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Christianity After the West?

Over the last few years, theologically conservative Christian intellectuals have pumped out a large number of books prophesying the decay of Western civilization and the large-scale collapse of American Christianity—Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed, [1] Anthony Esolen’s Out of the Ashes [2], Charles Chaput’s Stranger in a Strange Land [3], and Robert Cardinal Sarah’s The Day Is Now Far Spent [4] all come to mind. The more aggressive of these volumes suggest that such a fate was written in the stars from America’s earliest years, thanks to the individualistic philosophy of “liberalism” that underpins so many of the country’s institutions.

By and large, the authors of these books tend to be Roman Catholics. And this makes sense, because almost to a one these books wistfully recall a golden age of medieval Christendom, where church and state fit together harmoniously and no split between faith and reason had yet developed. Their central argument tends to play out as a kind of alternative Genesis story: once there was a perfect social order, and then came the lies of the great deceiver (Duns Scotus/William of Ockham/Martin Luther/John Calvin/Rene Descartes/Thomas Hobbes/John Locke/you name it). From that original sin flow all the horrors of modernity. For certain Catholics of a traditionalist bent, this is an easy move to make because it exonerates the medieval Church from any real complicity in its own splintering. Ecclesiastical corruption and simony are, of course, largely waved aside.

Intellectual histories written in this vein frequently have the feel of just-so stories. Of course, there’s no real way to demonstrate that history might’ve gone in a different direction if Ockham’s nominalism, or Luther’s view of justification, or Calvin’s soteriology, had simply been squarely refuted from the start. And these sorts of books—fascinating though their arguments may be—also tend to have a certain whiff of the conspiratorial about them. The reader is left believing that she has been initiated into a kind of secret knowledge of the West’s “true” history, at last made aware of the great plot against true Christianity. And the end result is that the reader tends to ignore straightforward explanations of Western Christian decline in favor of esoteric ones. Surely, sex-abuse scandals have done far more to wound the Church than Duns Scotus ever did.

But although their intellectual genealogies of the modern predicament may often be historically dubious, these accounts of religio-cultural decline are getting at something unmistakably accurate: the sense that, in much of the Western world, the old Christian zeitgeist—the latent background assumption that the Christian account of reality is both true and meaningful—is rapidly fading away.

And in recent months, two of America’s foremost Protestant intellectuals—Southern Baptist theologian Albert Mohler and Missouri Synod Lutheran literature professor Gene Veith—have added their voices to this growing chorus. To their great credit, neither Mohler nor Veith attempts to outline a monocausal explanation of current trends. Their interest is primarily pastoral, and neither lapses into plotting out alternate histories or bespoke political philosophies.

Many of the themes their new books explore will be familiar to those already acquainted with Mohler’s radio show [5] or Veith’s Patheos blog [6], but what’s particularly notable about their volumes is the stark absence of anything resembling triumphalism. Unlike some of the more prominent figureheads of American Protestantism today—Jerry Falwell, Jr. comes to mind—Mohler and Veith are decidedly not sanguine about the coming American future or Christians’ place in that order. The writing, in short, is on the wall.

Mohler’s The Gathering Storm: Secularism, Culture, and the Church [7], written primarily for lay audiences, is an extended discussion of the effects of secularism—a term Mohler uses interchangeably with “dechristianization” to capture the erosion of traditional faith as the dominant moral and metaphysical architecture of American life. As one might expect, Mohler explores the increasingly radical stances taken by abortion advocates, the expansive metaphysical claims about sex and gender advanced by certain branches of the LGBT movement, the ongoing clash between traditional religious institutions and proponents of expansive antidiscrimination laws, and the cratering American fertility rate, among other topics.

Veith’s Post-Christian: A Guide to Contemporary Thought and Culture [8] covers substantially the same conceptual ground, though the book is targeted at a slightly more educated audience than Mohler’s. Like Mohler, Veith discusses at length the current issues surrounding abortion, LGBT movements, and religious liberty, while also probing the increasingly audacious attempts of Silicon Valley technologists to transcend the limits of the body and mind.

The sharpest difference between The Gathering Storm and Post-Christian, however, is one of tone.

