Jon's American Religion 101

Many of you know that Newsweek editor Jon Meacham has written books on topics as diverse as the friendship between Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, the faith of the founding Fathers, and the nation's seventh President, Andrew Jackson. In the YouTube clip above, he's discoursing in a Gettsburg College lecture about faith and President Abraham Lincoln.

Meacham lets his inner church historian run free once again in a lengthy essay published recently in Newsweek.

With the headline "The End of Christian America" (no fear of the end of hyped-up titles), this is an interesting hybrid -- an occasionally insightful, sometimes reportorial and often opinionated (naturally) pilgrimage through territory that should be very familiar to GetReligion readers, and long documented by pollsters -- the emergence of what tmatt calls "OprahAmerica."

Instead of taking the tack of examining why these ranks have been growing, however, Meacham suggests that the increasing number of "unaffiliated" are a disappointment to the hopes of the "Christian right." While I frankly think that approach to poll numbers minimizes the other interesting facets of what else is going on in contemporary American spirituality, it does apparently lead Meacham to make an intriguing choice of essay protagonist -- R. Albert Mohler, Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Serving as the reflective voice of Christian conservatism and a bit of a one-man Greek chorus, Mohler is really the thread that ties the sometimes rambling article together.

In an elegiac mode, Meacham starts -- and ends -- with Mohler, as the conservative ponders the slow seepage of "Christian" influence in America.

It was a small detail, a point of comparison buried in the fifth paragraph on the 17th page of a 24-page summary of the 2009 American Religious Identification Survey. But as R. Albert Mohler Jr. -- president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, one of the largest on earth -- read over the document after its release in March, he was struck by a single sentence. For a believer like Mohler -- a starched, unflinchingly conservative Christian, steeped in the theology of his particular province of the faith, devoted to producing ministers who will preach the inerrancy of the Bible and the Gospel of Jesus Christ as the only means to eternal life -- the central news of the survey was troubling enough: the number of Americans who claim no religious affiliation has nearly doubled since 1990, rising from 8 to 15 percent. Then came the point he could not get out of his mind: while the unaffiliated have historically been concentrated in the Pacific Northwest, the report said, "this pattern has now changed, and the Northeast emerged in 2008 as the new stronghold of the religiously unidentified." As Mohler saw it, the historic foundation of America's religious culture was cracking.

One huge question here is -- what does Meacham mean by "professing Christian?" Of course, that's a hot wire issue in American culture as a whole -- and has been since the beginning of the Republic. There is a vast pool of Americans who would identify themselves as Christians through birth, or affiliation, but either are not linked to any community of practice or are dabbling in the general syncretist stew we call American spirituality.

But Meacham doesn't deal with that group (although possibly they are also declining). His focus is instead on a group he terms at various times "orthodox" and "evangelical," and what has occured as they ventured into the political arena, impelled by various issues like abortion, gay marriage and school prayer. And he believes that their (debatable) inability to make a permanent national mark on these issues is healthy for the United States.

"While we remain a nation decisively shaped by religious faith, our politics and our culture are, in the main, less influenced by movements and arguments of an explicitly Christian character than they were even five years ago. I think this is a good thing -- good for our political culture, which, as the American Founders saw, is complex and charged enough without attempting to compel or coerce religious belief or observance. "

This is a complex, multi-layered essay: Meacham veers between contemporary and historical analysis in a way that asks much of his readers. On the one-hand, he seems to want to argue that Americans are in a "post-Christian" period -- on the other hand, because he never really defines what constitutes a "Christian" it's almost as difficult to know where we where as how we got "here".

Part of the problem is that he seems to be writing two essays. One argues that Christian conservative influence in American politics is ebbing. The other tackles morphing American religious demographics.

Just as all Catholics can't be lumped into a basket for purposes of identifying where they fall on the political spectrum, evangelicals are increasingly in dialogue with one another about what that "label" may mean -- or not.

Some conservatives, Rod Dreher, for example, thinks that living in a "post-Christian" American society might not be such a bad thing for Christians. Here at GetReligion, we've been making a very similar argument about the structure of American religion for five years.

Meacham acknowledges that there is a debate going on -- but he could have gone more deeply into it. Perhaps he wisely chose to save that for another article. However, as confusing as this one sometimes felt, what I'll take away is the respect that he showed Mohler -- a worthy interlocutor whose words echo in the reader's mind after she is done reading. Meacham didn't quite let him have the last word, but he came graciously close.

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