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Religious Decline is Bad for All of US


Religion used to give Americans a sense that a successful life involves more than status and material gain. As its cultural authority has waned, our standards have become more worldly. So argues David Brooks in an insightful column on the connection between the decline of religion and inequality:

[Under Judeo-Christianity] your place is not determined by worldly accomplishments, but simply through an acceptance of God’s grace. As Paul Tillich put it in a passage recently quoted on Andrew Sullivan’s blog, “Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted.”

This inverse hierarchy took secular form. Proletarian novels and movies made the working class the moral bedrock of the nation. In Frank Capra movies like “Meet John Doe,” the common man is the salt of the earth, while the rich are suspect. It wasn’t as if Americans renounced worldly success (this is America!), but there were rival status hierarchies: the biblical hierarchy, the working man’s hierarchy, the artist’s hierarchy, the intellectual’s hierarchy, all of which questioned success and denounced those who climbed and sold out.

We have covered the crisis facing Western Christianity, and various attempts by spiritual entrepreneurs to make Christianity speak to the next generation. Brooks’s column points to a reason why all Americans should care about this, no matter how single-mindedly secular they might be: a church in crisis also often means a civil society in crisis. Inequality is growing in America, and Brooks highlights one way religious teaching could help counterbalance this trend. Religion, in a sense, is losing its vitality at the moment when America could use it the most. And that’s bad news for all of us.

Read the whole thing to see how the waning of religion means that “the successful are less haunted by their own status and the less successful have nowhere to hide.”

[St. Patrick’s Cathedral image courtesy of Shutterstock]

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  • ojfl

    I agree with the sentiment. It reinforces what some have been saying that religiosity is much better to help with inequality than the heavy hand of a secular government.

  • wigwag

    I wouldn’t worry about it too much. The urge to religious fervor comes in waves in the United States. There are peaks and troughs; we’re in a trough now, but surely a peak will arrive when we least expect it.

    The interesting thing is that its not just liberal Christian denominations that are in decline, more conservative denominations including those that were wildly successful only a few years ago are seeing the pews empty out.

    I wouldn’t minimize how the gay rights and especially the gay marraige debate has hurt particularly the evangelical churches. Just a few years ago these churches were organizing political precinct by political precinct and were incredibly successful in defeating calls to legalize gay marraige. Now that effort has not only fizzled, it actually damaged the church’s that placed themselves in the middle of the debate.

    Gay rights advocates were incredibly successful at turning the cultural tide. They convinced millions of Americans, religious and secular alike, that support for gay rights was an insignia of being upwardly mobile and aspirational. Opposition to gay rights became déclassé. This change of thinking became especially prominent amongst young people including young evangelicals. In light of this it is not surprising that conservative churches in particular are hemmoraghing young parishioners.

    Liberal churches are basically social clubs; whatever religious content they have is window dressing. They are declining because there is little reason to go to church when you can commune with like minded people at the nearest Starbucks. Conservative churches are declining because to even the devout they seem déclassé.

    Don’t worry though; purveyors of religious faith will figure out a solution. There’s always a new angle.

    • InkStains

      Having frequented both churches and Starbucks, the problem is that there is no “communing” going on at either. There is more content at a church, but it all wrapped in such a deadening wrapper that it hardly gets through. Starbucks, on the other hand, is just a shop. Both like to claim that they are a “third place,” but neither delivers. I do expect that, over time, a church-like gathering will prove more generative than a shop ever will.

  • Anthony

    Article reads like David Brooks is doing some personal introspection; yet, centrality and vigor of formal religion in America has taken hit over last half century plus – the cultural apparatus (capitalist accumulation) may have indirectly weakened its social roots/authority.

    • bpuharic

      Agreed. The hijacking of the GOP by far right ‘Christianists’ (in Andrew Sullivan’s phrase’ has alot to do with the fact many people, especially the young, are disillusioned with religion

  • Matt B

    Religion won’t recover because it is a social good. It will recover because it meets a fundamental human need. As Kierkegaard observed, the alternative is despair, of which the trappings of material wealth are just insignia.

    • bpuharic

      Why is it a ‘social good’? Is religion good for Iran or Iraq?

      And Kierkegaard was quite wrong. The alternative is not despair, but truth.

      • Matt B

        David Brooks says that historically in the United States, religion provided a hierarchy that effectively competed with and tempered the hierarchy of wealth. I think that was good for American culture, don’t you?

        • bpuharic

          Religion is infinitely plastic. Today it’s Calvinistic fundamentalism focused on wealth as evidence of God’s favor.Just look at the debate in the S Baptist convention, or the candidate for Lt Gov of VA

  • Fat_Man

    Why has Christian belief collapsed among what are supposed to be our most intelligent and and educated class?

    The answer is that they are all Marxists now, not industrial grade Stalinists, but cultural Marxists theorized by Adorno, and Gramisci, and the French lumpen-philosophes such as Foucault and Derrida. But, even those variants of Marxism demands atheism.

    Also atheism, especially, the nasty anti-intellectual atheism of Dawkins et. al., allows them to indulge their favorite passion — Contempt for the unwashed masses of Americans — the obese bitter clingers who inhabit fly-over country and cling to their guns and religion.

    Having chosen atheism does not mean that they believe nothing. As Umberto Eco wrote:

    “G K Chesterton is often credited with observing: “When a man ceases to believe in God, he doesn’t believe in nothing. He believes in anything.” Whoever said it – he was right. We are supposed to live in a sceptical age. In fact, we live in an age of outrageous credulity.

    “The “death of God”, or at least the dying of the Christian God, has been accompanied by the birth of a plethora of new idols. They have multiplied like bacteria on the corpse of the Christian Church …”

    Their favorite religion is environmentalism. The faux pagan worship of Gaia, the earth goddess. She is angry and must be propitiated by the sacrifice of human babies. The white liberals who are votaries of this religion have chosen brown and black babies to be the victims of the rituals of “population control”, “zero population growth” and “reproductive choice”.

    • bpuharic

      There should be a Godwin’s law for those who shout “Marxist” at every social trend they disagree with.

      The fact god does not exist has nothing to do with Marx. If Marx had never written his putrid book, the fact would remain that god does not exist. Ayn Rand knew it and she was hardly a marxist, so you have a bit of explaining to do.

      You’ve conjured up a universe of strawmen.

      • Fat_Man

        Like I said anti-intellectual atheism

        • bpuharic

          That’s why atheism is an assertion of the intellect, not the heart. It’s a logical, rational assessment, not an emotional response, like religion

          And yes, that cliche is used by every Christian. It’s hardly an original response

          • Fat_Man

            Quod erat demonstrandum.

  • bpuharic

    Brooks overlooks 2 salient facts

    First, god does not exist. If you’re basing cultural values on a fairy tale, don’t be surprised when they fail

    The 2nd is the coopting of the GOP by right wing religious fanatics who have engineered one of the greatest transfers of wealth from a middle class to the wealthy in history. Religion is good for business.

    Many are starting to see that religion has become a shame quite useful for producing massive inequality, but not much else.

  • hjalmar poelzig

    The fundamentalist wing of the Christian family has given Christianity a bad name. with its culture wars against gays, abortionrights and science.

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