The Great Fallout

The Story Behind America’s Fallout with Traditional Christianity

When the Supreme Court handed down its decision (5-4 vote) supporting the State of Nevada’s restrictions on religious service attendance but not explaining why it was still ok for large casinos and other businesses to operate at 50% capacity, it was a lot to think about. I understand that some people don’t see how attending church is going to put food on the table, pay healthcare bills, or keep the A/C running. Many Americans think that the Court’s decision made sense. You should give priority to essential operations─those immediate things that are going to help you support the basic level of Maslow’s Hierarchy─and address the more abstract things later.

About a month before the Court’s decision, Elder David Bednar of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints shared misgivings over how the country has prioritized church attendance during the pandemic. He pointed out that it’s important for theological organizations to cooperate with government authorities to find the right balance between religious observance and helping protect the general public, but he thought that the country had favored the secular far more than the religious, enough for it to be considered unwise. For instance, jurisdictions considered services related to alcohol, animals, and marijuana as essential, while religious services were classified as nonessential, even when those activities could be safely conducted.1

I wholeheartedly agree with Elder Bednar. But I want to take it one step further. I want to address the “why.” Or, in other words, why did the government make a worldly thing, like alcohol, more important than religion? We can and need to talk about religious freedom, but why do so many Americans not care about preserving this right?

To better understand the “why” behind America’s growing indifference towards religion, I needed help. I decided to read the book “How the West Really Lost God” by Mary Eberstadt, a well-respected author who has written extensively on American social trends. Most of this post’s content comes from observations in her book.

America’s Breakup with Traditional Christianity

Simply put, many Americans don’t see how traditional Christianity is relevant in their day-to-day lives. It has no root in them. It’s like we are living out the words that Frederich Nietzsche said in the late 19th century, “What after all are these churches now if they are not the tombs and sepulchers of God?”2 For many, traditional Christianity has become more of an intellectual exercise. It’s like a fossil that people view with curiosity but nothing else. Yes, some people may visit their local chapel once a year, but it’s more out of ritual and not a desire to understand God. What happened?

Iron Fist in a Velvet Glove

For starters, a lot of people think that pure, unadulterated Christianity is overbearing. They like the idea of Christ paying for our sins on the cross, but they dislike the idea of absolutes: right, wrong, repentance, sin, heaven, and hell. To these people, Christian religion feels like the proverbial parent telling them to eat their oatmeal or vegetables. To them, Christianity is all about knowing and following the rules and not about personal freedom.

Christianity Lite

Most Americans still believe in God and identify as Christian. But for many of these individuals, it’s as if their concept of God has morphed into a new type of worship that has less to do with Christian absolutes and more to do with their own passions. Their connection with God isn’t found in traditional Christian doctrine but in notable causes for things like politics, environment, physical well-being, and too many others to count. God isn’t found in archaic books like the Bible or the Book of Mormon, but more in personal quests and journeys. This type of quasi-religion is very appealing because people can say they are on a quest to know God by living out their own hobbies and ambitions.

In many conversations with fellow believers, I’ve often heard the idea that “it doesn’t matter what path you are on just as long as you believe.” The idea of believing without belonging is at a high point in America. Organized religion, as everyone has seen, has made some mistakes─sometimes large ones─and a lot of people have walked away with bad impressions. Some people believe that knowing Christ doesn’t require attending any chapel or speaking about sins or shortcomings with any authority. Understanding God is a very personal matter and should stay that way.

Many other reasons exist for why Christianity is at a low ebb. But I think there are even deeper reasons for it that may not be readily apparent.

Family Is to Faith like Macaroni Is to Cheese

If you take an honest look back and observe some of the world’s most evil problems— slavery, tyranny, war, human sacrifice, and other forms of oppression—you’ll see that many of these issues include a generational dynamic. People are born into the world and learn behaviors from their immediate surroundings. They learn from their families. Big challenges in society, like millions of people abandoning Christianity, don’t happen because of one event or influential person. They happen because upcoming generations aren’t being taught certain things. It’s like several million moms and dads tragically forgot to relay an ultra-important message to their kids within the same period of time.

Statistics demonstrate how the traditional family breakup contributes to America’s indifference towards Christianity. In Mary Eberstadt’s book, she cites several studies backing up this argument. For instance, in a study from 1972–2002, the percent of American adults attending church or synagogue fell from 41 to 31 percent. A third of the drop could be explained by showing that fewer adults are married with children. Another study demonstrates the effects of children on married men’s attendance to church. For each additional child born under wedlock, a man’s attendance to Church increases by 2.5 times per year.3 Other studies show the same finding—more traditional families (and kids) mean more faith.

Going to Church

France, Britain, and Ireland

 To show things from another perspective, I’ll share the experiences of some well-known countries in Europe—France, Britain, and (the author’s favorite) Ireland.

Each of these three countries went through the same pattern: France in the 1700s, Britain in the 1800s and Ireland in 1900s. And they’ve remained in the same pattern ever since. So what happened? We’ll talk about France because it was the earliest.

Throughout the 18th century, the fertility rate in France steadily declined. Though this may not seem alarming, it starts to get more interesting when you observe that illegitimacy rates rose from 1% to between 10–20% throughout the same period, and up to 30% in Paris. At the same time, divorce rates were on the rise and church attendance dropped. These are facts.4 And why would church attendance drop? Because it’s well known that divorcees, single-parent families, and people that have engaged in illegitimate sex, on average, don’t attend church as much. (I will add that some of the most faithful church attendees I know are divorcees and single parents—I’m talking demographics, not individuals).

