When it showed up in my email box I almost didn’t open “How a Great American Victory Altered American Faith.” The subtitle was about the Cold War and its impact on religious affiliation. Who cares about the Cold War, which ended when the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union collapsed, more than 40 years ago? I didn’t think I did.
But as I waded into the article by David French, of the daily Dispatch Newsletter and a contributor to the Atlantic, it seemed almost revelatory. French draws on the new book Nonverts: The Making of Ex-Christian America, by the British sociologist, Stephen Bullivant. “It’s not just an important book,” writes French, “it’s the best-written and most readable work of religious sociology that I’ve read in a very long time.”
As the book’s title suggests, Bullivant is trying to understand how a nation that inserted the words “under God,” (“one nation under God”) into its Pledge of Alligence in 1954 and adopted “In God We Trust” as its motto, displayed on all currency, in 1956, began to see a surge in religious “nones” (those not affiliated with any religion) beginning in 1990. Between 1989 and middle of the next decade the percent of Nones went from under 7% to close to 25%. The growth in that part of the U.S. population has continued in the decades since until it is now close to 35%.
All sorts of explanations have been offered for this development, for “the making of Ex-Christian America.” Many have faulted the churches and church leaders, where there is certainly room for blame. Others have focused on cultural factors, like the “sexual revolution” and its huge shift in mores over an historically brief time. Still others have seized on demographics, noting the impact of falling birth rates, or movements of the population from northeast and midwest, to west and southwest with a consequent loosening of traditional ties.
What Bullivant argues is that in order to understand the rise of the “nones,” we need to not only look inward, but also outward. We need to consider the geo-political context. In a nutshell, the Cold War (1945 to 1990) was, at least in part, about “God-fearing” America standing up against godless, atheistic Communism. Religious affiliation was tied in with citizenship and the great battle for freedom against totalitarianism.
Fast forward to the ’90s and the Soviet Union, the godless enemy, is suddenly gone. Not only that, but in the U.S. significant parts of Christianity have adopted a reactionary political agenda that doesn’t sound much like Jesus. The face of Christianity is no longer Martin Luther King Jr. or Yale chaplain William Sloane Coffin, but Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. Then came 9/11, when religion began to look less like a champion of civilization and more a threat to it.
Here’s French summarizing Bullivant’s argument:
“As Bullivant notes in his book, the fall of communism meant that talk of ‘a final, all-out battle between communist atheism and Christianity was much less a part of the cultural background.’ Now only the oldest millennials have the faintest recollection of what it meant to fear the destruction of our civilization at the hands of a hostile imperial aggressor.
“Instead, millennials faced something else entirely. ‘Very soon,’ writes Bullivant, ‘the most pressing geopolitical threat to baseball, Mom, and apple pie was not from those without religion but those with rather too much of the wrong kind of it.’ The 9/11 attacks introduced Americans to Islamic fundamentalism, and ‘religious extremism, in the form of radical Islamic terrorists, usurped the place in American nightmares that communist infiltrators used to occupy.’” (emphasis added)
Bullivant doesn’t propose this as the one simple explanation that explains all. He knows such shifts are complex and multi-causal. But he does, or so it seems to me, add a crucial and important perspective, one that explains how in the memory of people my age (boomer) we went from Christianity being as much part of the fabric of American society as baseball to having a much more tenuous and contested status.
Larger cultural contexts and global shifts are important. “Indeed,” writes French, “context and culture can shape even what it means to think of ourselves as Christian or religious at all. Grow up when religion is perceived as dangerous, and marginal believers might be eager to shun religious labels. Grow up when religion is perceived as a necessary part of citizenship, and marginal believers will identify with a faith even if they aren’t particularly devout.” (emphasis added)
As a religious leader, from roughly 1975 to 2020, I witnessed the shift. “Christianity” was no longer the humane and reformist influence I experienced in my childhood, youth, and young adulthood. Increasingly, its face — disproportionately emphasized by the media — were reactionaries who played on fear rather than hope — suspicion rather than trust. Bullivant’s work goes a long ways toward explaining to folks like me what happened as a church and faith we loved came increasingly to seem, to a growing number of Americans, reactionary and dangerous.
I may have a singularly uninformed perspective on this, as a 3rd generation atheist who grew up in a not particularly religious Pacific Northwest environment … but I don’t remember anyone urging belief in Jesus as a defense against Kruschev.
I do remember a very serious generational split over communism. I mean, people of my generation are still here fighting the war against communism, but the back of that social phenomenon was broken a few days before I was born, with the Senate censure of Joseph McCarthy. When boomers were young adults, our generation’s cultural/intellectual ferment was particularly fed by the Vietnam war and the draft, and that debacle helped give anti-communism a pretty bad smell as an inspirational message. So yeah, that happened.
There probably is some friction with Christianity in there, but it’s more coincidental than causal. Plenty of people in the ’60s were happy to point out that Jesus hadn’t asked us to bomb Vietnam back to the Stone Age, etc. But the church as a whole was Establishment, and the war was Establishment, and there was a lot of questioning of the whole thing. But you’re talking about the late ’80s, and the anti-communism social phenomenon was a relic by then, for all its political weight.
It’s about information. Religiosity has always been inversely correlated with access to information, hasn’t it? What happened in the ’90s?
In America, religious feeling waxes and wanes. Lincoln was not very religious until his last years, and the Founders were Deists and Masons, not active believers. And there are clearly periods of religious fervor, such as the early 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, often attached to other issues such as suffrage and crusades against alcohol. At any rate, religious feeling in America today is more like an alternative to the mainstream, and often religious revivals need to play off against the established order to thrive.
I don’t think so. I believe it has more to do with increased literacy over the last few centuries. The pastor was once Mister Know it All. Now there are plenty of people with a range of ideas and the technology to disseminate them. Often with transparent grabs for money, power or political currency.
We were taught in high school debate that the burden of proof lies with the affirmative. So where is it? Faith? That crazy abstract noun that substitutes for desperation?
Joe Hill called it “Pie in the Sky when you Die.” Krishnamurti preached that truth is a pathless land, and made a living doing it.
Don’t count on those pews and coffers filling up again.
Nationalism? NAFTA gutted much of the nation. Regrettably many high-brows have not heard of this fact. It is worth considering the ruined cities, blight, illiteracy, massive drug addiction, unemployment, underemployment, discouraged workers, homelessness, broken homes, radically overpriced colleges (of worsening quality). The suffering is intense.
I can’t escape the feeling that, in simpler times (50’s-60’s) what was thought of as “Christianity” has now become a vast juggernaut of conflicted beliefs that really, IMHO, don’t belong. I’m thinking here of angry mobs who claim to be ‘evangelicals’ but whose behaviors have lost the message of the Gospel of Love and have shown themselves to be very un-Christian in both word and deed.
Just as so many in positions of power have promoted and excused the rapacious antics of people like Donald Trump and refused to call out their cynical, lewd, inappropriate, illegal and selfish behaviors so have many in religious power refused to call out fake “Christians” who now rule over multi-million dollar mega-churches, preaching fake prosperity gospel and lying about their sex lives.
I believe this failure to identify and call them out has, in turn, made many who might have sought Godly love and forgiveness far too cynical about organized religion to bother. Do we know the difference between “good” and “evil” or is fear still winning?