the imaginative conservative logo

christianityRenaissance political thinker Niccolo Machiavelli castigated Christianity for making its adherents weak. Looking to the next world, he charged, Christians forget their public duties in this world, leaving their communities weak in the face of their enemies. Early Christian martyrs were hardly cowards. There were martyrs in Machiavelli’s day as well, and as I write martyrs are being made every day as pious Christians are murdered by the thugs of the Islamic State. One wonders, however, given some recent trends, whether some Christians in the West—and especially their leaders—have not lost their courage, or even their faith.

A recent Pew Forum survey found that the percentage of Americans who identify with no religion at all has risen to 23%. Those stating that they are “absolutely certain” God exists has dropped to 64%. And there were small drops in religious observance as well. In comparative terms, this is not such terrible news. 89% of Americans continue to believe that God exists, and our rates of religious observance remain miles ahead of our European brethren.*

Christianity in America may be faring better than in Europe, but it is truly frightening to consider where our current trends may take us. I am merely one among many observers who has noted increasing pressures in the United States to force religious believers to keep their faith to themselves, and even to violate it where it conflicts with the demands of secularization and social democracy. The clearest case in point, soon to be argued in front of the Supreme Court, concerns the Little Sisters of the Poor. This order of nuns objects to being forced by the Obama Administration to allow its health care plan to be hijacked to provide contraceptives and abortifacients to employees. The nuns correctly point out that this program is making them complicit in acts directly contradicting their Catholic doctrine. The Obama Administration responds that, because the nuns are being excused from actually paying for the abortifacients (instead the cost will be taken from more general program funds), they have no grounds for complaint—in essence, conscience be damned. The only way the nuns could avoid being forced to act against conscience here would be for them to employ and serve only other Catholics, in effect surrendering any public ministry in exchange for toleration from the state.

One of the more disturbing elements of such rules is their clear intention of marginalizing religious associations, forcing them into a religious closet, safe from the tender eyes of atheists and intolerant adherents of other faiths, as well as the federal government. The real danger here is that religious adherents themselves will internalize this false vision of religion as a purely private pursuit, giving up on their duty to share the faith and speak truth in the face of political and social power. An example of how wrong this can go is provided by the Anglican Church in England, according to a story in the Telegraph newspaper.

The Church of England is set to signal to members that speaking openly about their faith could do more harm than good when it comes to spreading Christianity. Stark new research findings being presented to members of the Church’s ruling General Synod suggest that practicing Christians who talk to friends and colleagues about their beliefs are three times as likely to put them off God as to attract them.

“Research” shows that people are “put off” by friends’ and colleagues’ discussions on religion? And what people, exactly? Non-believers.

Is this really news? Should anyone be surprised that people who self-identify as non-believers would rather not talk about God? What is truly shocking about this study is that the Church of England plans to take its findings to heart and use them in providing guidance to members of the flock in their interactions with nonbelievers. This is especially important in England, where a full 40% of the people do not even believe that Jesus existed and a third do not know a single person who is a practicing Christian.

The reasoning here lacks courage and even reason. It should be self-evident that most of those who continue to identify as nonbelievers when answering a survey are going to indicate that they do not like being told about other people’s faith. Not everyone is going to welcome religious witness—especially those who have been brought up to believe religion is nonsense at best. This is no reason to liken discussion of one’s faith to shouting on a street corner about salvation and damnation. Yet this is precisely what a Church of England official did in the newspaper story. Perhaps the leaders of this church might want to consider whether there is a problem worse than people being “put off” by religious talk in a nation in which a third of citizens no not know a single person who is a practicing Christian.

religions dieThis is how religions die. To have lost so much ground among a people that once was overwhelmingly Christian, and to respond with embarrassment at the proselytizing of a tiny portion of one’s tiny flock, is a sign of terminal spiritual illness. It also, self-evidently, is precisely what nonbelievers and secularists want—namely, a quiet, untroubling Christian minority that will soon cease to exist altogether. This is where secularization naturally leads. When the faithful lose their voice, who will care what they believe? Who will join them, or even know that they exist?

