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Christianity's Supernova: Why the Church's Loss Isn't Necessarily the Progressives' Gain

05/13/2015 10:22 pm ET | Updated May 13, 2016
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When a big old star runs out of fuel, it collapses of its own weight. That's what appears to be happening to Christianity, at least in the advanced countries where it once dominated. The latest Pew Center report shows that the rising generation will likely be the first in which unaffiliated Americans make up the largest single group on the worldview spectrum.

Even now, the Nones, as they are known, outnumber Catholics, mainline Protestants, and every other group except evangelicals. Self-declared Christians of all kinds now make up just 71 percent of American adults, an all-time low.

Yet, the intrusion of Christianity into politics and public life is at its highest levels since the 1950s. In the year since the Supreme Court in Town of Greece validated opening prayers at local government meetings, officials have moved to limit or exclude non-Christian prayers. Greece itself, the New York town named in the case, has adopted a measure aimed at narrowing the views expressed at invocations.

More outrageous still, the Rowan County Board of Commissioners in North Carolina has been opening meetings with prayers offered by the commissioners themselves -- who all happen to be Christian. A permanent injunction against the board's practice is now under appeal.

Meantime, efforts to use religious freedom laws to allow businesses to refuse service to gay or lesbian clients are on the rise in dozens of states. Presidential candidates Ted Cruz, Mike Huckabee, and several others are pandering like crazy -- and I do mean crazy -- to the right-wing Christian vote.

How can we explain this paradox? More important, how can we change the dynamics? Perhaps the metaphor of a supernova can help. When a massive star runs out of fuel, outward pressure can no longer offset gravity, and the whole thing collapses toward the center. As the collapse occurs all the inward-bound atoms and particles heat up and fuse into various elements, releasing more energy, until a phenomenal explosion -- the supernova -- occurs. The explosion flings a vast and varied cloud of elements into space. Meantime, the remnant is compacted into a neutron star, a superdense ball of iron.

So there you have it -- a far flung, diverse cloud of Nones surrounding a white-hot, superdense core of fundamentalist Christians. Is it any surprise that we're feeling the heat?

In nature, the colorful remnants of a supernova eventually clump together. Being so diverse, they form interesting new bodies, such as comets, asteroids, rocky planets with oceans, and on at least one, living bodies with brains capable of contemplating and investigating the universe. As for the undifferentiated core, it is fated at best to fade to a dim glow.

No analogy is perfect, but I hope this one has some useful facets. Religion in the West is collapsing, but it has blown away the outer layers -- progressive believers, mainline Protestants, and social reformers -- even as its core hardens and burns brighter.

The fundamentalist core blazes with fear and rage. Its members see the Christian supernova as not as an act of creation but as moral decay. In their fury not only will they vote but they will take action to disenfranchise others.

Meantime, the millions who have disaffiliated have yet to coalesce into any clear social movement. Voter apathy is rampant among them. In nature it can take billions of years for the death of a supermassive star to result in the birth of a far more interesting new planetary system. In contemporary America, we cannot wait.

Be warned: Not all supernovae are creative. Some collapse into black holes, producing few if any new elements and shedding little light along the way. We must not let that become an analogy for the social and political change sweeping America. We must find common cause, stand together, and make ourselves heard -- above all at the ballot box.