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The sixth wind?

Headlines trumpet Christian decline, but a closer look suggests another rise in serious faith

The sixth wind?

(Illustration by Krieg Barrie)

Sometimes it seems that an atheistic tsunami has hit. Anti-Christian books land high on bestseller lists. Polls purportedly show a decline in belief. Newsweek this spring had one of its traditional Easter cover stories on "The Decline and Fall of Christian America."

Whenever the conventional wisdom points in a particular direction it's good practice to ask: What if the opposite is true? What if nominal Christian affiliation is declining but serious biblical belief is actually on the rise? What if Christianity in America is not dying, but instead getting its second wind-or maybe its sixth wind?

After all, the American colonists were a mixed multitude, with high-minded preachers and a greater number of lowlifes. By the 1730s rampant concern with spiritual decline set the stage for a Great Awakening, with a decline later in the century leading to a Second Great Awakening in the early 1800s.

Those second and third winds of American Christianity had died down so much by 1850 that spiritualism was surging-but then came a northern urban revival in 1858, a revival in the Confederate armies during the terrible war, and the post-war growth of urban missions that together could constitute a fourth wind. A fifth wind blew in the 1950s as Billy Graham and others came to the fore amid threats of nuclear war, and that brings us to the present, where we face radical Islam but not Hitler or Soviet missiles.

What is the evidence that a sixth wind may now be blowing? The numbers are ambiguous. Recent publication of the 2008 American Religious Identification Survey of 50,000 adults led some to say the heavens are falling, since from 1990 to 2008 the portion of American adults who self-identify as Christians dropped 10 percentage points, from 86 percent to 76 percent. Those who report no religious affiliation almost doubled, from 8 percent to 15 percent.

But almost all of that change occurred from 1990 to 2001: since then, essentially no change. Furthermore, a Baylor survey in 2006 showed that two-thirds of Americans who claim no religious affiliation say they believe in God. A 2008 Pew Forum study found two of every five religiously unaffiliated persons still describing religion as important in their lives. Levels of religious affiliation probably measure not belief but how settled Americans are in communities-and the increased number of single, childless adults translates into less settling.

Furthermore, Pew reported that "the unaffiliated have one of the lowest retention rates of any of the major religious groups, with most people who were raised unaffiliated now belonging to one religion or another." The survey showed 39 percent of those "raised unaffiliated" are now Protestant, and most of those are in evangelical churches. Another 15 percent of those unaffiliated as children or teens are now in Catholicism or some other faith.

In comparison, 80 percent of those raised as Protestants are still Protestants (some 3 percent are Catholic, 4 percent are involved with some other faith, and 13 percent are unaffiliated). We hear often about evangelical kids drifting away-and the danger is certainly real-but we don't hear often enough the good news of God's grace falling on those raised among scoffers. The movement is both ways, but God's pull is stronger than atheism's push. Naomi Schaefer Riley in God on the Quad (2006) reported on the many students who ignore professorial propaganda, forsake secular liberalism, and seek deeper religious faith.

Stephen Prothero, who chairs the religion department at Boston University, summarizes the recent polling results this way: "What the data do not tell us is that the United States is becoming 'post-Christian.' If you meet a random American walking down the street, the odds are only one in 62 that he or she will self-identify as atheist or agnostic."

In any event, quantitative results tell us little about quality. What if the drop during the 1990s was largely among nominal "Christians" who now respond more honestly to pollsters than they once did? Atheists with axes to grind may exaggerate changes, and some Christians follow the American tradition (begun by the Puritans) of emphasizing decline from the good old days. But here's a question: What are observers without a foot in either camp noticing?

I had lunch recently with two Oxford-educated Brits who have just co-authored God Is Back: How the Global Revival of Faith Is Changing the World (Penguin Press, 2009). John Micklethwait is editor-in-chief of The Economist, a weekly newsmagazine that shows skepticism about everything, and Adrian Wooldridge is the magazine's Washington bureau chief. Micklethwait described the duo theologically as "non-involved outsiders," and Wooldridge, an Anglican, added, "I support the church like a flying buttress, from the outside."

These outsiders see evident problems: Some churches combine big numbers with shallow commitment. But the two also see that 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."

