Newsweek: The End of Christian America April 5, 2009

Newsweek: The End of Christian America

The echoes of the ARIS survey findings are still being heard.

In a Newsweek article titled “The End of Christian America,” Jon Meacham talks about how power is shifting away from the Religious Right.

Before we get to the article, though, let’s talk about this cover:


It’s complete exaggeration, similar to the overblown Time cover from 42 years ago, which asked, “Is God Dead?

The shift may be happening, but there’s no doubt as to where the power still rests. Christians make up most of the population and (too) many of them have influence in the political arena.

The End of Christian America? Hardly. That’s like saying $100 shoes now cost $90… the slight drop does not mean the shoes will be free anytime soon. A 10% decline in the number of self-professed Christians doesn’t mean they’re about to go away.

Meacham writes this:

There it was, an old term with new urgency: post-Christian. This is not to say that the Christian God is dead, but that he is less of a force in American politics and culture than at any other time in recent memory. To the surprise of liberals who fear the advent of an evangelical theocracy and to the dismay of religious conservatives who long to see their faith more fully expressed in public life, Christians are now making up a declining percentage of the American population.

According to the American Religious Identification Survey that got [president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary R. Albert] Mohler’s attention, the percentage of self-identified Christians has fallen 10 percentage points since 1990, from 86 to 76 percent… Meanwhile, the number of people willing to describe themselves as atheist or agnostic has increased about fourfold from 1990 to 2009, from 1 million to about 3.6 million. (That is about double the number of, say, Episcopalians in the United States.)

The numbers are nice, but we’re still in the minority and far too many Americans hold irrational beliefs.

A third of Americans say they are born again; this figure, along with the decline of politically moderate-to liberal mainline Protestants, led the ARIS authors to note that “these trends … suggest a movement towards more conservative beliefs and particularly to a more ‘evangelical’ outlook among Christians.”… there is no doubt that the nation remains vibrantly religious — far more so, for instance, than Europe.

Meacham points out that we have been winning the culture wars lately (stem cells, gay marriage, evolution), which is a positive sign, but we still have a long way to go. Evolution is still being challenged, 47 states still ban gay marriage, and only one Congressperson is openly non-theistic.

I’m surprised Meacham wrote the article with little reference to any non-religious people helping bring about the change (there was only a brief mention of Christopher Hitchens).

On a positive note, it’s nice to hear that atheists are beginning to speak out. Imagine if everyone who didn’t believe in a god said as much. Think of how those numbers would change. I believe any reports of the number of atheists are underestimated. Many of us refuse to come out of the closet, even anonymously.

Until that stigma is gone, and atheists can speak openly about who they are, Christians will still have the upper hand.

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  • Siamang

    It’s funny… maybe it’s because it’s newsweek. But the article seems to be concerned primarily with the shift in political power. And then somewhere in the middle he sticks a bunch of bible quotes.

    I guess after reading the whole thing… I’m not sure what he’s saying. It’s like he’s mentioning a whole bunch of things happening, but he’s not actually saying much.

    I don’t actually see anyone in the story saying what I see from my perspective: Bush was an unpopular president who messed things up royally, and he wore his evangelicalism on his sleeve. As such, people saw that Right-wing evangelical-led politics fails to actually deal with getting sandwiches and milk to people in the disaster area.

    I think we’re in an era where you cannot say that religion gets us out of the financial crisis, or the recession, or the lack of medical care, or the war or whatever. And the voodoo bullshit of “God’s punishing us for abortions” isn’t working anymore. People see that the problem with the financial crisis was not caused by God, it was caused by man.

    I would also like to see something written from the perspective of the non-religious. The perspective that was missing from the article was one of “Hey, this actually might mean more public policy might be based on empiricism rather than mysticism.”

    I know. Fat chance. But I can dream, can’t I?

  • «bønez_brigade»

    I agree with Siamang’s assessment of the article. By the end, it seemed as if I was reading something different than what I had started. And methinks those Newsweek authors [Meacham/Gray] should have given more credit to the authors, bloggers, podcasters, skeptics and others who accelerated the spread of secularism (and scientific reasoning) in the last few years. Hitchens is great, but he didn’t act alone.

    Also, the authors should have kept up with the TFN blog (amongst many others) recently, since they weren’t entirely correct about Texas deciding to “side with science, not theology”.

  • You sure this isn’t just a polarization of the American public?

    Remember Jesus Camp?

  • And I, for one, welcome our new atheist overlords.

  • I’m interested in the collapse of the religious middle. Mohler and the religious right did a lot to further that end. Some of it was the insistence and success in portraying Christianity as anti-gay, ant-science,. The religious right’s rise made Christianity something to be overcome, not something to religiously relate to, for millions.

