This article was originally published at The Table, of Biola University’s Center for Christian Thought.
In the days leading up to our presidential election, it seemed quite clear that Christians were not happy. But the ennui went beyond politics toward a greater sense that America was changing.
The unhappiness was rooted in good reason. Our principles were lambasted as backward, our policy stances were labeled as bigoted, personalities were labeled as bigots, and our politics were lowered into bouts of bravado. There seemed little for Christians to celebrate, save the requisite reference to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
And then Trump won. Some rejoiced, while others cringed. But I suggest whether salve or acid, the underlying sentiment remains fundamentally unchanged.
With our eyes on the world and our changing national fortunes, we appear marked by vindication or frustration, tempted to pride or anger, either way ready to lash out ineffectively at our culture at large. Since apparently Jesus cannot keep us happy, perhaps with him we should try being sad?
But being sad is no cure all, either. Some of different temperament instead yield to depression, tempted to flagellation, ready to grumble unhelpfully at our Christian culture at large.
Being sad is an emotional response, much like being angry. Whether red, blue, or annoyed we are reacting to circumstances, and we should not be too harsh with ourselves. God has given us our emotions, and they are wonderful tools to tell us something is wrong, or at least, different.
For America is different, in her religious composition. Perhaps America is also wrong, in her moral choices. But God invites us first to examine ourselves, requiring of all a greater humility. But to get there, a step beyond sadness is needed, evoking a suffering we are conditioned to dread.
As American Christians, we must choose to mourn that which is different, and that which may also be wrong.
Mourning, unfortunately, carries with it the connotation of defeat, of finality. We know what it means to mourn over the death of a loved one, but here we must mourn over the death of an idea.
I posit that for so many Americans, our fundamental unhappiness stems from an inability to let go of our dream of a Christ-centered nation.
Nor should we. But to find peace we must understand what it means to mourn, to grieve. In the loss of a loved one, we recognize the fact that he or she is gone. The suffering comes not from the death primarily, but from every unfulfilled expectation, every lost hope, every dream for the future that will now never be. Mourning is the necessary surrender thereof.
America is changing, we Christians feel. But we have been reluctant to admit she has already changed. Denial is often the first resistance to grief, pushing off the uncomfortable mourning. Poll after poll bears out the fact, however, that Christianity is losing its national prominence.
Christianity Today recently ran a series analyzing the trends, and one of the most poignant is this: In a 1967 Gallop survey, two percent of Americans identified themselves with no religion; in 2015, a Pew survey finds the now-ascendant “nones” at 23 percent.
Nearly one-quarter of Americans have no religious affiliation. That is a fact very near to a flatline.
Proper mourning, however, must identify the body. Though we cannot be happy, Jesus is still Lord and Savior. It is not Christianity that has died, and neither the church. The polls bear out this fact as well.
A Gallop survey in 1940 found 37 percent of Americans saying “yes” when asked if they attend church weekly. In 2015, the number dropped all the way to an astounding, wait for it, 36 percent.
Church going Americans are as numerous now as they have long been. What has changed, then? Where have the nones come from? In 1972 a GSS survey found mainline Christians to be 28 percent of the population. By 2014, they were only 12 percent. And as the former standard bearers of Christian civil religion eroded, evangelical Christians have grown to 23 percent.
Nearly one-quarter of Americans are evangelical Christians. That too is a fact, but it is not a pulse. Christianity in America is not dead, but Christian America? Yes.
At this point, it must become personal. I have my story to tell, but that is not what I mean. Every death is mourned differently by every bereaved. Two sons of a deceased mother will each grieve uniquely, for they had different hopes, dreams, and expectations for the life they no longer share with her. One cannot say to the other, “I know how you feel,” no matter the similarity of experience, nor the true comfort they can exchange.
The author of the Christianity Today series reflects on these religious demographic changes and says it may not be a bad thing. As nominal Christian expression recedes it gives the church more opportunity to correctly present the gospel life of discipleship.
Perhaps he is right. Of the 70 percent (according to a 2014 Pew survey) of Americans who identify as Christian, he divides them into rough statistical thirds: Cultural, due to birth and inherited identity; Congregational, due to communal attachment; and Convictional, due to belief and practice.
I do not disagree with his assessment nor the necessity of distinction. An evangelical reading of the Bible emphasizes the eternal importance of personal faith and practice. But as one in his category of convictional Christians, I mourn over our separation from the whole.
Perhaps I am wrong to mourn. Many evangelicals of my youth warned instead to mourn over those who falsely understood themselves to be Christians just because they were born into a household that attends church that way. One must be “born again,” said Jesus. Perhaps those who emphasize this message find vindication they have fewer mainline Christians to mourn over?
Likely not. Their sentiment is genuine, and their concern is real. Their witness comes from the heart. They love their fellow man, and they love America beside. For many, transforming the former is a means to preserve the latter. Some need patience, to endure their zeal. Others give praise, as their lives have been changed.
I, however, rightly belong to all three of the author’s categories. I was born into a Christian home. I value belonging to a Christian people. I adhere to time-honored Christian convictions.
Evangelical faith cherishes and nurtures all three. But I find the statistics are ripping away two-thirds of those who might otherwise be counted with me. And with them is ripped away the Christian ethos of America.
This is the death that I mourn—the hollowed out corpse of a once Christian nation. With it dies the expectation of my country’s inherent goodness, the hope of nominals still near to the gospel, and the dream of enduring Christ-infused values.
But again, some might rejoice that true faith is made clear. “We should be less American, and more Christian,” is a statement increasingly heard from many in the pews. Once more, I do not disagree.
But another tool to postpone mourning is improper substitution. Less apt if comparing to the death of a loved one, consider the reaction if your dog dies, or your girlfriend breaks up with you. How many people offer false comfort with the well intentioned words, “Just get another one?” And perhaps you will, wanting the replacement to fit the hopes you had for the old. Rarely does it work.
The dream of a Christ-honoring culture cannot be replaced by substituting out America for a more singular Christian priority. Likely a needed corrective, but it does not address the pain.
Nor do the more common reactions of striving harder and fighting back. How many people have you met who numb the loss of a loved one by drowning themselves in activity? Even if done to honor the deceased, it leaves unaddressed the underlying grief.
Many evangelical thinkers have outlined their “what do we do now?” strategies. Some say we should embrace our role as a prophetic minority. Others suggest we must reclaim the institutions of cultural influence. Some recommend a renewal in the church. Others encourage a revived evangelism.
Each is likely a fine way forward. But not yet. Wait. Rest. Mourn. Identify the dream you had, cry, and humbly suffer. Then, let it go.
What Christians attained in America past may or may not have been God’s will. Undoubtedly it fell short of his ideal. In so many ways, it was good. And as long as we live here, we have obligations to seek her best.
But the fact at this moment is that America is moving on from her Christian heritage. Perhaps I am wrong, but it is sorrowful that something so precious is being lost, a glue that holds much together.
Yet a loss fully mourned brings healing. Healing brings wholeness. Christ brings completeness. From here, God can give us new hopes, dreams, and expectations for ourselves and our nation, fitting a new reality.
American Christians—triumphant or frustrated, depressed or angry, denying or striving, of any and all statistical categories—should dream with him. The nones are waiting, as is Jesus, our Lord and Savior.