I was one of those parents. Yes, this past Easter Sunday I was one among many with my phone held high and a broad smile as my child participated in the annual Easter Day Program. From delivering the program’s “welcome,” to saying his Easter speech, to performing a part in a play, watching him brought me great joy and pride.
Church involvement and religious education was a big part of my life growing up. Just like me, my parents weren’t perfect, but they recognized the importance of nurturing the spiritual side of a child’s life. Thus, for most of my K-12 schooling I went to a religious school, attended Sunday services consistently and was active in our church’s youth program.
They were not trying to make me a religious zealot, but were just firm in their belief that, when approached properly, religious instruction can have value for an individual and by extension the community at large. They believed those values the founder of Christianity spoke of so highly — mercy, compassion, forgiveness, empathy, charity and others — can be positively impactful in a person’s life and also create positive ripple effects. I believe this as well.
Such belief is fading, though.
According to the latest research, a belief in the value and efficacy of religion and religious faith is waning in the United States. This belief has been on a decades-long decline and shows no signs of stopping.
It’s projected that by 2035, around 35 percent of the U.S. population will most likely have no religious affiliation whatsoever. This will constitute a number forecast to be bigger than those who will identify as Protestant, and making those with no religious affiliation the largest religious-affiliation category in the country.
It appears that the “religious life cycle” has broken down in America. This is the concept that as one grows older, finds a spouse and has children, official or institutional religious involvement takes place also. According to researchers, this is no longer the case. Church affiliation and attendance has suffered as a result. As a consequence, church closures and consolidations have become the new normal.
This decline in church attendance and affiliation is particularly acute among millennials — those born between 1981 and 1996. Around 35 percent of this demographic group identify as nonreligious. They are, according to demographers, “the largest cohort of secular men and women in the nation’s history.”
Various factors are contributing to this growing decline in religious affiliation and faith in America, but one that particularly stands out is the political weaponization of Christianity. In the last several decades, as it has been on the march, belief and church attendance has been in decline.
This political weaponizing of Christianity is quite ironic when one considers the fact that the founder of Christianity had no political ambitions during his sojourn on earth.
The Gospels speak of when Jesus was lured into the desert to be tempted by Satan; the last of three temptations he resisted was the offer of “all the kingdoms of the world.” He refused. He often had to remind his followers that he was not there to establish an earthly political rule, something many of them longed and hoped for. Standing before the Judean governor, Pontius Pilate, hours before his crucifixion, he stated, “My kingdom is not of this world; if it were, My servants would fight to prevent My arrest …”
Yet, according to theologians and Christian writers it is the lure of temporal, earthly power that has been so irresistible, seductive and damaging to the Christian faith throughout its history. Jesus may have stated he wants to establish a reign in the hearts of men and women through an act of their free will, but some Christian leaders have often attempted to gain obedience to Christian tenets and faith by governmental fiat or declaration.
It was the late Christian evangelical leader Charles “Chuck” Colson who noted rather succinctly, “Nothing distinguishes the kingdoms of man from the Kingdom of God more than their diametrically opposed views of the exercise of power.” Colson also observed, “Christians should never have a political party. It is a huge mistake to become married to an ideology, because the greatest enemy of the gospel is ideology. Ideology is a manmade format of how the world ought to work, Christians instead believe in the revealing truth of Scripture.”
Colson’s point was not that Christians shouldn’t participate in the political process, but be wary of marrying the Christian message with a political party’s message. Nothing but harm, particularly to the efficacy and relevance of the Christian message, can come of it. Such a marriage can often cause religious leaders and believers to have to contort and compromise their beliefs to the point that their faith becomes unrecognizable and of little transformative value.
As President Richard Nixon’s “hatchet man,” Colson knew and understood this firsthand. According to Colson, the Nixon White House made a “concerted effort to get religious people into the White House” and utilize their influence for Nixon’s own political purposes. Colson noted the key was using the trappings of the White House and the immense power it communicated, along with speaking the language religious leaders wanted to hear to get their support. It worked phenomenally well.
But as Nixon’s dramatic and spectacular fall showed, religious leaders, their followers and the message of the faith paid a price as well.
As I sat this past Easter weekend listening to my son and the other kids, I was reminded of what a hopeful and positive message the Christian faith contains. Its leader was one who associated with strangers, outcasts and societal rejects. As a child he and his young parents experienced life as refugees fleeing persecution. Greatness, he stated, was associated with service and humility, not arrogance and coldness. He berated the religious leaders of his day for forgetting the heart of the law is “justice, mercy and faithfulness.”
If Christians desire to resurrect the relevance of the Christian faith and save it from a dying influence in society, they should return to its core message and purpose.