Wooldridge said that researching and writing God Is Back had "made me a better person." When others around the table laughed, not expecting such a comment from a journalist who looks world-weary, he asked, "Why do you laugh?" and emphasized his seriousness. He spoke about how impressed he was with urban pastors like Richard Smith of inner-city Philadelphia. "Christians are the people looking after the homeless, the drug-addicted," Wooldridge stated fiercely. "Where is the atheist homeless shelter? Atheists are only interested in themselves."

Wooldridge sees modernization leading not to secularization but to more emphasis on God, as a search for meaning grows more intense, and he argues that "America has reached the future first." He and Micklethwait lay out specifics: "America leads the world in producing religious entrepreneurs . . . religious publishing is undoubtedly growing at a time when the publishing industry in general is struggling. . . . Evangelicals are rediscovering the life of the mind [and] are starting to produce intellectuals again."

All of these forays are dangerous-"pastorpreneurs," publishers, and professors all face temptations to glorify themselves rather than God-but, as Wooldridge said, "Evangelicals can choose between arguing for God or retreating." He argues that growing churches provide "social capital" that prevents social anarchy: These churches "keep their buildings open from dawn to dusk and provide a mind-boggling array of services," including schools, counseling and guidance groups, and children's activities.

And what of those polls? Wooldridge said, "What we see in the numbers is not a waning of Christianity, but a polarization. The number of people saying that God is central to their lives is going up. We're seeing the death of the Eisenhower era where everyone claimed to be a Christian or a Jew because that was just part of being respected, part of being a good American. Now, people who were lukewarm about religion are now more happy saying that they're atheists or agnostics, and people who claim they're serious about faith are serious about faith."

For further thoughts of Micklethwait and Wooldridge, see the interview with them in this issue-but they are not the only observers who have spent time with conservative Christians and come away impressed. The Princeton University Press, an outfit not known for positive portrayal of Christian conservatives, recently published a book with a surprising title, The Democratic Virtues of the Christian Right. In it author Jon A. Shields writes, "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."

Shields criticizes liberal journalists for spotlighting extremists and "mistaking such marginal fundamentalists as representative of the Christian Right as a whole." He notes that "the vast majority of Christian Right leaders have long labored to inculcate deliberative norms in their rank-and-file activists-especially the practice of civility and respect; the cultivation of real dialogue by listening and asking questions."

Shields particularly scrutinized the pro-life movement and its critics. On one side, "Rank-and-file citizens are encouraged by their leaders to develop into truly Christian activists. The 'mantra' that the president of New York State Right to Life, Lori Kehoe, repeats to her activists is 'Love your neighbor as yourself.'" On the other side he describes the reception of pro-life members of Justice for All: "An instructor at the University of New Mexico yelled at JFA volunteers, 'You are the American Taliban.' Professors at the University of Texas at Austin also routinely screamed obscenities at JFA staff as well. As one of the offending professors at Austin confessed, 'I am incandescent with rage.'"

Shields stops at that point, but some pro-life leaders are bucking the tide and becoming almost incandescent with optimism. For example, Frank Pavone of Priests for Life notes that we're seeing a "strong and ever-growing involvement of young people in all aspects of the fight to end abortion." He also points out that among older people working either in abortion businesses or pro-life centers, the flow of conversions is in one direction-from pro-abortion to pro-life.

Liberal secularists downplay such stories: It would be front page news if a pro-lifer were to repent of saving babies, but the many instances of abortion industry veterans repenting are like trees falling in the forest. (A broader measure of attitudes last month also received little attention: A Gallup Poll reported that 51 percent of Americans surveyed called themselves "pro-life" and only 42 percent "pro-choice." Gallup began asking that either-or question in 1995, and this is the first time a majority has embraced "pro-life." Ultrasound machines, pro-life pregnancy resource centers, and a generation of regret-filled women are all having an impact.)

Some preachers also downplay positive changes, sometimes because of the Puritan heritage of preaching about decline, sometimes because Christians have bought into secular media reports that emphasize church problems, sometimes because of political pessimism or beliefs that things will get worse and the Rapture will then occur. And yet, a new book by critic Terry Eagleton, Reason, Faith, and Revolution, published by the decidedly non-theistic Yale University Press, asks, "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."

