It is hard to predict contingent historical events, because there is so much we can’t know, and a few things we might be able to know but don’t really want to admit.
The first way to make a prediction is to project trends into the future. If phenomena ‘X’ is on an upward curve, then we project that curve indefinitely, when there may be no reason for the curve to in fact do that. Just because the roulette wheel comes up “red” three times in a row does not mean that there is not a 50/50 chance that the next time it will be black.
The second method is to create a model of known variables, often with fancy statistical tools, and to use that to project weighted scenarios. This method is more sophisticated, but 1) you can’t know if you have exhausted all the variables or have chosen the correct statistical tool and 2) your models are just models. You are not predicting the future, just exploring scenarios.
There is a third sort of predicting method which does not have a name. It is a matter of looking at the philosophical principles animating social movements and then applying those principles on larger scale. Sometimes it is quite precise, other times it is just slippery slope hysterics. The problem is you can’t tell the difference between the two until history plays itself out.
Wishful thinking and paranoia influence all methods.
So, caveats having be issued, what is the future of American Christianity in the 21st century?
Here is one prediction I’ve made before: the future of Christianity in America is going to be like that of Jews for most of their history. It will be a ghetto culture. I don’t think I am paranoid in saying that, it has simply been my experience since I was about eleven or so that I can either live my faith (in my admittedly half-assed manner) or live like everyone else.
Now, let me flesh this out with a few details. All of these scenarios are subject to the limitations I outlined above.
- Numbers of self-described Christians will drop dramatically. Politically this means the end of the Christian right that existed from about 1980, Reagan’s election, to about 2010, the last hurrah of the Tea Party. Get ready for the rise of the post-Christian right, which will be a rather ugly affair of drug-addled, white-grievance mongers demanding government handouts along the lines of the European right. Some elements of the post-Christian right will explicitly call themselves Christian, the term more or less meaning “dumb redneck who is not discernibly Christian in any way”.
- More and more Christians will adopt a quasi-Amish attitude towards technology. (The Amish, by the way, will continue to thrive.) Skepticism about technology, especially regarding entertainment and social media, will become a Christian trait. There will be theological debates about medicine and how long a Christian should want to preserve his life or his youth. Preferring to age naturally will become another Christian trait.
- There are going to be specifically “Christian” professions, and they will be of the yeoman sort. No one is going to care very much what a machinist or shop keeper thinks about, say, gender issues, but they will expect a corporate executive or mid-level manager to worship at the altar of Bruce Jenner’s severed penis or whatever other ritual of conformance will be demanded of public companies. Finance, medicine, law, government, education, corporate or military careers will not be options. There will be a very high proportion of church-going Christians who own their own businesses, but those businesses will be small.
- Christian homeschooling networks and small, low-budget “classical schools” will remain and probably even grow. The public schools will continue to deteriorate, churning out legions of paranoid, fragile, illiterate narcissists. At the end of the day, the bureaucrats and politicians in charge of public education will still need private schools for their own kids, and will therefore not do more than threaten Christian schools. Many hipsters will embrace their own version of homeschooling in order to not subject their kids to government schools and there will be less stigma attached to it.
- Christian higher education however will not survive. No Jesuit or Methodist University when offered the choice between pleasing the world and pleasing God will ever chose the latter. Smaller Christian colleges like Hillsdale or TAC will be harassed, sued, and fined into folding. This will accelerate the process of Christians ending up in yeoman careers rather than professional ones. There will however be informal versions of higher-education studies for things like theology or sacred music, probably to the benefit of both disciplines.
- Because of the nature of Christian business and Christian education there will be Christian neighborhoods, much as there are Jewish neighborhoods to this day.
- The infrastructure that the Catholic Church built with such sacrifice in the 19th and 20th centuries will no longer exist. The self-sufficient monastery, not the parish, will become the point of focus for Catholic life.
- Among Christians the subculture will be thick and nourishing, but sometimes suffocating. Exogamy, that is, marrying outside of the recognizably Christian network, will be strongly discouraged. Attrition will still be a fact of life, plenty of young people will simply opt out as they reach maturity. Defacto shunning will become a problem. Numbers however will stabilize thanks to high birthrates.
- The ethnic division between black and white Christianity will remain, but it will not be the abyss that it is today. More protestant congregations will become mixed.
- Religious con-men will become more common in some denominations but at least they will be denied TV access. There will be hair-brained millennial movements, but these will quickly burn out the way they always have. In general people will settle into to realizing that they are in it for the long haul, that they are attempting to build a community that will weather the centuries, and that the Kingdom of God is not built by human hands.