Don’t be led astray by calls for Christian nationalism. Unfortunately, many of these calls are from people claiming to be evangelical Christians. However, they appear to be motivated more by politics than concern for the gospel of Christ.
At the same time, don’t be led astray by groups that want to promote a message that denigrates America, that associates America with racism and exploitation and greediness. These groups would critique the founding fathers, tear down commemorative memorials and depreciate the flag. America has sins and shortcomings but all this needs to be put in the context of the bigger picture.
What is the larger context? In 1784, after a Revolutionary War at a time when the new nation was at a spiritual low point, Methodism’s first bishop in America, declared, “O America, America, God will make it the glory of the world for religion.”
With the instructions that they had nothing to do but save souls and reform the nation, the first Methodist preachers crisscrossed the land, held revivals, organized camp meetings, and were primarily responsible for creating in America a new religious culture, which was not only the basis for democracy but for the flourishing of Christian faith. (Read Nathan Hatch’s The Democratization of American Christianity, Yale, 1989). From 1800 to 1850 church membership in America increased from 10% of the population to 35% of the population. Methodism, for its part, increased from 2.5% of the religious population to 33%.
How goes it, since? If you are having a slow day in the senior adult Sunday school class, throw out the question: are things better or worse than they used to be for the Christian faith in America? This usually generates a lively discussion with the great majority of Methodists (at least in the churches where I have tried this) generally concluding that things are worse. They refer to promiscuous sex, drugs, family break-up, closing churches, lower church attendance, and no prayer in schools. According to polls, more than 75% of Americans believe religion is losing influence in American society.
The naysayers have much more ammunition in making their case from recent Pew Research Polls which report that, while 90% of Americans identified themselves as Christian in 1990, today only 63% identify as Christian. While in 1972 only 5% of Americans indicated they were religiously unaffiliated, today 29% identify as religiously unaffiliated. Those who have been a part of United Methodism know much of this firsthand. For 50 straight years American United Methodism has lost members, from 11 million in 1970 to under 6 million today. We are lacking young people, and even, for that matter, middle-aged people.
What then shall we say? Is there hope? Is there a future for either the United Methodist Church or the Global Methodist Churches, or for Christianity itself? Time for another look. While we lament our declines, the case can be made that these are still good times for Christian faith. To make that statement, however, means we must understand and acknowledge some major shifts in religion that are taking place in America. These include a decline of mainline Protestant churches; the influence of conservative politics on evangelical Christianity; a growing secularism; an erosion of public faith; the rise of “spirituality” apart from organized religion, a more militant hostility on the part of some segments of society against Christianity, and increasing polarization within religion and culture.
Perhaps it would be helpful to look at some other ebbs and flows in American religious intensity. In the early 1900s, modernist Christianity also spoke of a Christianized America. The very title of the modernist journal, the Christian Century, founded in the late 1800s, suggested a Christian society for the 20th century with talk of the Fatherhood of God, the Brotherhood of Man, and the coming Kingdom of God. This was not just “Christian” but Protestant Christian.
There were concerns, however, as the century progressed. In 1948, Charles Clayton Morrison, long-time editor of Christian Century and perhaps the leading progressive religious observer of his times, wrote a significant book: Can Protestantism Win America? According to Morrison, three major forces were contending for ascendancy in the cultural and spiritual life of America: Protestantism, Roman Catholicism and Secularism. Until recent times, Protestantism had had virtually no competitors. America was a Protestant land. Protestantism was a civilizing and Christianizing force for good. It sought to make the kingdoms of this world the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ. Its goal was to penetrate the political, economic, intellectual, and artistic areas of life and mold the laws and customs of its culture into an ethos marked by its own spirit and ethic and ideology.
Morrison was alarmed at the increasing power and influence of Roman Catholicism. He was alarmed at the inroads of secularism. Where Morrison saw hope was in the ecumenical movement and the joining together of Protestant churches in order to exert influence in the centers of learning. Morrison’s Protestantism was the progressive Protestantism of what we today would call the mainline churches. The conservative (fundamentalist) churches, according to Morrison, were not a factor since they had withdrawn from culture. Morrison identified the forces working against the influence of Protestantism as localism, individualism and sectarianism.
