A few months ago CNN presented Lady Gaga and Alexandria Occasio-Cortez as the future of American Christian belief. I’m not a fan of either but they are talented ladies and I’m happy they have found some transcendence in their lives. But CNN is wrong; their religious belief is not the religion of the future.
A repeated claim made on this blog is that every few years journalists write stories celebrating “a new generation of Christian thinkers” questioning old doctrines like Biblical Inerrancy or some aspect of sexual morality as if it has never happened before, when in fact it has happened in every generation going back to colonial times, which is exactly what CNN is doing here. This celebrated new religion is called “liberal Christianity”. It is as old as the Enlightenment itself.
Liberal Christianity is in fact America’s official religion. It is the religious default to which Americans always turn. Theology departments in America’s Ivy League Universities teach liberal Christianity; to find them teaching anything else you would have to go back to the early 1700s. It was the religious belief of most of the Founding Fathers. It was the religious belief of both sides of the Civil War. It is the form of Christian belief that is celebrated in the media, and the form of Christian belief embraced by most of the wealthy and powerful who call themselves Christian. Other forms of religious belief like Pentecostalism, traditional Calvinism or Catholicism are typically either the religion of the underclass or so thoroughly liberalized that they become indistinguishable from mainline churches.
So why does the media always act like this 350-year-old established American religion is “new”? It is becasue America is a creature of Radical Protestantism and the Enlightenment. Radical Protestantism, whether the doctrines preached are liberal or conservative, is an attempt to build the church in a vacuum without regard for its history or organic structures. Radical Protestantism exists in an eternal “now”, every generation must recreate it.
As for the Enlightenment, it makes us conceive of history in terms of progress, which means the past was always evil but the future always better, because of the inevitable and unlimited processes of human reason. To recognize that the myth of progress is actually a few centuries old, and that unspeakable crimes both against man and nature are routinely committed in the service of this myth, is almost impossible for the Enlightenment mind to grasp. The Enlightenment too takes place in an eternal “now”.
As a result American religious thought exists in a fugue state, always awaking each day to relive a variation of same argument it had yesterday, but with no memory of it.
I am pretty pessimistic about the future of the Church in America. If I have one hope that faith will survive it is that we Americans have been reading stupid articles like the ones above since the days of Johnathan Edwards, which means there is a good chance we will be reading them a century or two from now.
Though if you want to know what the future of Christianity looks like on a global level you would probably do well to look outside of the United States to Africa or East Asia.