Last week , in our Politics According to the Bible class, much was discussed regarding worldview, specifically a biblical worldview as it relates to politics and society. The biggest concern of the class, and a legitimate one, is that religious fervor, especially that which was the fabric of a young country, is losing its influence. So much so, that public policy seems purposed to oppose Christianity. I drew the parallel that at one time, Europe was hyper-religious; yet, now, the grass roots religious presence in the mother countries can be described as non-influential and, at best, extremely apathetic. While that may be a gross over-generalization, it’s safe to say that the countries where Luther, Calvin, the Wesleys, and more don’t even come close to a resemblance of what they are currently.
In his article, European Christianity’s “Failure to Thrive”, Collin Hansen makes some enlightening and valid points why European Christianity has faded. As Americans, we make these observations and learn from history, lest we are doomed to repeat it.
Human Intellect & Reason
Hansen posits that the “secularization thesis” for the decline of Christianity in Europe is a valid one. He states that “intellectual advance and economic modernization lead people and nations past a need for faith, to a more enlightened and more secular mode of life.” In other words, we as humans are fine on our own. We’ve figured it out, and the need for faith is for intellectually weak.
Yet, as Hansen states, “At the crux of this intellectual shift is one piece of glaring counter-evidence: the United States of America.” America has survived the secularization onslaught, and Christianity is very much a part of society. We have churches – lots of them – and Christians are active and vocal in society. I would assert, though, that while Christians in America are vocal about their beliefs, secularism is very much on the rise, and on the attack.
Hansen begins with Constantine’s conversion in 312. After his conversion, Constantine declared Christianity legal, and it became the banner by which he conquered. As Hansen states, “Christian faith became the stepping stone to secular success.” And, Christianity thrived, becoming as wide-spread as the borders of Constantine’s kingdom.
It didn’t take long, though, for this government-sponsored religion to get askew. As time passed, the association of religious beliefs, and denominational beliefs, with nationality became a bloody mess. Literally. One Christian group after another would war with each other to defend its beliefs. Those who held minority religious differences were often persecuted, even put to death. Disagreements were bloody.
Over time, the fading away of various churches and denominations tied to governments has proved itself. As Hansen states, “the church that lives by state power, dies by state power.”
A Shift to Ideology, not Faith
As Europe continued through history, the emphasis on intellect continued. The Enlightenment of the 19th century reinforced what was already in place. The rational thought was, in essence, we are too smart for religion. Yet, Hansen’s observation is that several factors entrenched secularism – the constant attack of the working class by Europe’s intellectually elite, the rapid rise of industrialization with its associated urban squalor, and the shocking human toll of World War I. Europe did not return to its Christian roots; instead, it sought out the ideologies that, they felt, would most impact their daily lives – socialism, communism, nazism, and facism were all tried as the solution to the problems of Europe.
And, Europeans still show little interest in returning to the church.
An American Contrast
While America has not reached a level of apathy akin to the European nations, there is some cause for concern. Christianity in America seems to be losing ground, both in numbers and influence. Yet, for many, there is hope.
This nation has long enjoyed a separation of church and state, an relationship secured by the founding fathers and which, to their credit, Baptists have waved the banner. America has also enjoyed its religious diversity – Methodists, Presbyterians, Catholics, Baptists – even Muslims – can worship as they see fit and still live alongside the other with civility.
My hope, though, is that those who interpret and protect the fundamental rights of citizens will continue to do that and allow Christianity and its citizens to speak and influence fundamentals of this nation.
Ultimately, though, a sovereign God will reign. Our hope is in him – not a government, a policy, or a denomination. As Christians, we must not – we cannot – be apathetic in that.