Slouching Toward CapernaumKevin D. Paulson July/August 2014
People with strong convictions of any kind often function best when believing themselves under siege. So long as it is believed that contemporary trends and prevailing forces are inflicting notable harm on one’s cherished values, justification for one’s persistence in proffering and practicing an alternative is easily found.
This is even truer in the religious realm than in the secular. During the great persecution of Christians by the Roman emperor Decius in the third century A.D., the great Christian scholar Tertullian coined the memorable line that the blood of martyrs was the seed of the church. Christendom has often flourished best in times of adversity, ostracism, and revilement. Even the late U.S. senator Eugene McCarthy, running for his party’s presidential nomination in 1968, noted publicly—during the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia in August of that year—that Christians frequently found a more vibrant faith when confronted with official hostility and perilous circumstances.1 (Not perhaps the wisest statement for an aspiring U.S. president at that time, to be sure, but one difficult to gainsay from a historical perspective.)
Forecasts of a “Post-Christian” America
Predictions of the decline and fall of so-called “Christian America” have proliferated in the public media—both secular and otherwise—for the past several years. In the spring of 2009 Newsweek’s cover article “The Decline and Fall of Christian America”2 was paralleled by a Christian commentator’s dour prediction of “the coming evangelical collapse.”3 The latter article was both particularly insightful and dramatic in its forecast of diminishing biblical faith, the demise of thousands of ministries, millions leaving the evangelical fold, and denominations vanishing.4 A more recent piece, depicting contemporary evangelicalism as a neutered horse unable to reproduce because of cultural fixation and compromise,5 focuses blame for the crisis as much on internal spiritual failure on the church’s part as on surrounding societal trends.
A recent Pew survey noted that 16 percent of Americans claimed no religious affiliation at all,6 up slightly from the 12 percent noted in a 2009 survey.7 At the same time, the number of Americans professing Christianity is in fact marginally higher in the latest Pew poll—78 percent.8—than in the 2009 Newsweek-reported survey noted above, which set the figure at 76 percent.9 Even more curious is that five years earlier Newsweek reported another poll stating that 84 percent of Americans called themselves Christians.10 One must wonder what factors could have produced a shift of this many points in so short a time.
One way or the other, it is fair to say the collective survey data at the present moment on American religious trends has verified an uptick in the percentage claiming no particular religious profession. One can argue as to the size of the increase or its exact meaning; the “unaffiliated” label can at times be used to describe Christians who style themselves “nondenominational” while belonging to structurally autonomous congregations with a very conservative Christian worldview. (Certain members of the Calvary Chapel network of churches, for example, depict themselves as unaligned with any particular denomination. One friend of mine who has dialogued with some of them calls them a “nondenominational denomination.”)
So is a secular tide truly lapping at the door of the American church? If so, is it likely to build or recede in coming years?
The peril of analyzing either religious or secular trends too quickly is one any careful historian recognizes, no matter how easily pundits and media commentators seem to forget even the very recent past. In the political world especially, ideological obituaries are dangerous; such graveyards are notorious for resurrections. (One recalls, following the 1962 California gubernatorial race, the ill-fated ABC News television special titled “The Political Obituary of Richard M. Nixon.”) In his chronicle of the 1964 presidential candidacy of Barry Goldwater and its impact on American history, Rick Perlstein writes: “Here is one time, at least, in which history was written by the losers.”11 Actually this has been a repetitive phenomenon in the modern history of the republic. In the wake of Watergate, with the bitter nomination feud between Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan approaching its crescendo, pundits wondered aloud whether the Republican Party would survive.12 But a scant four years later, with Jimmy Carter and Ted Kennedy embroiled in a similar fight amid a country convulsed in crisis, similar thoughts were voiced about the Democrats.13
The peril of premature obituaries seems a lesson most difficult for the “chattering class”—otherwise called the fourth estate—to learn. Following the Gingrich Revolution of 1994, predictions of Democratic demise would be heard again.14 Few remembered these predictions two years later, when President Clinton easily won reelection over Bob Dole and Ross Perot. During the second term of President George W. Bush, one very respected commentator even warned of an “American theocracy” crafted by what he called the “erring Republican majority.”15 But less than three years later, after Barack Obama’s election to the presidency, one prestigious liberal publication ran an article titled “Conservatism Is Dead.”16 That ink was barely dry before the Rightist reaction, otherwise called the “Tea Party,” came on the American scene, winning dramatic midterm victories during the 2010 elections. Far from being dead, conservatism dared to dream of unseating a liberal president. Many speculated that the enthusiasm attending Obama’s first election had long since died, especially among the young and minorities. Yet in 2012 Obama won reelection by a comfortable margin, with even larger totals among the aforementioned voter groups.17
It would appear George Santayana’s warning about those not remembering the past being condemned to repeat it is one little considered in the circles of punditry and political analysis. When considering American religious trends and their implications for religious liberty, it helps to keep fresh the knowledge that a formidable tide one moment can turn to a ripple the next.
