I’m not sure America’s that much less religious than it used to be. Television is more common than it was half a century ago and we shouldn’t underestimate the degree to which religion can function as entertainment. ‘Nominal’ religion, of course, is certainly evaporating. There are less ‘religious in name only’ folks these days. Our ‘liturgy fix’ is easily attainable in our media saturated culture, and many who might have sought to quiet the pangs of utter hopelessness in a Church building a few times a week a century ago can self-medicate more economically by tuning in to The Late Show.
In the absence of other accessible forms of entertainment, previous generations were more apt to attend seasonal revivals, involve themselves in religious activities, etc. I’m talking about the way in which things like television and other now accessible forms of cheap entertainment have come to fill a gap that previously religion filled for large subsets of the population: the desire to be entertained.
In centuries past, when Christianity – usually, some form of Protestant Christianity – was simply assumed to be true by most of the public, and there were fewer forms of widely accessible entertainment available as competition, involving oneself in Christian activities (such as bible studies, revivals, etc.) was one of the most common ways to pass the time.
This could give the sense, then, that America was more devout than it was. By circumstance, we were ‘more’ religious, but the roots weren’t particularly deep. Now that there are numerous alternatives by which we can entertain ourselves, religion’s hegemony in American life has predictably waned.
My question, then, is to what extent we can truly say that America is substantively less religious than it was, when previously the truth of the Christian story was merely assumed, rather than embraced, and the function of religion for a sizable portion of the population was chiefly its ability to fill a certain universal human need – that is, to pass the time in the absence of accessible competition, like television, etc. If my suspicions are true, America is as ‘religious’ as ever, we’ve simply reallocated our devotions.
I’m not being cynical. I certainly don’t think that hope is lost. None of this means that the gospel will no longer take root on American soil, or that the Great Commission is somehow out of reach. It simply means that we no longer have some of the crutches that our great-grandparents’ generation had.
But, as Lemuel Haynes was always quick to remind his cohorts, everything – everything – that happens, happens in order to further along the Triune God’s eternal plan to reconcile the world to Himself. If we face unprecedented challenges because there are infinitely more opiates from which the average person can choose, then so be it. As Lemuel would also have pointed out, true religion – at least, the religion of Jesus, is a balm for the wounded but is hardly an opiate for the bourgeoisie. If it is anything, it is a merciful buzzkill, jostling us awake and demanding our submission to the strange moral vision of the gospel of grace.
So it may be a good thing that television has taken away our hegemony. Bad for numbers – at least for now – but good for the world. To paraphrase David Bentley Hart, the Church has only ever been half-Christian (at best) when we’ve run the world. And to paraphrase Rod Dreher, we’re well on our way to becoming a minority religion in the West. To paraphrase Anthony Bradley, though, the majority of the Christians in the United States have never, actually known what it is like to be the ruling class – the historic Black church has always been a marginalized Christian group, from the colonial days to the Civil Rights movement to the modern era, where culturally dominant Evangelical institutions send missionaries into black neighborhoods to plant their own churches without involvement from the long-standing, theologically conservative Black Churches that have been there for decades (or centuries). And that’s only one example. We’ll survive like they’ve survived, and in-season we’ll multiply like they’ve multiplied – in season. The predominately white churches that make up what was the most culturally influential player in America’s religious landscape will soon enough occupy a similar position to the ethnic churches that past generations explicitly marginalized and current generations largely ignore. And we can learn from their historic witness. And, perhaps, in joining them in the society’s lower wrungs, we can learn to identify, explicitly and implicitly, with them as one Body, transcending our cultural divides without erasing them, and in doing so, become a common Church in America that begins again to turn the world upside dowm – even in the television age.