Institutional Christianity losing its appeal while the social benefits from religious engagement are more important than ever

Russ Douthat’s column in last  week’s NY Times, A Tough Season for Believers, provides good fodder for a Xmas eve discussion. Here are some excerpts:

But this is also the season when American Christians can feel most embattled. Their piety is overshadowed by materialist ticky-tack. Their great feast is compromised by Christmukkwanzaa multiculturalism. And the once-a-year churchgoers crowding the pews beside them are a reminder of how many Americans regard religion as just another form of midwinter entertainment, wedged in between “The Nutcracker” and “Miracle on 34th Street.”

These anxieties can be overdrawn, and they’re frequently turned to cynical purposes… But they also reflect the peculiar and complicated status of Christian faith in American life. Depending on the angle you take, Christianity is either dominant or under siege, ubiquitous or marginal, the strongest religion in the country or a waning and increasingly archaic faith.

Happily, for those who need a last-minute gift for the anxious Christian in their life, the year just past featured two thick, impressive books that wrestle with exactly these complexities.

American GraceThe first is “American Grace,” co-written by Harvard’s Robert Putnam (of “Bowling Alone” fame) and Notre Dame’s David Campbell, which examines the role that religion plays in binding up the nation’s social fabric. Over all, they argue, our society reaps enormous benefits from religious engagement, while suffering from few of the potential downsides.

Widespread churchgoing seems to make Americans more altruistic and more engaged with their communities, more likely to volunteer and more inclined to give to secular and religious charities. Yet at the same time, thanks to Americans’ ever-increasing tolerance, we’ve been spared the kind of sectarian conflict that often accompanies religious zeal.

But for Christians, this sunny story has a dark side. Religious faith looks more socially beneficial to America than ever, but the institutional Christianity that’s historically generated most of those benefits seems to be gradually losing its appeal…

To Change the WorldTheir argument is complemented by the University of Virginia sociologist James Davison Hunter’s “To Change the World,” an often withering account of recent Christian attempts to influence American politics and society…

In spite of their numerical strength and reserves of social capital, he argues, the Christian churches are mainly influential only in the “peripheral areas” of our common life. In the commanding heights of culture, Christianity punches way below its weight.

Putnam and Campbell are quantitative, liberal, and upbeat; Hunter is qualitative, conservative and conflicted. But both books come around to a similar argument: this month’s ubiquitous carols and crèches notwithstanding, believing Christians are no longer what they once were — an overwhelming majority in a self-consciously Christian nation. The question is whether they can become a creative and attractive minority in a different sort of culture, where they’re competing not only with rival faiths but with a host of pseudo-Christian spiritualities, and where the idea of a single religious truth seems increasingly passé.

Or to put it another way, Christians need to find a way to thrive in a society that looks less and less like any sort of Christendom — and more and more like the diverse and complicated Roman Empire where their religion had its beginning, 2,000 years ago this week.


  1. Griff Wigley said:

    Look no further than this story for a good example of why institutional Christianity, in this case, Catholic, is losing its appeal: Wisconsin on the Map to Pray With Mary:

    Now, a little chapel among the dairy farms here, called Our Lady of Good Help, has joined that august company in terms of religious status, if not global fame. This month, it became one of only about a dozen sites worldwide, and the first in the United States, where apparitions of the Virgin Mary have been officially validated by the Roman Catholic Church.

    December 24, 2010
  2. David Ludescher said:


    I don’t get the connection you are trying to make.

    December 27, 2010
  3. Andy Kornkven said:

    I think I know what Griff is saying, but I think he is wrong. The mystical elements of the faith — such as miracles, visions and apparitions — were most prevalent when the Catholic faith was at its strongest in previous centuries. It was in the 20th century, and especially with the Vatican II council in the 60s, that the Catholic Church tried to become “modern” and turned toward worldly things, and away from more spiritual elements, such as praying the Rosary, for example. In doing this the Church followed in the footsteps of mainline Protestant denominations and became just another civic institution, and the sharp decline described by Ross Douthat began.

    December 28, 2010
  4. Griff Wigley said:

    Andy, I think you raise a valid issue, ie, the degree to which the Catholic Church has emphasized social justice matters vs. spiritual matters.

    But I’d argue that for the church to concern itself with apparitions of the Virgin Mary is not related to spirituality at all but more akin to superstition and fortune telling, which, in the long run, undermines its institutional status among the vast majority of Catholics (to answer your question, David.)

    See yesterday’s NY Times: Thais Look to the Supernatural

    Advice and inspiration for choosing lottery numbers in Thailand ranks very high among favorite conversation topics. One regular story on the evening news features villagers coming across potential lottery numbers like apparitions. Recent examples: a five-legged cow and stillborn Siamese piglets, attached at the chest, with eight legs, three ears and one head. Potential winning number: 5-8-3-1.

    December 29, 2010
  5. Bruce Morlan said:

    If your eyes are open you might look at the Kalama Sutta for guidance on how to approach deciding about religiosity, but if you heart is steeled against discovery, then perhaps not. The science is clear, though. The placebo effect even works amongst the unbelievers who are told that they are being given placebos. The mind is a powerful machine and if closing your eyes and clapping your hands helps Tinkerbell to recover, then close your eyes and clap your hands. If being part of a community of like-minded people increases your life span, then seek those people out and join with them.

    But if your beliefs require that you convert the non-believer (as two out of the three main streams bubbling out of the Abrahamic fountain believe), then that is another matter. I don’t know if the placebo effect extends to cover that situation.

    December 30, 2010

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