When we look at long-term challenges, it often helps to consider the more enduring, underlying factors in a particular situation. It behooves us to consider such factors with regard to the course of American religion and its interaction with culture and politics.
Perhaps the most significant of these factors is the continuing state of the world, both natural and cultural. Kevin Phillips rightly notes the staying power of religious conservatism and apocalyptic interest on account of tsunamis, killer hurricanes, financial panic, and much more.18 Newsweek ran a striking cover story in the spring of 2011, following the Japanese tsunami of that year. The title, in large red-and-white font, screamed: “Apocalypse Now: Tsunamis. Earthquakes. Nuclear Meltdowns. Revolutions. Economies on the Brink. What the #@%! Is Next?”19 (Not a bad opener for a seminar on the biblical book of Revelation, I might add!) Such headlines may be written off as marketing hype, but they illustrate a key reason that religious interest and fervor aren’t going away any time soon.
During the past decade I lived for seven years on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, perhaps one of the most secular, culturally elite neighborhoods in America. During those years, books in the famous Left Behind series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins—a fictionalized chronicle of end-time events as believed by many conservative evangelicals—were making headlines as best sellers. I was fascinated by how, even in my very secular Manhattan community, the local Barnes & Noble store—five minutes from my apartment—couldn’t keep these books in stock. Giant stacks of each sequel in this series would be conspicuous in the store one day, and be all gone a few days later. Reasons for the popularity of such books in such a neighborhood might be debatable, but sales like these truly make it difficult to conclude religious interest is waning in our land, even among professedly secular people.
Unbelief of a sort may be on the rise just now, but it isn’t likely to last. Increased natural chaos, accelerating disasters of all kinds, growing financial uncertainty, and heightened political polarization don’t lend themselves to humanistic notions of self-sufficiency. If evidence could be found, even to a limited degree, that men and women in today’s technological nirvana were showing any perceivable ability to solve vexing world problems and move beyond rending quarrels toward reconciliation and resolution, perhaps a case could be made that humanity was getting better on its own. But it isn’t happening. iPhones, Facebook, and Twitter have made the world smaller, but not safer or more loving. Albert Einstein’s words when the atom bomb was invented still hold true, relative to the advancement of mortal knowledge and scientific awareness: “The release of atomic power has changed everything except our way of thinking.”
The human pattern is clear that when times get bad, people search for stable anchors, enduring markers, and timeless truth. Religion is nearly always a primary refuge during such moments. It won’t necessarily be good or healthy religion, by biblical or perhaps other standards, but it will offer a welcome retreat from the moral cluelessness and empty self-exploration of our postmodern age. The pendulum will swing back toward faith, absolutes, and a yearning for transcendence. In the face of natural calamity, heightened social injury due to moral experimentation, and systemic failure within the culture on an unimagined scale, religion will come to the rescue as the savior of civilization.
And then, with the world order hanging in the balance, genuine liberty will be truly tested.
Slouching Toward Capernaum
Years ago an Oregon congressman wrote an article in The New Republic ominously titled “The Sky Is Falling.”20 Such a headline might have been written off as laughable paranoia, had it not been penned by a respected lawmaker and its content been as substantive as it was. Regardless of those predictions in the article arising from perceived perils now gone (e.g., developing nations’ indebtedness to Western banks), it is the cultural impact of the economic ruin foretold by the congressman that still holds relevance in our present day.
