I read the chapter in Ross Douthat’s book, Bad Religion, where he analyzes the decline of institutional and traditional Christianity since the mid twentieth century. He calls that chapter The Locust Years.
The outcome of the post-WWII religious revival led by figures like Reinhold Niebuhr, Billy Graham, Fulton Sheen, and Martin Luther King, Jr. was a mighty step forward in civil rights. All of them, in their own way, supported the civil rights movement. Douthat recalls the reaction of segregationist senator Richard Russell to the passing of the Civil Rights Act: ‘The Civil Rights Act only passed, he groused, because ‘those damn preachers got the idea that it was a moral issue.‘” (Douthat, Ross (2012-04-17). Bad Religion (p. 57). Simon & Schuster, Inc.. Kindle Edition.)
After that, though, the religious consensus in America fell apart, the Mainline Protestants had a steep membership decline and Catholics couldn’t get enough priests, nuns, and resources, although Hispanic immigration and higher birth rates kept their membership at a higher level. In 1973 Dean Kelley published a book called Why Conservative Churches are Growing. But that didn’t get it right either. Some conservative denominations did better that liberal ones or Catholics, but overall religious institutions in America declined steadily. Besides, the so-called conservatives really were not guardians of classic Christianity. They veered off into various heresies.
“But the successes of the neo-evangelical project notwithstanding, their theological conservatism was often still the apocalyptism of the fundamentalist cul-de-sac, or else a mix of prosperity preaching and the gospel of self-help—the Evangelicalism of the Left Behind novels and Joel Osteen, one might say, rather than of Billy Graham or C. S. Lewis. Some of America’s Evangelical churches provided a rallying point for orthodox Christians in the difficult post-1960s landscape. But others provided fertile ground for the heresies that increasingly dominated American religion.” Douthat, Ross (2012-04-17). Bad Religion (p. 62). Simon & Schuster, Inc.. Kindle Edition.
Although religious institutions declined, pollsters found that belief remained strong. For instance, a few more Americans said that they believed in life after death in the 1990s than had said so in the 1940s. So the troubles of religious institutions did not mean a rise of secularism and atheism.
The words “religion” and “spirituality” have similar meanings, both denoting a relationship with the divine. But “spirituality” came to connote a non-institutional and experiential religiosity. People began to say, “I am spiritual, but not religious.” Traditional Christianity lost much of its credibility.
Douthat says that the question is not just why this happened, but why it happened then.
He answers with 5 catalysts that caused traditional Christianity’s credibility to fall for so many people. These are political polarization, the sexual revolution, globalization, the increase of American wealth, and class.
The last one, class, doesn’t seem as serious as the others. It was just Douthat getting a dig in at Ivy League snobbery. But otherwise, his analysis struck home. The general view of even religious, church-going people today is much more relativistic than it was. They tilt toward seeing all things political, sexual, cultural and economic as personal and experiential, rather than founded in universal truth.
Political and culture wars have resulted. Religious people divide into red and blue factions. There is no consensus.
“The leaders of the Mainline denominations and the black churches, who tended to see every new controversy through the lens of the civil rights struggle, were on the leftward side, the side of peace and social justice. The majority of Evangelicals tilted rightward, their identification with the Republican Party magnifying their political strength even as it often compromised their moral credibility. And somewhere in between, divided and agonized like the country, were the bishops and clergy and laypeople of the Catholic Church.
These divisions and debates were often driven by idealism and high principle. But they had mostly negative consequences for Christianity’s spiritual witness. Religious leaders took too many positions on too many issues, indulged in Manichean rhetoric that overheated public policy debates, and generally behaved like would-be legislators or party activists instead of men of God.” Douthat, Ross (2012-04-17). Bad Religion (p. 69). Simon & Schuster, Inc.. Kindle Edition.
This is one sample of Douthat’s attitude. Many would celebrate the changes in religious attitude that have emerged. Douthat’s position is more complicated. He does see value in what has happened. The old religious institutions were hide-bound and needed a good shaking up. But he thinks America needs both a heterodox challenge to the old and a strong institutional voice for Christian orthodoxy. He thinks that voice is now too muted.