In such times it is right to wonder whether Christianity really has become a religion filled with cowards. Christianity is not a coward’s religion, for its truth is hard, demanding self-denial and sacrifice in the face of earthly temptations out of simple love. Our brethren in the Middle East have shown us that some people of God remain able and willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for their faith. But things seem different in the (formerly) more peaceful West. What, then, is to become of Christianity in the West? If only cowards are left among Christians in the West, then here at least Christianity will cease to exist. Not completely, of course, for the truth never dies. But it could well die among a given people at a given time, becoming the faith only of a remnant with no public voice.

It is up to each one of us to see to it that we face the much lesser though more insidious temptations of cowardice in the face of mere, empty secularism to kill our faith. We must rediscover our courage so that we in the United States do not follow the trail being blazed ever so peacefully in Great Britain. And that means speaking out, speaking up for the Little Sisters of the Poor and others who work to live by and spread their faith, and to refuse, ourselves, to be silenced in the face of a regime that promises earthly goods to everyone along with freedom from the calls of the spirit, even as it punishes those who seek to heed that call.

*The figures can be found here. Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

Print Friendly
"All comments are subject to moderation. We welcome the comments of those who disagree, but not those who are disagreeable."
12 replies to this post
  1. When the civil rights of these non-believers are trashed by sharia law being imposed on them as we speak, the irony will be too thick to cut.

  2. Perhaps it is the Church that has lost its ability to sell itself in todays world. Isn’t the whole point of Christianity that Mankind can grow, and not remain static? That Christians aren’t “submissive” as Muslims are expected to be. Are Christians not more mature than they were 500, or 1000 years ago?

    I believe in Christianity, but not necessarily in God. It would be nice if there was a God, but I don’t “need” this affirmation to be faithful to Gods message. In other words, I will still be faithful knowing full well there may not be any “reward” in the end for being so. This is the ultimate loyalty is it not? Also, any of the benefits, or importance that I see in Christianity, have seemingly all come about through self reflection, and contemplation over the years, and NOT from the Church. I feel the Church is lacking in any attempt to sell its relevancy to todays world because it focuses on the importance of worship, and not on why Christianity is important to civilization as we know it. This focus on worship suggests a vain God, and ones attempt to “worship” to a greater degree than another, suggests a self serving motive for ones faith. I believe this is what may “turn many off”, and also believe that Christians have moved on from this element of their faith.

    Obviously, a belief in God gives inner strength to those who need it, and arguing against the presence of God is not helpful and can do harm to those same. But for those who are already blessed with an inner strength, belief in Christianity, and the Christian message should still be important in ones life. The only thing lacking for many, is understanding why. Filling this understanding is what the Church needs to focus on.

    P.S., who exactly is the author referring to as.. “Our brethren in the Middle East have shown us that some people of God remain able and willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for their faith” … certainly not Muslims who take their faith to the extreme. Should he have meant to say “Our Christian brethren in the Middle East”?

  3. Blame in on the sermons. Listen to almost any sermon in almost any church in America and you’ll hear a consistent message. Focus on yourselves, it says, and your feelings. Make the most important thing in your life some minor crisis you are facing and devote all your religiosity to dealing with that problem. Do that and you with be “spiritual.”

    It’s a good way to create a congregation that shows up each Sunday and drops money in the offering plate. But it also creates a congregation that’s so self-obessed, confining their good deeds to niceness in limited ways, that they’re virtually worthless in the larger world or, as you put it, cowards.

    Contrast that with a faith that’s strong enough it doesn’t worry about itself and life’s petty problems but reaches out taking on larger issues in our society with courage, conviction, and intelligence.

    I saw that when I worked on the Hem-Onc unit caring for kids with leukemia. I soon realized that it would be vile for me to fret over how I felt about being around so much suffering and death. I was healthy. I wasn’t facing the horrors of chemotherapy or the possibility of dying before my fourth birthday. I made a deliberate choice to focus on them and forget my own feelings. I could get over what little suffering I faced. This kids might not. I didn’t matter. They did.

