Jon Meacham: We Didn't Attack Christianity

I wrote a cover story for NEWSWEEK this week entitled "The Decline and Fall of Christian America." In the essay I argued that two things were going on in American religion this Holy Week. First, that new (and newish) data suggested that the percentage of Americans who self-identify as Christians has been falling, albeit from astronomical heights to semiastronomical ones. The second point is that the political project undertaken by politically and theologically conservative Christians in the wake of Roe v. Wade—what we call, in cultural and political shorthand, the rise of the religious right—has failed.

Both observations seem inarguable to me. What is arguable—and what I argued—is that there is a connection between the two, and that the two have a cumulative effect.

Some have read the piece (or, I suspect, the cover line) as an attack on Christianity, which it is not and which would, in any case, be an act of self-loathing, since I am a Christian, albeit a poor one. Note that we did not say we were discussing the decline and fall of Christianity, or even the decline and fall of Christianity in America. But "Christian America" is something else again. It is the vision of a nation whose public life is governed by explicitly articulated and adopted Christian principles in the hope, I think, that God will bless and protect the country and its people in the spirit of II Chron. 7:14. To see how well that is going from the perspective of the religious right, take a look at the news from Iowa and Vermont. I do not think, as some evangelicals do, that we are entering a "post-Christian" phase, but I do believe we are growing rather more secular than I would have anticipated even five years ago. The cumulative effect of a somewhat declining Christian population and a weakening Christian force in partisan politics is likely, I think, to lead to a more secular politics. Not wholly secular, to be sure, but more secular than we have been accustomed to in our Jesus-Winthrop-Reagan "city on a hill."

This is a rich and fascinating topic, one as old—older, really—as the American experiment. From Jamestown forward we have struggled with the complicated balance between religion and politics and church and state; I personally believe that religion has, on the whole, been more of a force for good than for ill in American life and history. But as with anything on this side of Paradise, that is, to borrow Wellington's phrase about Waterloo, a close-run thing.

John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge of The Economist—two distinguished journalists and authors who run one of the world's great magazines—have published an engaging new book, "God Is Back," and they have written about these issues both in The Wall Street Journal and on their Web site. I cannot recommend their work highly enough.

Some final words from the distant past. Two hundred and thirty years ago, in a sermon to the Supreme Court of Massachusetts, the Rev. Samuel Stillman said: "The magistrate is to govern the state, and Christ is to govern the church. The former will find business enough in the complex affairs of government to employ all his time and abilities. The latter is infinitely sufficient to manage his own kingdom without foreign aid." And, inevitably, from Toqueville, writing in the Age of Jackson: "[In] allying itself with a political power, religion increases its power over some and loses the hope of reigning over all." That is the spirit, if you will, in which I wrote the NEWSWEEK piece. And it is a spirit that I, for one, think is essential to preserving what is best about the American state—and what is best about the church in America, and everywhere, since it seems unlikely that the Lord God of Hosts keeps a careful eye on national boundaries.