Most insightful perhaps of this lawmaker’s reflections were the following:
“The effects of our affluence were pervasive. We became a ‘permissive society’ that condones everything from no-cause divorces to free sex. We switched from Ovaltine to cocaine. Our kids lived in their own apartments and did as they pleased. Every group in the country demanded its ‘rights’; our legal system sued for ridiculous sums on every ground imaginable. We transplanted hearts and forgot the common cold. That will all change. Not only will our children come back to the nest for support, but the liberal lifestyles will vanish. The bluenose rebellion is about to begin in earnest. Its harbingers are the anti-abortionists and right-wing religionists.”21
The congressman continued by predicting that America’s political savior in the wake of this crisis would not be a liberal like Franklin Roosevelt,22 that economic collapse would ignite bitterness among the once-comfortable classes,23 and that these “may well demand harsh remedies, remedies that only a despot can promise.”24
None but God can predict the future, of course. But the human tendency to seek solace in faith and transcendent values in adverse times is a staple of history as constant as the recurrence of war, greed, and the quest for wealth and power. When hard times come again, the brief blip in overt irreligion will likely dissipate. Religious freedom will face challenge, all right, but not from secularists.
The late conservative jurist Robert Bork, in his 1997 book Slouching Towards Gomorrah, wrote of American decline both moral and political at the alleged behest of rampant, radical liberalism.25 But when I look at the recent cycles of American history and contemplate what might be next, I cannot help thinking of what Christ said about the Galilean towns of His day, whose principal sin was self-righteousness, in comparison with the sexually immoral cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, which God had destroyed in the Old Testament. In the words of Jesus:
“And thou, Capernaum, which art exalted unto heaven, shall be brought down to hell; for if the mighty works, which have been done in thee, had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. But I say unto you, That it shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment, than for thee” (Matthew 11:23, 24).
Perhaps a more appropriate title for a book on America’s pending, possible moral decline could be: Slouching Toward Capernaum.
- Theodore H. White, The Making of the President, 1968 (New York: Atheneum Publishers, 1969), p. 315.
- “The Decline and Fall of Christian America,” Newsweek, Apr. 13, 2009.
- Michael Spencer, “The Coming Evangelical Collapse,” Christian Science Monitor, Mar. 10, 2009; available online at www.csmonitor.com/Commentary/Opinion/2009/0310/p09s01-coop.html.
- Dr. Orrel Steincamp, “The Evangelical Gelding Is Neutered,” Aug. 17, 2013; available online at http://apprising.org/2013/08/17/the-evangelical-gelding-is-neutered/.
- Pew Research Religion and Public Life Report, Aug. 29, 2013; available online at http://religions.pewforum.org/reports.
- Jon Meacham, “The End of Christian America,” Newsweek, Apr. 13, 2009, p. 34.
- Pew Research Religion and Public Life Report, Aug. 29, 2013; available online at http://religions.pewforum.org/reports.
- Meacham, “The End of Christian America,” p. 34.
- Newsweek, Dec. 13, 2004, p. 51.
- Rick Perlstein, Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus (New York: Hill and Wang, 2001), p. x.
- “The Plight of the G.O.P.,” Time, Aug. 23, 1976, pp. 10-20.
- “End of the Democratic Era?” Newsweek, Aug. 19, 1980, pp. 21-25.
- Steven V. Roberts, “The Democrats: Is the Party Over?” U.S. News and World Report, Nov. 6, 1996, pp. 28-38.
- Kevin Phillips, American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the Twenty-first Century (New York: Penguin Group, 2006), pp. 347-387.
- Sam Tanenhaus, “Conservatism Is Dead,” The New Republic, Feb. 18, 2009, pp. 12-17.
- Dan Balz, Collision 2012: Obama Versus Romney and the Future of Elections in America (New York: Penguin Group, 2013), pp. 332-335, 349-351.
- Phillips, p. 383.
- Newsweek, Mar. 28 and Apr. 4, 2011.
- James Weaver, “The Sky Is Falling,” The New Republic, May 13, 1985, pp. 19, 20.
- Ibid., p. 20.
- Robert H. Bork, Slouching Towards Gomorrah: Modern Liberalism and American Decline (New York: HarperCollins Publishers,
Article Author: Kevin D. Paulson
Kevin Paulson is a much-published author, editor, and minister of religion. He writes from Berrien Springs, Michigan.