    In most Evangelical churches, the emphasis is the opposite. Sermons would tell me to focus on my feelings not those I needed to care for. I would be told to be a sheep, frightened by wolves and concerned about getting green grass and water. I wouldn’t be told to become a Good Shepherd, willing to suffer or die for the helpless.

    —-

    That’s why perhaps the best recent book on Christian leadership is C. S. Forester’s The Good Shepherd. Consciously drawing from Jesus’ remark about the Good Shepherd laying down his life for the sheep, it describes the inner life of a destroyer captain who’s the son of a Lutheran pastor.

    As the novel begins, the convoy that his destroyer is escorting is crossing into the death zone in mid-Atlantic where there’s no protection from land-based aircraft. It is during what U-boat crews called the ‘happy days’ when the Battle of the Atlantic was in their favor. His destroyer and a thin screen of a few other vessels is the only protection that convoy has against a Nazi wolf-pack. And as the introduction explains, the war rests on a knife edge. The fate of Europe may well rest on wether this convoy, with its precious supplies, gets through safely.

    No Navy captain can relinquish the command of his ship while it is in danger as long as he is physically capable of performing his duties. So for two days and two nights, he remains on the bridge while watches come and go. Dangers come in an unending stream and the answers are never easy. He must balance the safety of his crew and the value of his ship to the war effort with the necessity of putting it in harm’s way to defend the convoy.

    Forester’s The Good Shepherd is well worth reading again and again, particularly if you’ve grown tired of our contemporary, me-feel-now perversion of Christianity.

    –Michael W. Perry, author of My Nights with Leukemia

  4. “I feel the Church is lacking in any attempt to sell its relevancy to todays world because it focuses on the importance of worship, and not on why Christianity is important to civilization as we know it. This focus on worship suggests a vain God, and ones attempt to ‘worship’ to a greater degree than another, suggests a self serving motive for ones faith. I believe this is what may ‘turn many off’, and also believe that Christians have moved on from this element of their faith.”

    This is a thoroughly incoherent set of statements, even leaving aside the vain delusion that one can be a Christian without believing in God. The relevance of the Church in our day resides *precisely* in her emphasis on worship. For what other purpose could the Church even conceivably exist? The tragedy and the disorder and the violence of our present world springs in all cases from various forms of false worship–be it the worship of the state, or of the self, or of temporal power, or of money, or some combination of these. As humans, we will worship *something.* This is an innate and constitutive element of our being.

    We worship God because He is the One who creates and sustains our being; indeed, He is Being itself. That fact alone draws us to worship Him. To suggest that this focus on worship implies a vain God overlooks the fact that God does not *need* our worship in any way. In fact, He does not need us. Our creation and being and sustenance from moment to moment is a wholly unmerited gift of God. A recognition of this calls us beyond ourselves and our myopic self-absorption. This is why we worship Him. Anything less would be the basest ingratitude. The meager gratitude of worship is not “self-serving”; it is the response of the beloved to the lover. It is the returning to God the praise and the glory that belongs to Him by right. This is simply what charity demands. If a man gives you a great gift, do you refuse him your thanks? Do you refuse to acknowledge that? This is not about some eschatological reward; it is about the fundamental nature of charity.

    The “importance of Christianity to civilization as we know it” is inextricably bound up in the fact that we worship the Incarnate Son of the God Who Is God. There is nothing outside of that. There is nothing beyond that. The Church that birthed our civilization out of the ashes of the fall of the Western Empire handed on a culture and tradition primarily for the purposes of worship. What any man thinks of when he thinks of “civilization as we know it” is built upon the worship of Jesus Christ. To suggest anything else is disingenuous.

    I would argue, rather, that it is this chasing after the ever-moving banner of “relevance” that has cost the Church her position in the hearts of her faithful. The adoration and praise of God is *always* “relevant” (whatever that word actually means). Rather than selling out the essence of the Faith to accommodate ourselves to the temporal world, we must remain fixed upon the Incarnation and its consequences, come what may. Even if it means risking irrelevance. The motto of the Carthusians comes to mind: “Stat Crux dum volvitur orbis.” The world is ever turning and passing away. “Relevance” is merely a synonym of “faddishness.” The Cross is a sign of contradiction to all fads, to all trivial clinging to the insufficient loves of this world. This is why we cannot cease to worship.

