Some of the critiques against “cultural Christianity,” or those who depict all cultural manifestations of Christianity as motivated by power, leave me thinking in response: Would we rather the church be permanently relegated to the margins? There is no intrinsic benefit to existing on the margins. Should we not pray for the gospel’s advance in society? Should we not want as many as possible to come to a saving knowledge of Christ? Paul seems to desire that we pray for optimal cultural conditions so that people come to know Christ in greater number (1 Tim. 2:1–6).
With the news of the Gallup Poll indicating dramatic two-decade decline in church membership, there is no shortage of opinion and commentary on what those figures portend for the future of Christianity in America.
The poll’s findings could be interpreted in a number of ways. One is to see the reality of secularism making serious inroads into large swaths of American life. Another is to lament the loss of a Christian consensus that, despite grievous historical sins, laid the foundation for America’s moral ecosystem at its founding.
Yet another way is to celebrate the loss of “cultural Christianity” as a gain for gospel purity. According to this viewpoint, the dross of cultural Christianity needs to be exposed for what it truly is: a framework that misappropriated Christianity to consolidate cultural power.
Without a doubt, there are elements of truth to this last interpretation. Everyone reading this article could point to myriad examples of Christianity being used for something other than its promise of salvation. Whether the church’s support of white supremacy, the public figure using Jesus as a political dogwhistle, or the local candidate kowtowing to the large church in town in order to make all the proper appearances, the criticism is valid. Desiring the morality or cultural status that may result from Christianity—while ignoring the gospel at the heart of it—is worth critiquing.
I’ve warned against the dangers of over-realized eschatologies that accompany movements like theonomy. So too the decline of Christianity and its influence on culture are complex. We should resist the temptation to celebrate or exaggerate its decline. Faithfulness in the culture requires simultaneously insisting on orthodox Christianity’s contribution to the common good and refusing to allow influence over the common good to be a measure of that same orthodoxy’s credibility.
There are two problems, however, with the argument that we should welcome the death of the Bible Belt. One is practical; the other is theological.
Christian Culture’s Costly Decline
Criticizing Bible Belt religion has its warrant, but not all cultural expressions of religion are necessarily means to an end. If Billy Graham on American airwaves is tantamount to cheapening Christianity, we should find bigger problems to complain about.
For every misuse of Christianity within the culture, I can cite a benefit. From concepts like dignity, justice, and rights to the centrality of the family to the idea of life having an ultimate purpose—all of these have found unique expression in Western civilization as the result of Christianity. Even many non-Christian historians would agree with this analysis. Society requires some governing moral vision at its center.
What’s more, the naked public square will be harsh on many groups, not just Christians. To lament the decline of cultural Christianity is to lament not simply the loss of a Christian consensus, but the loss of the social capital born of common grace that secular society was borrowing from. Is it any surprise that a growing secularity is coinciding with the hollowing out of American civil society?
When you define well-being in material terms only, it’s easy to miss that alongside growing secularism is a shrinking marriage rate, surges in addiction and suicide, and a whole new category we call the “loneliness epidemic.” As society sheds its Christian foundations, there will be a serious detriment to human flourishing. We should mourn this as Christians. We don’t want just the salvation of our neighbors but the good of society, too.