    But Mohler was also involved in a personal way. He was part of the purges of the religious center in the Southern Baptist Convention, getting whole swaths of professors fried at the seminary he leads, locking out moderate voices with convention fight after convention fight until the fundamentalist takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention was complete. They spent so much time defining who a “real Christian was” that they succeeded in narrowing it. So now Mohler looks around and despairs at a smaller tent? He should be congratulating himself, it’s results of a lifetime of work.

  • Blotz

    “(That is about double the number of, say, Episcopalians in the United States.) ”

    So first we take out the Episcopalians!

  • llewelly

    The End of Christian America
    The percentage of self-identified Christians has fallen 10 points in the past two decades. How that statistic explains who we are now—and what, as a nation, we are about to become.

    10 points!!!! THE END IZ NEAR!!!

    Next time someone whines about the death of traditional reporting, I will recall this article (and thousands of others) and think “Why should I care about an industry that paid functional illiterates to pick the title of each every article?”

    Still, in the new NEWSWEEK Poll, fewer people now think of the United States as a “Christian nation” than did so when George W. Bush was president (62 percent in 2009 versus 69 percent in 2008).

    A tiny drop in the huge portion of Americans who still believe in the American history equivalent of Flat-Earth theory. Amusing that Jon Meacham seems to think this small victory for historians is a threat to Christianity. Does he believe Christianity is inherently ahistorical?

    But that project has failed, at least for now. In Texas, authorities have decided to side with science, not theology, in a dispute over the teaching of evolution.

    That’s not what I read .

    And the final page is filled with trite bromides and bible quotes whose context had to be amputated in order to suit the deeply confused needs of the article.

  • withheld

    Also, from today’s Minneapolis Star Tribune editorial section, Imagine There’s No Heaven where they blame the economic meltdown on people not believing in heaven or hell. Ugh.

  • Hopefully awaiting post-Christian America!

  • Something to get the RRRW’s panties into a bunch, and better yet to get people to buy the magazine.

  • HP

    Something I’d like to throw out there for discussion: In all the various discussions of the “New Atheism” and the ARIS survey, nobody has mentioned the role of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the subsequent Iraq war.

    I think a lot of people who, 10 years ago, would’ve been reluctant to call themselves atheists or to criticize religion, have looked at the actions of Muslim fanatics, and then seen the response of Christian fanatics, and concluded that there’s not much difference between them, nor does either have much to offer.

    Meanwhile, I think, those whose power and influence derives from religion see the world becoming more secular, and so they dig in their heels, and that’s why what seems like entrenched power coupled with stupidity is really just desperation and overreach.

    On the other hand, this stuff is cyclical — secularism and religiosity rise and fall in waves, so I don’t think we’re seeing anything permanent. I fully expect another wave of rising religiosity in 25-30 years.

  • Scarlet Letter

    “let’s talk about this cover”:

    Is it just me or is obvious to everyone that the words are arranged to form a cross or a crucifix?

  • Jen

    People are not going to stop being religious any time soon, but they might buy a magazine that implies everyone else is going to become ATHEISTS and therefore EVIL.

  • Gaytor Rasmussen

    I find HP’s comments interesting. I would like to see how this plays out by age group. I find truly religious young people (college age) to be disappearing. I would posit, merely from observational experience, that we are seeing the religious population drops largely due to attrition. We are only a few generations away from the paradigm shift and I can’t wait for it to get here!

  • This post has been linked for the HOT5 Daily 4/6/2009, at The Unreligious Right

  • DeafAtheist

    I wasn’t aware that there was a member of Congress that was openly non-theistic. Who is it?

  • I wasn’t aware that there was a member of Congress that was openly non-theistic. Who is it?

    Pete Stark (D-CA). Google him!

  • Seth Matthew

    Any publicity is supposed to be good publicity, but nonsense like this really just reinforces the persecution complex many Christians already have.

    I’m sending my angry letter to Newsweek, not that I’ve ever been impressed with their quality of reportage.

  • The number of evangelicals or “born-again” Christians is on the rise (now over one-third of America) while the number of Christians on the so-called mainline denominations that tend to be more liberal is shrinking. Thus the overall number of people identifying themselves as Christians is less, but the conservative element is growing.

    Poll after poll bears that out. However, I don’t know if there is any data on the following idea: People a decade ago who were marginally religious were afraid to call themselves non-religious. But that stigma has disappeared and those who at one time who never attended church but would not call themselves agnostics, now feel quite fine with saying they have “no religion.”

    In fact, there is also a tendency among young non-denominational “born-again” Christians to eschew the term “religion.” It’s partly the result of the post-modernist mindset and partly due to the growth of these large non-conventional churches that got started in the hippie “Jesus movement” of the 1970s.

    I think we can all agree this NW cover is meant to stir controversy. Controversy sells.

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