‘The future belongs to crowds’[i]: The rise of American ‘civil religion’

The 1647 Massachusetts Colony “Old Deluder Satan Act” required communities with more than 100 families or householders to establish grammar schools. Colony leaders saw the grammar schools as a means to ensure children acquired the basic literacy skills that would enable them to gain knowledge of the scriptures and thereby “confound the devil.”[i]

As time progressed, the United States public education system inculcated an historic patriotic-religious admixture reenforced to varying degrees through legal, social and societal structures and norms, including church affiliation and attendance throughout the nation., which remained strong until a few decades ago.[ii]

In terms of a harbinger, however, the U.S. Supreme ruled in 1943 students cannot be forced to salute and pledge allegiance to the U.S. flag. [iii] Some 19 years later, the high  court  rejected school officials’ sanctioned prayer and devotional Bible-readings. [iv]

Harvest Time Church of God

Rise of the ‘

The contemporary iteration of the Christian Charismatic Movement,  which shares some faith similarities with Pentecostalism, [v] occurred in 1960. [vi] Evangelical Churches had a strong emergence in the 1970s. In fact, the 1976 U.S. presidential election was termed “the year of the Evangelical.”[vii] (“Evangelicalism” is a term encompassing wide swaths of Christian belief and practices. [viii])

Eventually, some conservative Fundamental Christian churches,[ix] along with consenting Evangelical churches and branches or “breakaway” bodies of mainline churches, embraced conservative politics to “right” societal leanings or movements seen as affronts to these churches’ Biblical understandings or of social issues, especially abortion access, which the U.S. Supreme Court “legalized” in 1973, forming an easy alliance with the Roman Catholic Church to promote “pro-life” legislation.

Despite expectations by their leaders, neither movement  nor flourishing mega-churches, largely an outgrowth of Evangelicalism, staunched decline in church attendance.   Moreover, during the past several decades, pollsters document a steady rise in those persons who don’t identify with traditional religious affiliation – so-called “nones” [x] with a concomitant increase in personalized or individualized Christian beliefs, meaning one identifies as Christian without bona fides of organized faith practice or assembly – culturally Christian. [xi]

This development leads some researchers and pundits to conclude new groupings of Evangelicals are emerging, although a New York Times account includes reporters’ interviews of  persons saying they had lapsed in regular church attendance. [xii]

Comparisons with Europe  prove “jagged”

The fancy to compare developments in U.S. Christianity to  European Christianity, especially in terms of  Church attendance, is a jagged proposition primarily  because the U.S. is not Europe.

The United States’s religious experience includes an often-articulated desire for one to practice his or her religion – or no religious practice – without governmental cooption, although legislative bodies and courts prescribe lawful boundaries that respect largely  judicially-articulated church/state entanglements. [xiii]

Another difference: Wars and struggles between nation/city states, provinces, empires and monarchies emerged in wake of the Protestant Reformation. Historically, European soil is soaked with blood[xiv] from myriad revolutions, wars, including two World Wars, pogroms, genocides, the Nazi Holocaust, state-induced famines, ethnic, religious and cultural strife, leading European intellectuals and not a few political leaders to become fed up with God and Christianity,[xv] although churches remain open and Europeans embrace Christian practices such as baptism often desiring church  weddings and funerals. [xvi]

American religious expression, unfettering itself from state-supported churches in the early days of the nation, prompts religious diversity. Most importantly, however,  American soil, while soaked with the blood of the American Revolution, the War of 1812, Mexican-American War (Battle of San Jacinto near Houston) and the  American Civil War, warded off direct invasion by enemy forces during both World Wars, although Wake Island, Guam and the Aleutian Campaign in WWII  may “qualify,” according to some historians.” [xvii]

Civil religion and cumulative effects

Are we at a place where U.S. Christian “identity” is embraced decidedly  by traditional church affiliation wherein Christians are admonished to “not neglect to meet together” (Hebrews 10:25) as well as civil religion trappings, including:

  • Governmental invocations and benedictions, which may include representatives of other faiths;
  • Displays of Christian faith adherence by athletes, celebrities and other influencers;
  • Legislative enactment of bills requiring display of national religious mottos in public places;
  • Continued church affiliation/attendance by Christians whose expressions of faith may include emphasis on ministries to address social issues or to advance societal justice causes, which attract brigades of volunteers?

(More to the point: Has “Christian identity” always been a pliant term open to one’s self-definition or practice or non-practice, including civil religion emphases? To what degree should this be the ‘lead’ question?  Many  persons of other faith  expressions may contend Christian faith fares well, despite internecine conflicts,  in informing governmental policy, mores and customs in West Virginia and the United States.)

Loss of Biblical Literacy

In other words, U.S. Christianity, if ‘admitting’ greater recognition of civil Christian religion and if church attendance continues its precipitous decline which Gallup notes at 30 percent, [xviii] what might be the cumulative generational effect in terms of U.S. society, culture, politics, arts? How does diminished Biblical Literacy[xix] – see term in the Endnote –  bode for the nation in terms of societal response to complex social issues or questions? Will a potential void in Biblical grounding make some Americans susceptible to rhetoric and demagoguery by who bear tidings from a ‘Gospel’ of their making, including social media influencers, technocrats, politicians or political leaders? Or, has this always been the case with, perhaps, social media reliance being the predictive arbiter?[xx]

No matter, today’s Christian expression occurs in a world that may, unfortunately, lack peace or stability because of the rise of competing global powers, nationalism, myriad geopolitical pacts and reliance on war, fear, panic, terrorism, prompting the question whether the Age of Enlightenment is closing.[xxi]  Has the sky fallen for  some peoples?