Mohler’s book offers an almost unremittingly bleak vision of the American Christian future. Over and over, the reader is reminded of the manifold horrors that await if the forces of secularity continue to advance. Given this, it’s somewhat surprising that the main text of The Gathering Storm concludes with a formal rejection of the view that “political messianism” is a worthy paradigm for Christians. That’s true enough, although it does make for a rather downbeat ending to the book.

But then Mohler’s book takes a hard right turn, with an odd appendix entitled “The Storm over the Courts” stressing the critical importance of the 2020 elections as a means of ensuring a judiciary protective of Christians’ rights. For all intents and purposes, it’s a call to double down on Republican political organizing, along the lines of Michael Anton’s famous essay “The Flight 93 election.”  This is a strangely narrow understanding of Christian engagement with public life. If the conservative legal movement has learned anything at all during its short lifespan, judicial appointments are a tricky business, and placing faith in any Supreme Court Justice to hold the line in perpetuity is an unsure bet.  Surely judicial nominations are very important, but I’m decidedly unconvinced that one can (or should) wed the future of American Christianity to a conservative majority on the Supreme Court.

By contrast, Post-Christian takes an altogether different tack: the conclusion of Veith’s book is frankly optimistic—and not just in the eschatological sense—without ever compromising its clear-eyed approach to the American Christian situation.

For one thing, even in America theologically conservative denominations have faced nowhere near the kind of demographic collapse the mainline has suffered. American Protestantism may have its share of problems, but it is not yet in free fall. And there is room for hope that member retention will improve with time: once-neglected concepts like catechesis and creed and practices are now back in the Protestant theological discourse, suggesting a much healthier approach to engagement with the historic Christian tradition.

But more importantly, Veith highlights the explosive growth of Christianity—including its traditionally liturgical branches—in Africa, Asia, and South America. The center of theological gravity is increasingly shifting away from Europe and America. When viewed from a global perspective, the Church is not going anywhere, and its future expressions are likely to be quite orthodox. And so Veith correctly observes that “in this vast sea of faith, Americans and Europeans occupy a small island of secularism, like teenagers fixated on their cell phones, oblivious to what is happening all around them. It turns out that this is not a post-Christian world after all.” That is an insight reminiscent of the memorable closing passage of David Bentley Hart’s The Story of Christianity [9]: from an eternal perspective, the story of Christianity may be just beginning.

At bottom, what Post-Christian successfully contends is that there is no need for Protestants to believe that the future is doomed to darkness and dread. Such a view implicitly accepts the contested premise (of certain Catholics) that that Christianity peaked in the Middle Ages and has been on a downward slide ever since. Rather, Veith’s book invites readers to accept (as they ought) that the destiny of Christianity is not the same as the destiny of “the West,” and in so doing find new kinship with their brothers and sisters abroad.

What might explain the difference between these two approaches? Perhaps it is bound up with the fact that Lutheran churches have never, in America, enjoyed true cultural dominance. From the start they have been congregations of immigrants, closely connected to sister churches in foreign countries and tasked with quiet witness in a culture that finds them at once too Catholic (for evangelicals) and too Protestant (for Rome and its sympathizers). There is no real Lutheran “golden age” to look back upon with melancholy; simply the ongoing work of faithful ministry of Word and Sacraments. And this suggests that classical Protestantism need not adopt the narratives of inevitable decline that so many on the theological right have put forth: the world turns on, and God is still sovereign.

Surely a host of challenges lie ahead for American Christianity in the decades to come. The answer to these challenges, though, is not to absolutize electoral politics or struggle harder and harder to root out the West’s original spiritual error. Rather, it is to give up longing for a vanished age, to join hands with Christian brethren in other lands—and to begin recognizing that the Church will always be a pilgrim Church, until the day of Christ’s return. After all, from that perspective, the world is not really post-Christian, but pre-Christian.

John Ehrett is executive editor of Conciliar Post [10], an online publication dedicated to cultivating meaningful dialogue across Christian traditions, and a Patheos columnist writing at Between Two Kingdoms [11]. He is a graduate of Yale Law School and is currently pursuing a Master of Arts in Religion at the Institute of Lutheran Theology.

Blog Banner Image: Destruction, from The Course of Empire, painted by Thomas Cole. 1836. Public Domain [12] {{PD-US}} by age, resized by MR.