Morrison was right about a number of things but he was not a good prognosticator. The answer to his question: Can Protestantism Win America? is NO. But is it the primary goal of Christian faith to make the nation Protestant? Isn’t there something tragically wrong about the effort of some religious conservatives in the effort to “Make America Great Again” and to link that with making America a Christian nation? Most church people, (at least the ones in adult Sunday school classes) think of the golden era as the 1950s and early 1960s. Churches were full; college-age youth seemed not to be in rebellion; families were intact. Within Methodism, small town and country churches were vital.
But those days were not as golden as we may remember them. It is true that fewer young adults are interested in organized religion today than they were fifty years ago, or even 20 years ago. While this is so we need to be reminded that organized religion is not the same as vital Christianity. Perhaps more students are interested in religion today than we imagine.
I remember the summer I spent at a major university in the 1950s. I searched in vain all summer for Christian fellowship or for any signs of vital Christianity. The students, as I remember them, were not hostile to Christianity, but serious Christianity seemed irrelevant to them. In evangelical language, students were cultural Protestants, not born-again Christians. About that time I represented my Christian college at a National Students Association (NSA) conference. Academic freedom was the issue, especially in regard to political speech (as in pro-Communist ideology speech). Strident voices argued there were to be no restraints or requirements on what professors wished to say. What about religious schools which expected their professors to speak from a Christian perspective? Hostility against Christianity raised its ugly head: no ideological boundaries of any kind.
This was a harbinger of what was to come. The student rebellions of the 1960s were rebellions against the religious establishment as well as the political and cultural establishment, and that religious establishment was what we today would call mainline Protestantism.
But in those days an evangelical subculture was also rising in reaction to cultural Protestantism. The Jesus People, para-church ministries, the charismatic renewal movements, new missionary initiatives, began to multiply. Youth for Christ, Campus Crusade, Young Life and Inter-Varsity were among the earliest.
In 1955, I attended the Inter-Varsity Missionary Conference in Urbana with 5,000 other students. I remember the remarks: “I never realized there were this many college student Christians in America.” Hundreds committed themselves to missions. Within 15 years, the Urbana conferences had to turn away students because they could only handle 17,000. About that same time Campus Crusade gathered 120,000 Christian students in Dallas stadium.
Today, 400,000 career missionaries are at work in the world proclaiming Christ. About 150,000 of these are from the United States, more than at any time in our history. (Unfortunately, United Methodists account for something like only 300 of the total.) Many of these are supported by local churches and para-church ministries. A United Methodist Church I know planted over 50 new churches in India. In our own UMC and GMC churches there are so many short-term mission trips that we have trouble keeping track of them. The Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA) now counts about 1,600 para-church groups working in America who have pledged themselves to the highest standards of finances. Our own local Kokomo Rescue Mission (of which I have been a board member for nearly 30 years) has a budget of over 2.5 million dollars, almost none from government funds (so that there are no restrictions on the gospel) and is launching a 6 million dollar expansion. Nearly 200 churches support this mission. This is a different kind of ecumenism. Sixty years ago the small Indiana town I grew up in had five churches. Today the same town counts 12 churches. In Kokomo, IN, near to where I now live, I can pass 12 churches in a 5 ½ mile stretch of pavement with a combined weekly attendance (to the best that I can figure) of 4,500 worshippers. In Wilmore, Kentucky several months ago, a great revival broke out that had an impact upon churches and other Christian college groups across the nation. We should expect more of this.
In the 1950s, there were almost no Christian radio stations. Now, there are hundreds. Evangelical seminaries were almost non-existent. Now, they enroll most of the seminarians in the country. When Protestantism lost its influence in public school education, religious schools and charter schools and homeschooling arose to fill the vacuum.
We should view our present religious situation not as a time of despair but as a time of opportunity. Of course there will need to be refocusing, much repentance, some new attitudes, some new directions, and much prayer. This is true not only for evangelicals but also for progressives. More on that in future articles.
Riley B. Case is a retired United Methodist clergy member of the Indiana Conference who has for many years authored articles for the Confessing Movement. His articles are published in the Methodist Voices series appearing on Juicy Ecumenism, the blog of the Institute on Religion & Democracy.