Jon Meacham’s article in Newsweek Magazine, “The End of Christian America,” triggered a fresh debate regarding the state of the Christian consensus in America and its future. No doubt a lot of Christian people felt a range of emotions after either reading the article first hand or hearing something of its contents. While the 2009 American Religious Identification Survey, which is at the core of Meacham’s thoughts, claims to have its finger on the pulse of what is oft called “Christian America,” and many are seeing this survey as a prescient indicator of things to come, we should take a step back and try to look at the gist of the article through the lens of God’s sovereignty in history. Perhaps the exercise will make us a little less pessimistic about the future of Christianity in America.
There are many errors and false assumptions Meacham extrapolates from the Survey but I will focus here on but one. He fails to consider what history teaches us: that the ebb and flow of a nation’s commitment to Christian principles, though unfortunate, is often typical. Just why this is the case is a matter I will not take up here. But suffice it to say that I don’t believe that God is not done with America.
Think back to the time of the European Reformation. This great move of God literally transformed Europe. It brought massive change in a number of ways, including cultural. By the 1550s, the nation of Holland was literally reformed. Phillip II of Spain, in a failed attempt to stop the rising tide of biblical Christianity, invaded the Netherlands, killing thousands of Protestants. England also was transformed in virtually every area of public life and France was moving in the new direction as well. In 1555, John Calvin was at Geneva. His burden for the French people motivated him to urge men to go to France to preach the gospel. In the same year there were only five Protestant, Reformed churches in France. Seven years later, as a result of God blessing the labor of Christian missionaries, there were 2,150 such churches. In just seven years, 3 million people, or 15 %, of the French population had been converted to Christ. By 1561, the number of churches throughout Europe had grown so rapidly that a unified confession of faith was needed, whereby the churches adopted the Belgic Confession.
By the early seventeenth century, however, radical change was on the horizon. The rising sun of the Reformation that had shown such promise of being the standard-bearer of the light of the gospel to the nations had, within just several decades of the deaths of Calvin and Luther, been eclipsed by a false gospel – the “light” of reason. In the hands of Descartes and Locke, this light was said to aid men in their search for the truth of Christianity. In the hands of Tillotson and Toland, however, this light became the grid through which all biblical revelation was to be judged. By the mid-eighteenth century the gloves were off. When the Virtuosi and men of letters referred to their activities as promoting the “Enlightenment” they meant that they were replacing what they perceived as the darkness, ignorance, and grip of Christianity that had ruled men’s minds from the Middle Ages to the Thirty Years War with the “light” of human reason, autonomy, and tolerance.
Meanwhile, back in America, it’s a stunning fact that within two generations after the Puritans and Separatists settled New England, the land in which they had hoped to create a visible expression of the Kingdom of God on earth was already showing signs of spiritual decline. Spiritual conditions in New England were so poor that even many pastors held to nominal belief. Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, and Gilbert Tennent addressed the dangers of unconverted clergymen. God also used these men, and others, to spark the First Great Awakening in America, whereby scores of people became Christians, others renewed their commitment to Christ, and the cultural landscape was dramatically altered.
Within a few short decades after the First Great Awakening the doctrines of the European Enlightenment reached the shores of America. By the late-eighteenth century, the best and brightest of our still young nation were being captivated by its seductive grip. It’s believed that by the time Timothy Dwight became the 8th President of Yale, in 1795, there were fewer than twenty Christians in the entire college.
No doubt, had the American Religious Identification Survey been in existence at this time, it would have reported far gloomier trends than those indicated by the 2009 report. And no doubt, if Jon Meacham had been on the scene, he would have reported, “I think this is a good thing – good for our political culture, which, as the American Founders saw, is complex and charged enough without attempting to compel or coerce religious belief or observance.”
But what did God think of the dismal spiritual state of affairs in late eighteenth-century America? In response to the prayers, fasting, and supplications of godly men and women in Scotland, and in the American Colonies, He raised up mighty, Spirit-filled preachers of the gospel, men such as Daniel Baker and Asahel Nettleton, to usher in the Second Great Awakening. Like its eighteenth-century predecessor, this powerful revival of Christianity touched every area of public life, from education to politics. As if on cue, decades later, the potency and public effects of the Second Great Awakening began to wane. But this ebbing of personal Christian commitment and the resultant decline of the Christian consciousness in American public life was no different in nature than the deterioration of the Christian values which happened earlier in American history, and which we see repeatedly in the biblical record of ancient Israel.
Nonetheless, the record of Scripture, and that of more recent history, indicates that though a nation turns from God, God has, in times past, sent a Spirit of revival and reformation to dramatically change hearts and reshape public life (in addition American religious history, see Exodus 29-30, Joshua. 24, and 2 Chronicles. 34). He does it not because we are worthy. He does it to vindicate his holy Name among the nations. As God said through the mouth of the prophet, “Therefore say to the house of Israel, ‘Thus says the Lord GOD, “It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for My holy name, which you have profaned among the nations where you went” (Ezekiel 32:22).
So while I share the deep concern about the tearing of the Christian fabric in our national consciousness, I am not ready to sit in sack-cloth and ashes or agree with Christian leaders who loathingly acknowledge “a new narrative, a post-Christian narrative, that is animating large portions of this society.” The One who continues to animate our society is God.
There is, of course, a further question. Are we Christians willing to pay the price for a fresh wind of spiritual revival in America? By this, I mean, are we willing to seek Him for it, to be stripped of everything, if necessary, to see God move mightily in our day? True, historical revival is at God’s discretion. Yet, His prerogative is not to the exclusion of His people earnestly seeking Him for it. The Psalmist pleads, “O God, restore us. And cause Your face to shine upon us, and we will be saved” (Psalm 80:3). God is still on His throne and delights to bare His mighty arm in revival when His people get serious with Him.
But somehow I doubt that we’re at this point. If there is a silver lining to be found in the 2009 Survey, it’s that it ought to spur us to do a little house cleaning. Let’s be frank. The American Church is not the biblical movement it was at one time. Even if the recent Survey had reported an upsurge in the number of self-identified Christians, we would very likely find them connected with a modern, evangelical movement that long ago had traded the biblical disciplines of true repentance, faith, and holiness of life for the secular principles of personal success and stress-free living. Add to this the facts that only about 2 percent of believes actively share their faith and about the same percentage show any active interest in the Cultural Mandate, what else ought we to expect than what the Survey yields?
In a time of extreme, spiritual apathy among Christian people, let us be heavily burdened for a fresh manifestation of God in our land such, that the words of our mouths echo those of the prophet Isaiah, "Oh, that You would rend the heavens and come down, That the mountains might quake at Your presence" (Isaiah 64:1).