    • Well said.

      I came across a variation of the “I can be a Christian without believing in God ” line some years ago. I was a cradle Episcopalian, who loved the Book of Common Prayer, the old hymns, and much else from Episcopal tradition. Then I heard someone describe herself as “Episcopalian without necessarily being Christian.” That chilled me, especially when I realized the phrase just might also apply to me!

      That realization prompted a lot of soul searching, which eventually led me to leave the Episcopal Church.

      If pressed. i probably would now saw that I believe in God, but that I am not a Christian. It’s not terribly satisfactory, but is better than the converse.

      • My tipping point with TEC was when I read about the Episcopal priest who believed he could be a Christian *and* a Muslim. (I’ve also heard folks espouse the Christian-and-Buddhist syncretism within TEC.) Anyone who actually believes the tenets of either of those faiths realizes immediately that the fundamental truth-claims they make about the world are mutually exclusive. I guess Episcopalians are not bound by either the Law of the Excluded Middle or the Law of Non-Contradiction!

        I’ve found continuing Anglicanism to be a much more amenable environment within which to practice the Faith.

        But I agree that there’s something a bit more honest in the Theist but not a Christian option.

    • Your reply raises an interesting point, and that is how Man can use religion to divide, rather than to unite. We both, presumably Christian, yet you see my Christianity as “delusional”, and not of the same Christianity that you practice. We are of different, “camps”, or “sects”, or “tribes”, not because I question the Christian message, but because I question the existence of God. To be a true Christian, I would presumably then have to “submit” to a certain prescribed way of thinking, that is contrary to my nature, and my way of thinking. In other words, why would God bless mankind with the ability to question, and reason, only to forbid him from doing so. You would imply, that in 2000 years, Christian Man, has not progressed at all.

      In my opinion, Christianity should be embraced freely, and not through coercion. As Humans, we have learned much from 2000 years ago, and think very differently. Your strict requirement of “worship in God” as paramount, will only further the dwindling of the faithful. On the other hand, embracing Christianity as a “life style” would be much more inclusive, and appealing to those atheists, and other secular progressives, who would no longer have to prove that God doesn’t exists as a reason for not being Christian.

      • Well, you know, “Suppose ye that I am come to give peace on earth? I tell you, Nay; but rather division” (Lk. 12:51). The promises of Christ are not unity, except with Him and through Him and in Him, and so ultimately through his Body, the Church. So, this notion that religion is somehow about “unity” (except within the Church, as we ultimately hope to realize the prayer Ut unum sint on this side of the eschaton) strikes me as a bit unnecessary.

        And–apologies for my bluntness– I don’t view you as practicing Christianity at all if you reject the existence of God. The essence of Christianity is that Jesus Christ is the Second Person of the Holy Trinity–God Incarnate. That presupposes a belief in the existence of God as a fundamental precondition of affirming the tenets and truth-claims of the Christian Faith. The creedal formulations of the Church are a starting dogmatic foundation for what it means to be a Christian.

        You’re free to believe whatever you want, of course; that’s the great gift of free will, as you note. But it doesn’t mean you get simply to determine what terms mean or imply by sheer dint of will. That doesn’t impinge upon your freedom of reason or doubt; it simply means that you at some point have to reconcile how you use words with how the rest of humanity uses them. I don’t get to go around saying that I’m a pitcher for the Boston Red Sox just because I feel like it. I can, of course, but reality will not simply bend to my will because I name it so!

        And of course Christianity demands that you submit to a way of thinking, regardless of whether that is your inclination or not. Believe it or not, there is actually an order and a reality that transcends and precedes your own individual subjectivity. Simply because you choose not to be suited to that (which is a matter of will) is ultimately immaterial. Christianity is a way of thinking and knowing that is rooted ultimately in the Logos. To think outside of and beyond what the Church has traditionally understood to be the Regula Fidei is not to be a Christian, plain and simple.

