By Yolanda Pierce, Ph.D.,
The headlines concerning the latest numbers of the changing American religious landscape are sensationalist: apparently Christianity in America is facing a decline and America is “notably” less Christian. The idea of Christianity’s decline in America has been a recurrent theme for at least the past 50 years and the headlines reflect the fear that many in the Christian community have for “dwindling” numbers. But the headlines are wrong on at least two counts: this is not and has never been a Christian nation; and the religious landscape has always been more diverse than the numbers have suggested.
When we claim the United States as a Christian nation, we ignore the fact that its laws, policies, history, and origins have always stood contrary to the values of love. A nation founded on deliberate genocide and enslavement is not a nation that has Christian love as its bedrock. The greatest command – to love God with all one’s heart and to love one’s neighbor as oneself – was never the foundation of this nation’s ethos.
Our claim of America as a “Christian nation” ignores the richness of indigenous spirituality and cosmologies that were thriving before the arrival of Europeans to the shores of North America. The many nations of people who inhabited these shores had were religious people with faith practices – North America was not merely a blank slate onto which Christianity could write itself.
And finally, our claim of the United States as a Christian nation ignores the spiritual and religious diversity that also arrived with European colonization and slavery. As early as the 17th century, practicing Jews and Muslims were living, creating communities, and establishing houses of worship in North America. Simply because the dominant voice of Christianity steered the national discourse does not mean that these communities did not exist and thrive as early as early as the founding of this nation.
What the Pew data does tell us is that declining numbers of Americans self-identify as Christians. Fewer people know or understand themselves as Christians or want to be known by such a label. As a Christian myself, I greet this news with open arms. I am not worried, threatened, or at all concerned about this pattern of fewer and fewer people identifying themselves as Christians. Instead, I see this is an important opportunity, perhaps even a kairos moment.
As the numbers decline…maybe those who remain self-identified Christians will have a deeper understanding of their faith. They will embrace the fullness of being a Christian and not just adopt the term as a convenient cultural marker
As the numbers decline…maybe those who remain self-identified Christians will take the word “Christian” more seriously and not equate it with simply being an “American.”
As the numbers decline…maybe the numbers of Christian need to decline so that a more robust and genuine faith can evolve without Christianity itself.
Perhaps we need fewer self-identified Christians and far more followers of Christ.
Perhaps we need fewer self-identified Christians and far more lovers of justice, mercy, and righteousness.
Perhaps we need much less civil religion, often couched in American patriotism, and far more theologically sound doctrine focused on the lost and the “least of these.”
I am convinced that Christianity needs more disciples, not members. We need more lovers of God, not pew sitters. We need more agents of mercy, not church boards.
As the numbers of self-identified Christians decline, perhaps what will emerge will be an actual reflection of the kingdom of God: those committed in both word and in deed to walk humbly, act justly, and love mercy. As the numbers decline, perhaps those who identify as Christians in the United States will be shaken from their comfort and slumber and rise up to tend to the business at hand: loving God and loving each other.