Author Ross Douthat, in his much discussed new book, Bad Religion, suggests that the end of the mid-century revival (culminating around 1957) brought about “The Locust Years.” To cite just one example, in 1960 the number of American converts to Roman Catholicism hit an all-time peak. But then, following the heady years of Vatican II, decline followed. Douthat believes numerous social events impacted both the culture and the church in the mid-1960s, events that hastened a profound change that has continued to adversely impact the church right down to the present time.
The social events of the 1960s and 70s included a number of revolutionary changes; e.g., the death of President Kennedy, Pope John XXIII, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy. While segregation was being challenged, and legally brought to an end, Richard Russell, the arch-segregationist senator from Georgia, said the Civil Rights Act passed because “those damn preachers got the idea that it was a moral issue.” Writes Douthat, “With those words, and their foretaste of culture wars to come, we can leave the lost world of American Christianity behind.” The post-World War II revival had been birthed in a time when biblical religion had impacted people in the midst of a deep pessimism. After the 1960s that pessimism was radically altered by the growing sense that Christians could have all the good things offered by the American way and remain faithful to the core message of their faith tradition. There was, to put it simply, no contradiction between dogma and democracy!
I can still recall the publication in 1973 of Dean Kelley’s book, Why Conservative Churches Are Growing. It fell like a bombshell on the turf of the mainline churches when he documented the shocking news of their rapid decline in a little over a decade. Kelly wrote, “For the first time in the nation’s history most of the major church groups stopped growing and began to shrink.” This shift, which now seems so normal to us, was shocking and unexpected at the time. Few saw it coming at all. Yet many conservative churches were still growing, as the title of the book clearly says. I can still recall the feeling of triumph many of us had in the non-mainline churches. Our denominations, and independent groups, were finally in the ascendancy. We felt really good about this growth and thus we widely trumpeted Kelly’s message. Conservative churches were growing because they were faithful. Liberal churches were dying because they had compromised the message of Christ. The 1970s was a high-water mark for many evangelicals. Our seminaries were burgeoning and our publishing houses were growing by leaps and bounds. But within twenty years, more or less, the tide turned on these churches too. Now the trend across the board is major decline and the evidence is growing that very little is altering this growing exodus.
The absolute numbers of America’s Catholics stayed steady for decades after the 1960s. The reasons were various but in large part the influx of Latino members swelled the rolls of some Catholic parishes while others went into terrible decline. (Witness the huge loss of Catholics in the Northeast.) At the same time religious vocations, the very heart of the Catholic Church’s sacramental life, went into steep decline. At the end of Vatican II the Catholic Church in America had 60,000 priests, 12,000 religious brothers and an amazing 180,000 nuns. Then came what Douthat calls “the locust years.” In the 1960s priests who left clerical life rose twentyfold. The seminaries emptied in alarming numbers. By 1980 enrollment had fallen by two-thirds.
While conservative churches still prospered, at least for a time in the 1970s and 1980s, the overall membership in the church in America declined with each passing ear. What became more alarming, as Douthat shows, is that these conservative churches were increasingly moving away from the power of orthodoxy toward a new partisan political reaction against secular and progressive trends in the culture. To make this point Douthat says evangelicalism moved from C. S. Lewis and Billy Graham to Joel Osteen and the Left Behind novels. That says it quite well.
But, says Ross Douthat, “It’s easy to recognize the fault lines in an institution after it’s been shattered, easy to declare that a particular dissolution was inevitable once it’s taken place. The more important question isn’t ‘why’ but ‘why then’?” What were the proximate causes of Christianity’s decline in America and why did this begin shortly after mid-century?
Douthat offers five major catalysts.
1. Political polarization. Christianity had previously been political but not in a deeply partisan way. This all changed in the 1970s. Now churches and movements are divided by politics like we have not seen since the Civil War.
2. The sexual revolution. Simply put, the pill encouraged a major change in sexual practice. Hedonism changed minds and the pill changed practice.
3. Globalization. This trend gave rise to a global perspective that altered how more and more Americans saw the world. The America of mid-century was not provincial but it was distinctly Western. By 2000 this had radically changed. The result for religion was a distinct rise of syncretism and a growing denial of truth claims. Relativism, individualism and pluralism all became acceptable to growing numbers of church members. The result of the third trend all directly impacted the Christian church. Universalism became more than a new trend and eventually has had an impact upon large numbers of evangelicals.
4. The religious consequences of America’s ever-growing wealth. The impact of this upon everything vital to the practice of faith was immense over time. A generation arose that saw poverty as less and less their Christian concern and comfort became the new churchly norm. Along with this the rise of America’s suburbs had a great impact upon the church as a community of people who shared life together.
5. The element of class. The rejection of orthodoxy by intellectual elites increasingly undermined the wider role of Christian faith in America. A dismissive attitude arose that had a major impact upon both institutions and leaders. “Among the tastemakers and power brokers and intellectual agenda setters of late-twentieth-century America, orthodox Christianity was completely [unacceptable].”
There were two paths that Christian churches could take in the midst of such sweeping challenges. One was resistance. A small minority chose this path. The other was accommodation, a path chosen by the majority, including the large majority of conservative Christians and churches. We will consider this in a future blog.