The same pattern occurred in Britain one century after France and again in Ireland one century after Britain. The evidence is convincing that divorce, cohabitation, and premarital sex decrease the likelihood, on average, of long-term church attendance, and consequentially, honoring Christian beliefs.

The ‘60s and the Sexual Revolution   

It’s well known among social scientists that the 1960s was a decade of a considerable decline for Christianity in America. And ever since that decade, Christianity has been on a downward trend. But what made this decade so different than all the others? Civil rights, Woodstock-culture, or Vietnam maybe? That might have had a little to do with it. But one of the largest answers is right in front of us.

The use of birth control pills was approved by the FDA in 1960. The pill gave both women and men more control over their sexual decisions and less worry about accidental conception. In many ways, this was a good thing. On the other hand, it made being sexually loose a lot easier. Because the pill enabled casual sex with multiple partners, it decreased the incentive to marry or stay married. Not coincidentally, divorce rates soared in the ‘60s. And ironically, even with the introduction of birth control, illegitimacy rose significantly as well. This all took a huge toll on the traditional family. Predictably, church attendance dropped.5 For some people, it’s hard to sit in the pews and listen to a talk or a sermon with things like divorce or illegitimacy running through their heads. They’d rather avoid it altogether.

The Family—A Petri Dish for Christian Values

 The truth is that adopting Christian values is a deeply personal experience that, at times, can be confusing and challenging. Individuals need to feel they are in a safe environment to do something as personal as praying, reading scriptures, asking personal questions, expressing doubts and frustrations, and sharing experiences about religious beliefs, especially when these things are dismissed by so many people. The family provides this refuge. A functioning family can act like a figurative Petri dish where individuals can safely establish their Christian roots.

This concept has been true in my own life. I remember an experience when I was very angry at my dad. He had lost his temper. I told my mom how upset I was and, in my own child-like way, how much I wanted to take revenge on Dad. I remember that she took me into her arms and hugged me and then looked into my eyes and told me I needed to forgive Dad. At the time, it wasn’t what I wanted to hear, but I loved my mom and wanted to obey her. I did forgive my dad, and he and I have a great relationship today. I’ve remembered that experience when other people have done unkind things. But I wonder if I would have ever learned the lesson on forgiveness, a Christian belief, if my mom wouldn’t have helped me understand that.

Children and the Transcendental Experience

In the book “Witness,” Whitaker Chambers, who was once an atheist, describes an experience where he was studying his newborn daughter’s ear. Apparently, he marveled so much at what he saw that it became his starting point for rejecting atheism. There was something so astonishing about it that he couldn’t write it off to random chance.6

Many parents have reported similar feelings when they see a newborn infant come into the world. They don’t believe there is any way they could have actually created a human being on their own. Something else had to occur. So it naturally makes sense to probe deeper into things that could be considered the supernatural or transcendental. It’s little wonder then that children have been shown to be a significant factor in whether or not adults actually attend church.

On a more somber note, one of the hardest experiences a parent can face is seeing a child a pass away. It can be hard to accept the idea that someone so precious could just disappear. It’s paradoxical, but sometimes the most painful things are the same things that make us believe in a greater power.

No Surprise

In September of 1995, the leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints issued a document titled, “The Family: A Proclamation to the World.” The penultimate paragraph reads: “We warn that individuals who violate covenants of chastity, who abuse spouse or offspring, or who fail to fulfill family responsibilities will one day stand accountable before God. Further, we warn that the disintegration of the family will bring upon individuals, communities, and nations the calamities foretold by ancient and modern prophets.”7 This proclamation was published 18 years before Mary Eberstadt’s book. And it was issued long enough ago that we can look back and see how inspired it really was. Over the last 25 years the purpose and meaning of the traditional family have continued to be blurred by dangerous societal forces. It’s time to move the pendulum in the opposite direction.  It’s time to give the traditional family a second chance.

Footnotes

  1. Tad Walch, “Latter-day Saint apostle says pandemic is a ‘wake-up call’ about the fragility of religious freedom,” Deseret News, June 17, 2020
  2. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science (1882, 1887) para. 125; Walter Kauffman ed. (New York: Vintage, 1974), pp. 181-182
  3. Mary Eberstadt,”Chapter 3: Circumstantial Evidence for the “Family Factor,” Part One: The Empirical Links Among Marriage, Childbearing, and Religiosity,” in How the West really Lost God: A New Theory of Secularization (Templeton Press, 2014)
  4. Mary Eberstadt,”Chapter 3: Circumstantial Evidence for the “Family Factor,” Part One: The Empirical Links Among Marriage, Childbearing, and Religiosity,” in How the West really Lost God: A New Theory of Secularization (Templeton Press, 2014)
  5. Mary Eberstadt,”Chapter 5: Circumstantial Evidence for the “Family Factor,” Part Three: Because the “Family Factor” Explains Problems That Existing Theories of Secularization Do Not Explain─including What is Know as “American Exceptionalism,” in How the West really Lost God: A New Theory of Secularization (Templeton Press, 2014)
  6. Whittaker Chambers, Witness (Random House, 1952)
  7. THE FAMILY: A PROCLAMATION TO THE WORLD. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints