Post-Christian America?

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The recent Pew poll detailing the erosion of Christian faith in this country unleashed a slew of commentary discussing “post-Christian” America. And even before this recent round of dire predictions, the term “post-Christian” has been used by various commentators. Notably, it is used by Rod Dreher in the subtitle of his book The Benedict Option. But can a Christian nation ever become really post-Christian?

We tend to discuss the religious state of America the same way we do social fads. Like powdered wigs or VHS, we will just kind of move on – society will just forget. America will experience Christianity fatigue.

But Christianity is not a theory – it is an encounter with a Person – the Alpha and the Omega. Christ is the end of all things. It is not possible to just move on once you have accepted Him.

As Pope Benedict XVI points out in Spe Salvi, a society that rejects Christ does not simply move on. Rather, this kind of society, echoing Kant, must be in opposition to Christ. So instead of post-Christian, a society that has rejected Christianity, must necessarily become anti-Christian: “There is no doubt, therefore, that a ‘Kingdom of God’ accomplished without God – a kingdom therefore of man alone – inevitably ends up as the ‘perverse end’ of all things as described by Kant [reign of the Anti-Christ]: we have seen it, and we see it over and over again.” [23]

Where strange symbols and new ideologies replace the Cross, those who live by the Cross cannot be tolerated. From the French Revolution to Russia’s October Revolution, this drama has played out again and again. That our drift in this direction might be partly concealed under traditional Anglo-American politeness and process, does not change the underlying end sought.

The charming image of rural and rugged Christians “Benedict Opting” their way through a Post-Christian America may sound romantic. But it is a fantasy. There will be no place to hide, if our neighbors decide that Christianity is something unworthy of love.

Notoriously, leftist scholars and activists have already described infant baptism and Christian rearing as forms of child abuse or human-rights violations. Should the trend of dechristianization continue, it’s unlikely that this view will be considered fringe for much longer, assuming that it is fringe now. Indeed, one of its most prominent proponents is former Irish President Mary McAleese, who developed her theory as part of her dissertation at Rome’s Gregorian University. Hardly someone on the peripheries.

The idea that some sort of grand compromise is in the offing between Christians and the architects of post-Christian America is unserious. What is needed is witness and a willingness to be frank about the necessity of Christianity to the proper functioning of democracy in the West. As Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger explained:

Meanwhile, the fact remains that this democracy [modern] is a product of the fusion of the Greek and the Christian heritage and therefore can survive only in this foundational connection. If we do not recognize this again and accordingly learn to live democracy with a view to Christianity and Christianity with a view to the free democratic state, we will surely gamble away democracy.


John Adams made the same point this way: “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious People. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” And Abraham Lincoln too recognized that this Republic was “under God” at Gettysburg. And this understanding has penetrated into our Pledge of Allegiance, national motto, and national holidays.

Christians must insist that society cannot be free and be anti-Christian. The first colonies were founded for the promotion of Christian religion through government by consent. This is clear from the words of the Mayflower Compact:

Having undertaken for the Glory of God, and Advancement of the Christian Faith, and the Honour of our King and Country, a Voyage to plant the first Colony in the northern Parts of Virginia; Do by these Presents, solemnly and mutually, in the Presence of God and one another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil Body Politick, for our better Ordering and Preservation, and Furtherance of the Ends aforesaid.

Ratzinger recognized that this America fusion of democratic ideals with Christian duty as the birth of modern democracy: “[D]emocracy as understood today need not and did not automatically spring from this root but, in fact, was first shaped under the special circumstances of the American congregationalist type, that is, apart from the classical European traditions of the church-state relationship that developed historically here.” This fusion then spread throughout the world as America increased in global influence.

Our fellow citizens need to hear the message that American democracy cannot survive without a decent respect and support of Judeo-Christian morals and religion. This is not to advocate any kind of theocratic view of government. Instead, it merely acknowledges the root that nourishes the democratic system, which many recognize is currently in peril.

John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, and Barack Obama all acknowledged the Pilgrims’ desire to found America as a City upon a hill – recalling John Winthrop’s sermon to the settlers: “We shall find that the God of Israel is among us, when ten of us shall be able to resist a thousand of our enemies; when he shall make us a praise and a glory, that men shall say of succeeding plantations, ‘The Lord make it like that of New England.’ For we must consider that we shall be as a City upon a hill.”

Winthrop added a warning, that our politicians typically fail to mention, but that echoes in Pope Benedict XVI’s warnings: “The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause him to withdraw his present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word throughout the world.”

A sobering reminder that we will have this republic – under God – only for as long as we keep it.


*Image: Noah’s Ark playset by an unknown folk artist, c. 1828 [National Museum of American History, Washington, DC]. On the Sabbath, 19th-century children were allowed to amuse themselves only with “Sunday toys,” simple playthings that taught biblical or moral lessons.

Gunnar Gundersen is an Affiliated Scholar of the James Wilson Institute on Natural Rights and the American Founding. His areas of research include religious freedom, property rights, and jurisprudence.