 49 percent of the Methodists believe in UFOs. A third of the Methodists and 31 percent of the Presbyterians believe in astrology. While 73 percent of the American people believe in hell, 77 percent believe their own prospects for going to heaven are excellent or good.

An in-depth random survey of 4,001 Americans, conducted by a team of political scientists and published in 1993, concluded that 30 percent of Americans are totally secular in outlook, 29 percent are barely or nominally religious, 22 percent are modestly religious, and only 19 percent-about thirty-six million people- regularly practice their religion. In measuring mainline Protestants (16.7 percent of those studied), for example, the researchers considered church attendance, membership, personal prayer, belief in life after death, and how "important" respondents said religion was in their lives. Those who registered some activity in all five categories were considered "committed" and qualified as part of the 19 percent. "We're not talking about Mother Teresas," said the political scientist John C. Green. "We're looking at people who meet a religious minimum according to their own traditions." In short, if this study is accurate, the vibrant faith pollsters hear about during their telephone interviews is exaggerated and not vitally linked with much of the public's attitudes and actions.

The superficiality of the Christianity expressed by a large majority of Americans can also be seen, of course, in the destructive behavior that increasingly mars our daily lives. Pious rhetoric is not necessarily an indication of a deep-seated, life- changing commitment.

Consider the violence, the insensitivity, and the staggering vulgarity we encounter-and enjoy-in the media. In 1990, 2.9 million couples lived together without marriage-up 80 percent from 1980 and 454 percent from 1970. There are 1.5 million abortions a year, and abortion is a $450 million a year business. Venereal diseases are rampant. African Americans are killing each other, going to prison, and succumbing to an assortment of addictions in record numbers. "American blacks are, by some measure," Gallup reports, "the most religious people in the world." Drug abuse among teenagers was reported in 1995 to be still on the rise. Between 1992 and 1995, the proportion of eighth graders using illicit drugs almost doubled; among tenth graders it jumped by nearly two-thirds; among seniors it escalated by nearly half. "We have become," said William Bennett, "the kind of society that civilized countries used to send missionaries to."

Then, too, there are priorities. It is one thing to tell a pollster, perhaps in complete sincerity, that family and personal moral values are our chief concerns. But most of us, it seems clear, expend the great bulk of our time and energies fulfilling the American dream. We are consumed by our jobs, as psychiatrists, divorce lawyers, and millions of latchkey children know all too well, and are locked into an endless pursuit of the power, cash, status, and pleasure that promise "personal fulfillment" and happiness. Probably few clergy address this issue (there is the budget to meet and the new parish hall to be built), and, as Robert Wuthnow puts it, "we therefore go about our lives pretty much the same as those who have no faith at all."

At the same time we are slaving away to obtain the "finer" things in life, we publicly profess a strong distaste for materialism. We are able, following a long tradition in Western civilization, to divide the spiritual from the material realms of existence. The dichotomy makes us somewhat uneasy, but we persist nonetheless.

People who do not know who gave the Sermon on the Mount may not have read about the rich man and the eye of the needle. More than likely they do know about the warning and have chosen either to ignore it or explain it away-an endeavor long perfected by the wealthy and their minions. In any case, earthly comfort and security, Scripture tells us, are perilous goals for Christians.

Christianity in modern America is, in large part, innocuous. It tends to be easy, upbeat, convenient, and compatible. It does not require self-sacrifice, discipline, humility, an otherworldly outlook, a zeal for souls, a fear as well as love of God. There is little guilt and no punishment, and the payoff in heaven is virtually certain.

The faith has been overwhelmed by the culture, producing what is rightly called cultural Christianity. This is not a question of mere influence; acculturation takes place at all times and in all places. Christianity becomes cultural Christianity when the faith is dominated by a culture to the point that it loses much or most of its authenticity.

What we now have might best be labeled consumer Christianity. The psychologist Paul C. Vitz has observed, "The 'divine right' of the consumer to choose as he or she pleases has become so common an idea that it operates in millions of Americans like an unconscious tropism." Millions of Americans today feel free to buy as much of the full Christian faith as seems desirable. The cost is low and customer satisfaction seems guaranteed.

America is not-not yet, anyway-a thoroughly secular society. But its Christianity, in large part, has been watered down and is at ease with basic secular premises about personal conduct and the meaning of life. Such a religion has an uncertain future, for it has absorbed ideas and attitudes that may well lead to its demise. Authentic Christianity and the world are by definition at odds. That was decreed repeatedly and unequivocally by the Founder. The "disciple whom Jesus loved" made the truth crystal clear when he wrote: "If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.... We know that we are children of God, and that the whole world is under the control of the evil one."

There are still millions of Christians in this country, in many denominations, who cling to the scriptural and traditional faith and the morality that comes with it. They may ingest more than a bit of the worst parts of their culture; it is virtually impossible not to. But their primary allegiance is to the supernatural and living faith embraced by orthodox Christians for almost two thousand years.

In our time, a great many such people are worried and angry about the secularism, violence, cynicism, and despair they see welling up about them. One Wisconsin evangelical exclaimed in 1994, "The once-unthinkable is now almost commonplace, and we feel as though we are riding on a wagon out of control, careening down a hill. It is no progress to continue on the wrong path which our culture has already traveled so far." The evidence strongly suggests that the simile is on target. How we got into that wagon and began our wild ride downhill requires much attention.

THOMAS C. REEVES is Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside and author of A Question of Character: A Life of John F. Kennedy (1991). This article is excerpted from The Empty Church: The Suicide of Liberal Christianity, published this month by Free Press, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Copyright c 1996 by Thomas C. Reeves.

This article appeared in the October 1996 issue of "First Things." To subscribe write First Things, Dept. FT, P. O. Box 3000, Denville, NJ 07834-9847, 1-800-783-4903. Published monthly except bimonthly June/July and August/September for $29.00 per year.