“Is The truth today the truth tomorrow”

Moreover, voices generationally removed from  20th Century World Wars, the Nazi Holocaust, state repression throughout the world, nuclear threats and atrocities may decline conventional U.S. interpretations of these events, which begs the question: “Is the truth today the truth tomorrow?” [xxii] We may need to get used to newer historical thought interpretations along with entrepreneurial, “crowd,” spectacle politics, the notion “Summer of Love” politics and bipartisanship may be DOA in halls of government; and the rise of the sentiment only  entrepreneurial political leadership will steer us to calmer seas by displacing traditional or past government stances or alliances?

Bluntly put, these developments may be evolutionary but their import is intensified by the nation’s divided politics.

While historical precedent is no guarantee,  these developments could occur intensify through political  populism – perhaps a “safety valve” [xxiii]until settled times occur, allowing the electorate to determine policy outcomes, based on today’s emergent trajectory – no assurance everyone is pleased.

Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has” [xxiv]– that is by thinking globally, acting locally, let’s ensure a world emerges with largess of personal freedom, liberty and the pursuit of justice.

That world is within reach.

[i]https://web.csulb.edu/colleges/cla/projects/EM/smdeluder.html#:~:text=The%201647%20legislation%20known%20as,children%20to%20read%20and%20write (Contains complete text.)

[ii] https://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED592601

[iii] West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624 (1943) / https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/319/624/#:~:text=Barnette%2C%20319%20U.S.%20624%20(1943)&text=Students%20may%20not%20be%20required,contrary%20to%20their%20religious%20beliefs.

[iv] https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/engel_v._vitale_(1962)#:~:text=Primary%20tabs-,Engel%20v.,was%20increasingly%20pluralistic%20and%20secular / Engel v. Vitale (1962) Also refer to School District of Abington Township, Pennsylvania v. Schempp (1963) / https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/school_district_of_abington_township_pennsylvania_v_schempp_(1963)#:~:text=Primary%20tabs-,School%20District%20of%20Abington%20Township%2C%20Pennsylvania%20v.,Clause%20of%20the%20First%20Amendment.

[v] Difference Between Charismatic and Pentecostal | Christian.net

[vi]1960 Charismatic Movement – BEAUTIFUL FEETBEAUTIFUL FEET (romans1015.com)

[vii] https://www.kubookstore.com/Election-of-the-Evangelical-Carter-Ford-and-the-Presidential-Contest-of-1976?quantity=1

[viii]  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evangelicalism

[ix] https://www.britannica.com/topic/Christian-fundamentalism

[x] Religious ‘Nones’ in America: Who They Are and What They Believe | Pew Research Center (Some researcher consider the term pejorative.)

[xi] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cultural_Christians#:~:text=Cultural%20Christians%20are%20the%20nonreligious,practicing%20believers%20as%20nominal%20Christians (Most definitions are polemic.)

[xii] https://www.nytimes.com/2024/01/08/us/politics/donald-trump-evangelicals-iowa.html (May require subscription)

[xiii] https://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/abs/10.1086/486494?journalCode=jr#:~:text=To%20Alexis%20de%20Tocqueville%20religion,French%20official%20was%20everywhere%20apparent.

[xiv] https://www.growlikegrandad.co.uk/allotment/soil-nutrients/bone-meal-gruesome-fairy-tale-fertiliser.html

[xv] God’s Funeral: The Decline of Faith in Western Civilization /  January 1, 1999 by A. N. Wilson (Author) https://www.amazon.com/Gods-Funeral-N-Wilson/dp/B0017ZK4NU (Critics contend Wilson’s book focuses on Great Britain.)

[xvi] https://www.salon.com/2016/11/27/europe-is-not-a-secular-paradise-and-americans-should-be-careful-when-embracing-this-myth/

[xvii] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Invasion_of_the_United_States#:~:text=The%20Aleutian%20Islands%20campaign%20in,the%20use%20of%20fire%20balloons.

[xviii] https://news.gallup.com/poll/642548/church-attendance-declined-religious-groups.aspx#:~:text=A%20decade%20ago%2C%20the%20figure,do%20not%20attend%20services%20regularly.

[xix] Bible Literacy and Bible Fluency, Explained | The Biblical Mind (hebraicthought.org) (Comprehensive definition) Also refer to What is Biblical Fluency? – Spirit & Truth Publishing (spiritandtruthpublishing.com) Hard to secure a non-polemic definition

[xx] Consider ‘Elmer Gantry?’ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elmer_Gantry_(film).

[xxi] https://yalebooks.yale.edu/2018/07/02/what-happened-to-enlightenment/ Some scholars contend Enlightenment ended with the French Revolution or use other dates. Also refer to The End of History /https://www.jstor.org/stable/24027184

[xxii] Quoted in New York Times (may require) subscription / https://www.nytimes.com/2024/05/27/opinion/brat-pack-andrew-mccarthy.html#:~:text=We%20had%20become%20the%20avatars,but%20perhaps%20now%20I%20do.

[xxiii] Safety Valve Theory | The Free Speech Center (mtsu.edu) Also refer to Why Populism in America is a Double-Edged Sword | HISTORY

[xxiv] Considered one of Mead’s best quotations. Mead (1901-1978), U.S. cultural anthropologist who featured frequently as an author and speaker in the mass media during the 1960s and the 1970s. She earned her bachelor’s degree at Barnard College of Columbia University and her M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from Columbia. Several sources, including https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/search?q=margaret+mead#:~:text=%E2%80%9CNever%20doubt%20that%20a%20small,only%20thing%20that%20ever%20has.%E2%80%9D&text=%E2%80%9CChildren%20must%20be%20taught%20how,%2C%20not%20what%20to%20think.%E2%80%9D&text=%E2%80%9CI%20was%20wise%20enough%20never,people%20into%20believing%20I%20had.%E2%80%9D

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