Monday, June 22, 2009

The Return of Christian America Again

Marvin Olasky's* cover article in the recent World, "The Sixth Wind," responds to recent (gleeful) speculation at Newsweek that Christianity in America may be coming to the close of its 400 year history (Jon Meacham, "The End of Christian America," April 4, 2009).

Olasky sees Christianity not as dying but as catching its second wind. More precisely its sixth wind. The first was the pilgrim faith that met our shores in the earliest colonies. The second and third were the First and Second Great Awakenings (1730-55; 1790-1840). The fourth was the revivals emerging from the Civil War and transforming the cities in the late nineteenth century. The fifth he says came when "Billy Graham and others came to the fore amid threats of nuclear war." This is what I would call the Evangelical Awakening. Since the modernist controversy and the Scopes trial in the 1920s, Bible believing Christians had withdrawn. Under the leadership of Carl F.H. Henry (Christianity Today), Harold Ockenga (Fuller Seminary), and Billy Graham, Evangelicals re-emerged, re-engaged, and re-produced (both naturally and evangelistically). I am unaware that it had anything to do with nuclear weapons. Nonetheless, Olasky claims that American Christianity is now getting its "sixth wind."

Meacham cites a decline in religious identification among Americans, but this is simply a function of nominal Christians who were raised in the Eisenhower generation's "comfortable pew" of the old mainline churches finally conceding that, truth be told, they are actually atheists and agnostics. Those who were religious before and now more committedly religious. What Meacham has uncovered is actually a greater religious polarization in society.

The good news is that Christians will stand out more strikingly in Christlikeness. This is what Jon A. Shields found. He is assistant professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and the author of The Democratic Virtues of the Christian Right (Princeton University Press, 2009). He confesses, "although my liberal Protestant upbringing initially made me feel out of place hanging out with conservative Christians, I found them disarming, gracious, and more misunderstood than I ever imagined."

John Micklethwait, editor-in-chief at The Economist, and Adrian Wooldridge, the British news magazine's Washington bureau chief, have is co-authored God Is Back: How the Global Revival of Faith Is Changing the World (Penguin Press, 2009). Undistracted by the personal animosity that blinds some to the obvious, they recognize the social utility of Christian faith and the Christian churches. Christianity "helps suburbanites to form communities in the atomized world of the Sunbelt . . . ordinary people all over America to deal with the problems of alcoholism and divorce, wayward children and hopelessness . . . the hard-pressed inhabitants of the inner cities to deal with the chaos that surrounds them."

On a more personal and passionate level, however, Wooldridge objects to atheist dismissal of Christian faith, even though the does not profess the faith personally. "Christians are the people looking after the homeless, the drug-addicted. Where is the atheist homeless shelter? Atheists are only interested in themselves."

Wooldridge is not surprised that "God is back" and that accordingly, atheists like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins are in a publishing panic. In a World interview with the two Economist authors, he says, "The extraordinary thing about American religion is its capacity to reinvent itself and reassert itself."

Terry Eagleton is a distinguished English professor at the University of Lancaster in the UK. He has recently published Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate (Yale University Press, 2009) and is scheduled to give the Gifford Lecture in March 2010 entitled "The God Debate."

"Why are the most unlikely people, including myself, suddenly talking about God?" Eagleton's answer: Nothing else—not science, not reason, not liberalism, not economics—works. He concludes, "If ever there was a pious myth and a piece of credulous superstition, it is the liberal-rationalist belief that, a few hiccups apart, we are all steadily en route to a finer world."
Olasky also cites the return of literary critic A.N. Wilson to humble trusting in Christ.

Like most educated people in Britain and Northern Europe (I was born in 1950), I have grown up in a culture that is overwhelmingly secular and anti-religious. The universities, broadcasters and media generally are not merely non-religious, they are positively anti. To my shame, I believe it was this that made me lose faith and heart in my youth. It felt so uncool to be religious. With the mentality of a child in the playground, I felt at some visceral level that being religious was unsexy.
Olasky then concludes eloquently and encouragingly.

Christianity's ride through 2,000 years, and in America for 400, has always been a roller coaster: up and down, slow and fast, sometimes sideways, always planned by God but unpredictable for man. The first time around a roller coaster is terrifying for children. They do not know that a power beyond them is in control. ...

The apostle Paul was not unduly impressed by temporary ascents and descents. His confidence did not depend on which emperor was in power or who the next emperor might be. He knew that a benevolent reign would allow more to hear the gospel, but a hard reign would create inspiring testimonies that would show how the gospel sustained believers amid pressure—so Christ's cause would win either way.

Paul from prison told the Philippians that "what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel." Paul told the Corinthians that "in all our affliction, I am overflowing with joy." What afflictions has the church in America faced that we should be grumpy pessimists?

*Full disclosure: Marvin Olasky is my boss (Provost) at The King's College in New York City. But, really, I could call his article fit only for composting and he wouldn't care.


Hope said...

Dr. Innes,

Fire the insidious scribe who worked three misuses of the conjunction "it's" into your excellent article by the beginning of the second paragraph.

That aside, I found plenty of food for thought in this post. Thank you.

David C. Innes said...

Thank you for pointing that out, Hope. It must have been painful to read. Let me assure you that the scribe has been flogged and denied his dinner. I can't promise that it won't happen again, however, because some people just never learn.