        And I don’t buy the idol “progress” as a criterion for much of anything. If the hundreds of millions of deaths through war and genocide in the past century doesn’t give the lie to that particular myth, I don’t know what does. We haven’t progressed much as humans. Ask any priest, and he’ll tell you that we’re given to much the same sins to which we have always been given. We think differently, perhaps, but that doesn’t mean that we necessarily think *better.*

        And no one is being coerced into being a Christian. I reiterate how wrong I believe you to be in dismissing worship as the basis of the Faith. It was worship that sustained the martyrs through their torments and deaths. It was worship that engendered Western civilization. It was worship that grew the Church. To suggest anything else is mere historical naïveté. to *worship* Jesus Christ is to be a Christian. Christianity is not a lifestyle–what a thoroughly repulsive notion! It is the worship of the True, the Good, and the Beautiful. Atheists and secularists are not and cannot be Christians until they relinquish their erroneous beliefs and enter into communion with the Truth.

        Moreover, all demographic evidence from churches that have embraced your “inclusive” and “relevant” vision demonstrate that the effects have been precisely the opposite of what you envision. Look at the Episcopal Church: it is the paragon of liberal, “inclusive” Christianity in this country. It is also hemorrhaging members in astonishing numbers. If you honestly believe that is the answer, there is no real evidence to support those claims. I look at my own continuing Anglican parish and see a vibrant and growing congregation of young families, retirees, and everyone in between. I see a community of people dedicated to the orthodox Faith of the Church and to the beauty of holy worship. I see a rigorous and stimulating intellectualism. These are the churches that are growing. I note also that the Roman religious orders that are actually attracting young novices are the traditional orders (look at the Benedictines of Clear Creek or Norcia for evidence of this; they have to turn postulants away!).

        The churches you long for are moribund and swiftly lapsing into nonexistence. Relevance, progress, and inclusivity sound nice, but they are false idols that are withering on the vine.

        • First of all, no where do I say Christianity need be changed to make it more “inclusive” or “relevant”, other than the need to believe in the existence of a God. I’m not calling for “democratic” reforms. I never said I didn’t believe in Christ, I’m sure he very much walked the earth 2000 years ago, and I believe in his message. Nor do I expect the Church to make any proclamations that God doesn’t exist, I simply suggest that the idea of “worshiping” a God, may have seen its day, and had more relevance 1000 years ago, than it does today. If Christianity is all about seeking the “truth”, then that is where we differ, for I see truth in Christianity, but not necessarily in the existence of God.

          The Churches you speak of may be filling up as you say, but I would think most of these individuals are more interested in saving themselves, then they are Christianity. That’s, fine, that’s what Christianity was meant to do, but for it to survive, it needs to grow, and I see the world becoming less Christian, not more. It seems that you would prefer to see Christianity become less relevant, as long as it remains “pure”, and relevant only to a dwindling number of the “elite diehard” Christians. This is what I see happening, as each passing generation will have less and less connection with what Christianity and our current world is all about. All I’m saying is that the Church needs to spend more effort convincing of the truths in Christianity, and less on convincing of the worship of God. Once more of us see truth in Christianity, we can worship God as we see fit.

          • “I never said I didn’t believe in Christ, I’m sure he very much walked the earth 2000 years ago, and I believe in his message.”

            …Except you don’t believe His message, which is that He is the incarnate Son of God. Which sort of necessitates a belief in God, n’est-ce pas? Believing that Christ existed and that He had sweet, irenic moral lessons to teach does not a Christian make.

            I am loathe to speak for those who are joining more traditional churches. But do you honestly believe that men are going to traditional Benedictine orders simply to save themselves? There are much easier and less austere ways to accomplish that end. If it were not for the profundity of orthodox Benedictine worship as realized at both Clear Creek and Norcia, I very much doubt these orders would be in any better shape than most other orders elsewhere in the Church. The Church managed to survive with a handful of men and women laboring under intense persecution in her earliest days; I think we’ll be just fine.

