THE BLOG

Which Religion Is Dying in America?

06/04/2015 02:35 pm ET | Updated Jun 04, 2016

Partisans in America's scuffle over religion are either celebrating or panicking, with the fans of Richard Dawkins blowing party horns while clergymen bite their nails. It seems our nation's faith is drowning in a sea of "nones." I even heard one pessimist warn that people like me will follow the mastodons into extinction by 2050 if present trends continue.

I admit it. The math initially looks grim. Sunday attendance in mainline churches is dropping as fast as a bare-naked skydiver. Turnout in the United Church of Christ has dropped below a million; the Episcopal Church estimates its population at 1.8 million, down from three million in the 1960s; membership in the Presbyterian Church, USA, fell by 46 percent from 1965 to 2005 and the United Methodists have lost 4.5 million in their American churches since 1964. Four thousand churches close each ear and 3,500 people leave the Church each day.

Panic. Volcanoes are erupting and cities are burning and aphids swarm our gardens.

Or maybe not. Non-white and independent evangelical churches are growing, balancing the losses in mostly white evangelical denominations and heralding possible political shifts: Minority evangelicals often vote for Democrats while still holding traditional personal and family morals. But we shall see. I stand amazed at the acrobatic Democratic capacity to alienate people of traditional faith. The party may snatch defeat from the jaws of victory yet again.

Meanwhile, this much is clear, according to Tim Keller: The "number of the devout people in the country is increasing, as well as the number of secular people. The big change is the erosion is in the middle."

The real story lies in the collapse of the so-called "mainline," those historic denominations featuring dignified, robed clerics forever quoting Pete Seeger in their sermons. Their leaders made an early-century shift to theological "liberalism," more accurately called "modernism." It's a vague belief system diminishing biblical authority, sin, traditional doctrines, and miracles in favor of a vapid creed extolling the "brotherhood of man and the Fatherhood of God" -- except they don't say "brotherhood" or "man" or "Fatherhood" anymore. H. Richard Niebuhr summed up its convictions: "A God without wrath brought men without sin into a Kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross."

Mainline modernists often portray themselves as "open-minded" and "in-depth" and "prophetic" (code for left-leaning social justice views, many of which are commendable). They dismiss evangelicals as "fundamentalists" (the two terms are not necessarily synonymous) and forget their heritage of cultural compromise: Modernism blossomed in Germany in the early 19th century as a reply to Enlightenment cynicism. Such a response was needed, but an opportunity was missed: Thinkers could have anticipated the nuanced orthodoxy of someone like CS Lewis (1898-1963), a British professor and writer who held a high view of traditional doctrine while welcoming scientific insights. Instead, they nourished themselves on secular philosophers like Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and sliced off huge chunks of the Bible in the process. The lines between the Fatherland and Christianity quickly blurred, as witnessed in 1914: Theologian Adolf von Harnack helped the Kaiser write his declaration of war in 1914.

Not all theological modernists were so politically ill-liberal. Walter Rauschenbusch (1861-1918), for example, reminded everyone of Christianity's revolutionary nature in The Theology of the Social Gospel. But, for all the Rauschenbusch invocations and Martin Luther King references at mainline gatherings, we must remember: Mainline churches harbored and nurtured civil religion. They were, to use a term from previous decades, "bourgeois." Thus the irony: "liberal" theology often bolstered the status quo. Evangelical theology frequently spurred social reform in the 19th century. A few of its denominations ordained women.

Karl Barth in Europe and Reinhold Niebuhr in the United States supposedly killed off modernism in the wake of the Great War. Many mainliners shifted to Neo-Orthodoxy in a back-to-Luther-and-Calvin movement, but modernism constantly resurfaced. Harry Emerson Fosdick (1878-1969), who popularized the theology from his pulpit at the Rockefeller-funded Riverside Church in New York, went so far as to declare victory: "We have already largely won the battle we started out to win; we have adjusted the Christian faith to the best intelligence of our day and have won the strongest minds and the best abilities of the churches to our side ... The future of the churches, if we will have it so, is in the hands of modernism."

Which "best minds," Pastor Harry? And what if "the hands of modernism" gnarl with arthritis? Post-modernist thinkers are no longer impressed.

Thomas Merton saw modernism's banality at an English boarding school. The chaplain's religious teaching "consisted mostly in more or less vague ethical remarks." He recalled his "greatest sermon," founded on the Apostle Paul's description of love in 1 Corinthians 13, rendered as "charity" in the King James translation: "Charity" stood for "all that we mean when we call a chap a 'gentleman.'" Merton commented: "There he stood, in the plain pulpit, and raised his chin above the heads of all the rows of boys in black coats, and said: 'One might go through the chapter of St. Paul and simply substitute the word, 'gentleman' for charity wherever it occurs.'" He marveled: "Peter and the twelve Apostles would have been rather surprised at the concept that Christ had been scourged and beaten by soldiers, cursed and crowned with thorns and subjected to unutterable contempt and finally nailed to the Cross and left to bleed to death in order that we might all become gentlemen."

That vacuous dogma is disintegrating. Michael Gerson said it well: "We are certainly seeing the collapse of casual Christianity and of religious belief as a civic assumption."

Christianity never thrives when it yields to the day's "best intelligence," especially a brand of nihilistic cleverness that shrivels humanity into a soul-less economic cog. The wise faithful integrate modern-day learning, but they see how today's "best minds" often dismiss questions of meaning and eternity. It's far better to catch up with the dynamism of the first-century apostles. That's what happened after a previous era of decline: Only 10 percent of the U.S. population attended Sunday worship in the 1790s and many churches opted for "enlightened" Deism. The revivals of the early 19th century changed all that. They spawned spiritual fervor and fueled reform movements such as abolitionism.

Progress comes when we abandon the advice of opinion pollsters, look back, and rediscover who we are and what we stand for. Mainline denominations would be wise to follow that course.