Another cause for optimism: the growing number of Hispanic and Asian churchgoers. For example, Soong-Chan Rah notes in
The Next Evangelicalism (IVP, 2009) that when he was preparing to move to the Boston area, "Every story that I heard or concern that was raised seemed to assume that the city of Boston represented the worst of a post-Christian region, and that secular humanism had completely overtaken that city."

Rah continues, "When I arrived in Boston I found a very different scenario. I found that Christianity was not only alive in Boston, it was flourishing. . . . In 1970 the city of Boston was home to about 200 churches. Thirty years later, there were 412 churches. The net gain in the number of churches was in the growth of the number of churches in the ethnic and immigrant communities."

Immigration is helping Christianity in America. While many mainline WASP churches move toward theologically liberal irrelevance and therefore lose members who want more than a social club, Asians bulwark urban but theologically conservative churches like Redeemer Presbyterian in Manhattan, and Hispanics do the same throughout the United States but particularly in the Southwest. Some churches, including some mega-churches, have shallow teaching, but the more thoughtful pastors push to go deeper.

The reasons for media insinuations of Christianity's decline are easy to grasp. One is tradition, as the wistfulness of nonbelievers repeats itself in every generation: Thomas Jefferson, Clarence Darrow, and many others have predicted Christianity's imminent end. But another reason is the tendency of some reporters to make erroneous assumptions based on convenience samples. They look at mainline churches and miss ethnic and immigrant churches. They associate Christianity with a particular type of gospel proclamation and political involvement, then note the passing of Jerry Falwell and D. James Kennedy.

Evidence for Christian short-run pessimism does abound. Samuel John Stone's line in "The Church's One Foundation" (1868)-that "with a scornful wonder men see her sore oppressed, by schisms rent asunder, by heresies distressed"-could have been written yesterday about Episcopalians and others. Warren Cole Smith's A Lover's Quarrel with the Evangelical Church (Authentic, 2009) rightly criticizes "Body-Count Evangelism" and calls for churches to emphasize spiritual depth.

But let's look at what is happening to Christianity's opposite, atheism. Alister McGrath documented in The Twilight of Atheism (2004) the 20th-century verdict: atheism weighed and found wanting in Communist countries and many Western ones as well. The popping up of several New York Times bestsellers over the past five years shows that those hostile to Christianity have some discretionary income, but publishing successes do not root out atheism's underlying problem both rationally and emotionally: Atheism denies the glory of God that the heavens declare, and atheism cannot by its very nature offer any hope.

Meanwhile, Christianity's main religious opponents, Islam and Hinduism, can only hold onto their flocks by banning or persecuting missionaries and attempting to restrict discussion. They fear open debate, but Christians can say what John Milton wrote in 1644: "Though all the winds of doctrine were let loose to play on the earth, so Truth be in the field, we do injuriously by licensing and prohibiting misdoubt her strength. Let her and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter?"

In Europe and America, Christianity's opponents try to avoid free and open encounters by using ridicule. Janie Cheaney reported in WORLD's June 6 issue that British literary lion A.N. Wilson has dropped his atheism, but I want to quote his account of why he became one: "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."

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. Like A.N. Wilson but even more so, most of last month's and this month's college graduates have been exposed to years of anti-Christian propaganda from academia and media. Uncool. Unsexy.

But look at how experience has helped Wilson: He now states publicly his belief in Christianity because of "the confidence I have gained with age. Rather than being cowed by them, I relish the notion that, by asserting a belief in the risen Christ, I am defying all the liberal clever-clogs on the block."

Is a sixth wind blowing? I don't know, but I was also born (like Wilson) in 1950, and confidence gained with age leads me to assert that there's no reason to be depressed. Truth trumps everything, including liberal clever-clogs. 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?

Marvin Olasky

Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD and dean of World Journalism Institute. He joined WORLD in 1992 and has also been a university professor and provost. He has written more than 20 books: His latest is Abortion at the Crossroads. Marvin resides with his wife, Susan, in Austin, Texas. Follow him on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.