            You’re quite right that I would prefer Christianity to be less “relevant.” Christianity is not, nor has it ever been, “relevant.” As I stated earlier, the Cross is a sign of contradiction to the order and priorities of this world. Our Lord, in fact, claims emphatically and repeatedly that we will be hated and reviled by the world for remaining faithful to Him (cf. Mk. 13:13, Mt. 10:22, Mt. 5:11, Mt. 24:9, Lk. 21:17, Jn. 15:18, etc. etc.). So, you can sit there and with a straight face claim that becoming relevant to the world will somehow solve the Church’s problems? Give me a break. Accommodation to a world that hates the Gospel is to betray Christ. So, yes, I would prefer Christianity to become less relevant if need be.

            Look, Christians believe in the indefectibility of the Church and the Holy Spirit’s providence. He will draw to Himself out of every generation those who recognize the moral, spiritual, and intellectual bankruptcy of the present world and desire to encounter and know the Real. But you know how you draw those people in? By worshipping and praising God. Otherwise, who really cares about what the Church says, does, or thinks?

            I don’t think you quite grasp how utterly spurious is the distinction you erect between apologetics and worship. All the apologetics in the world are hollow if they are not undergirded and warranted by true worship. As I’ve stated over and over, the Church exists primarily for the worship of God. To suggest otherwise places you entirely and completely at odds not only with the Gospels but with *literally* the expansive and uniform witness of Church history from its earliest days until now. No actual Christian either believes or has ever believed that worship can somehow be jettisoned, mostly because the idea is incoherent. Even the heretics believed that the worship of God was the primary obligation of the faithful. To sacrifice that is to sacrifice what is the essence and nature of Christianity.

            Even if you have some attachment to the moral precepts of the Christian Faith because they sound nice to you or something, they are meaningless outside of the acknowledgement and worship of the God Who Is God. In fact, I’d rather suggest you’d be better off being a devout Nietzschean atheist than a “Christian” who believes he can adhere to the teachings of the Faith without believing in the metaphysical and theological commitments from which those teachings derive and by which they have any meaning. At least the Nietzschean would have a greater degree of intellectual integrity.

        • By your posts I can see you are no doubt well read in Christian Theology, and Doctrine, and probably Religious studies in general. I am not, which you likely already determined.

          You make a convincing argument for the importance of worship, if there is any argument at all, However, none of this matters. Christianity wasn’t just meant for the educated elites, it was also meant for the masses, the illiterate, the poor, the oppressed. I am not trying to convince anyone of the non-existence of God, I am merely saying that to some, it need not be important. Your argument is convincing to me, but would likely fall on deaf ears to many of today’s secularists, and atheists. In fact, I would argue that I might have a better chance at debating an atheist on various Christian positions, despite my limited grasp of the subject. In fact, I do it all the time.

          I will routinely “troll” out Christian bashers on various websites and engage in debate whether it be on abortion, gay marriage, or any others. When the discussion invariably centers around the “absurd belief in some sky fairy”, as many atheists point out, and I then reveal that I don’t believe in God, their argument almost completely falls apart. They are now forced to defend their positions knowing my position isn’t based on a “decree from God”, but from my belief in Christianity and how it has shaped my life and way of thinking. When one understand Christianity the way I do, Christian doctrine not need even be invoked, because it becomes easy draw parallels from other sources (not sure if this makes sense?) In fact, many times the debate will deflect to that of “me not being a Christian because of non- belief. Not unlike the discussion we have had.

          I believe that 2000 years ago Christianity had opened Mans mind to think in new ways that resulted in the great prosperity that the western world has since seen, but that was then, and this is now and I’m afraid that Christianity may now be closing minds. I will likely never have an audience to discuss my thoughts with the Pope, but I have found that by not restricting myself to the undisputed belief in God, my mind has been opened to seeing Christian philosophy in a whole different light, and one that’s much easier to defend, especially from an atheist, or secular progressive.

  5. The irony here is that the USA has the most believers but that it leads the way in Immorality. Don’t think for a second that I’m happy about this but it’s a fact.The USA is pretty much a leader in moral decadence.

Please leave a thoughtful, civil, and constructive comment: