The Institute on Religion and Democracy | 8.5.15
By Alan Dowd

It’s human nature to look back upon the past as “the good old days.” But the ancient words of Ecclesiastes caution against that: “Do not say, ‘Why were the old days better than these?’ For it is not wise to ask such questions.” And besides, our memories usually fail us. My grandfather, after all, never longed to go back to the Depression-era farm he knew as a boy. My little sister, who happens to be African-American, wouldn’t want to live in the Jim Crow South. All that said, as Americans leave the past behind and march toward a postmodernPromised Land, we seem to be marginalizing—even offloading—a number of institutions that have made America a good and great nation. We might think of these institutions as pillars that serve as the supporting infrastructure of our culture. The American people didn’t invent these institutions, but enough of us participated in them—or at least respected them—that these institutions bound us together and helped steer us through history.

Let’s start with an institution that’s dominated the news lately: marriage. From the very beginning—from Genesis—marriage has been defined as the lifelong union of one man and one woman. This is the foundation of God’s plan.However, 57 percent of Americans say the definition of marriage should be changed to encompass same-sex couples. And the Supreme Court agrees, concluding this summer that “Laws excluding same-sex couples from the marriage right impose stigma and injury…it would disparage their choices and diminish their personhood to deny them this right.”

Truth be told, heterosexual couples have done more to undermine the institution of marriage in America than so-called “marriage equality advocates.” America’s divorce rate began ticking upward in the 1960s and exploded in the 1970s. More than 40 percent of first marriages end in divorce or separation today. The divorce rate peaked at 5.3 divorces per 1,000 people in 1981. Today, it’s around 3.6 per 1,000 people.

But what sounds like good news is actually a function of not-so-good news. “The number of couples who live together without marrying has increased tenfold since 1960,” an AP report concludes.

That hasn’t stopped cohabitating couples—or non-cohabitating couples, for that matter—from having children, which brings us to another institution that’s been marginalized by our culture: the nuclear family. The family is the foundation of civilization—protecting children, instilling values, promoting stability, binding one generation to another. But that foundation is crumbling. Out-of-wedlock births, which hovered in the 5-percent range in the 1940s and 1950s, began to rise rapidly in the late 1960s, passing 10 percent by 1970 and skyrocketing thereafter. Today, 40 percent of births in America are to unmarried women.

And so, a third institution—America’s school system—is expected to do what Mom and Dad and the nuclear family used to do: feed, nurture, love, protect, counsel, comfort and raise America’s kids. Given this ever-growing list of responsibilities—responsibilities that have little to do with education—it’s no surprise that our schools are failing to do what they were created to do: teach. Although Americans spend more per student per year ($15,171) than any other country, the United States ranks 28th on a key global measure of pre-college education. What’s especially telling in the context of the nuclear family is that the top five jurisdictions (Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea, Japan and Taiwan) represent cultures that revere and protect the traditional family unit.

The list of demoralized, even demonized, institutions goes on.

The free-enterprise system—the notion that hard work, initiative and creativity deserve to be rewarded rather than thwarted—was once broadly embraced by Americans as an unalloyed good. It was the common ground for rich and poor and everyone in between. Today, it’s under unprecedented assault from stifling government regulations, the devaluing of work and the destigmatizing of idleness. The number of regulations in the Federal Register has swelled from 4,369 in 1993 to 90,823 in 2014. A whopping92 million working-age Americans are not working.As The Washington Post recently reported, just 62.8 percent of Americans have a job or are actively seeking work—the lowest percentage since 1977. And 22 percent of the country receives assistance through government programs—up from 11.7 percent in the early 1960s.

As government grows, it’s no surprise civil society—that amorphous zone of space where houses of worship, businesses, charities, associations, unions and the like buffer the individual from the state—has contracted. A federalstudyreveals declines in 16 of 20 indicators of civic health, with falling rates of volunteering and decreasing levels of membership in civic organizations.

It was in the1990s that political scientist Robert Putnam began detecting and describing “the disappearance of social capital and civic engagement in America.” Membership in virtually every sort of civic group—PTAs, the Elks, Rotary Clubs, the Red Cross, labor unions, local athletic leagues—had declined by as much as 50 percent through the 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s. Putnam’s research led him to write his seminal work Bowling Alone, which served as a warning of things to come. Today, with attendance and membership in civic organizations cratering, we have traded genuine community for the faux community and manufactured connection of Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

The most important strands of civil society in America—arguably the most important of America’s institutions—were not immune from this unraveling. Places of worship have seen significant declines in regular attendance. In 1972, some 57 percent of Americans attended church weekly or monthly; 29 percent attended rarely or never. By 2010, the percentages were nearly even: 46.3 percent of Americans reported attending church weekly or monthly, and 43.5 percent reported attending rarely or never. Gallup polling reveals that 41 percent of Americans visited a place of worship weekly in 1939, 49 percent in 1959, and 39 percent in 2013. Some might conclude from this that today’s level of church attendance is the norm, but the explosive rise of the “nones”—Americans who self-identify as atheists or agnostics—suggests the percentage of churchgoers will fall even further. “Nones” make up 23 percent of the U.S. adult population today, up from 16 percent in 2007, according to Pew polling.

This marks a significant shift—and not for the better. For much of America’s history, after all, the civic life of the nation was shaped by a kind of cultural Christianity that promoted civic virtue. Alexis de Tocqueville noticed this during his trek across America in the 1830s, concluding that “there is no country in the world where the Christian religion retains a greater influence over the souls of men than in America.” He went on: “Religion in America takes no direct part in the government of society, but it must be regarded as the first of their political institutions…I do not know whether all Americans have a sincere faith in their religion—for who can search the human heart?—but I am certain that they hold it to be indispensable to the maintenance of republican institutions.”

The Founders would have agreed. Historian Isaac Kramnick notes that most of the Founders believed “religion was a crucial support of government.” In his first inaugural address, George Washington concluded, “The propitious smiles of Heaven can never be expected on a nation that disregards the eternal rules of order and right which Heaven itself has ordained.” John Adams explained, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people.” Thomas Jefferson called on the Almighty to “lead our councils to what is best.”

In short, the Founding Fathers—even the Deists among them—recognized that religion supported personal virtue, and personal virtue supported civic virtue, and together these supported institutions that promoted a healthy society of free people. We don’t have to worship on the same days or in the same ways to recognize this.

But today’s America is less influenced by, and less open to, those pillar virtues and values that undergirded the country for most of its life. If civic virtue—even a kind of cultural Christianity, in Tocqueville’s view—played a central role in the growth and development of America’s supporting institutions, the retreat of civic virtue is playing a central role in their decline. And it shows: Cultural morality is being supplanted by cultural amorality.

Ed Stetzer, a Christian writer and church planter, counters that “Christianity is not collapsing, but it is being clarified…the United States is filled with vibrant believers…Christianity in America isn’t dying, cultural Christianity is.”

That distinction is helpful and understandable from the standpoint of spiritual authenticity. But the downside of the collapse of cultural Christianity is the erosion of the values that helped underpin our secular republic. The sky is not falling, but it is certainly being rearranged.

As people of faith and as Americans—in that order—we should care about this.

To be sure, we must never put our country ahead of our faith in Jesus. As Paul reminds us, “Our citizenship is in heaven,” and so is our hope. Even so, Paul—who, it pays to recall, was a proud citizen of Rome and a humble servant of the risen Lord—describes us as “Christ’s ambassadors.”

Yes, that means we are living in a foreign land. But to extend Paul’s metaphor, it also means this country is our diplomatic posting. This piece of earth matters enough to heaven that God has placed us—posted us—here in America to speak the truth in love, to be salt and light for a world bent on decay and darkness, to care about our community and culture and country even as we keep our hearts focused on eternity.

We might be inspired by the words of theologian Richard John Neuhaus, a proud American and bold Christian who was called to his eternal home in 2009. “When I meet God,” he matter-of-factly concluded, “I expect to meet him as an American. Admittedly, that is a statement that can easily be misunderstood. It is not intended as a boast or as a claim on God’s favorable judgment. It is a simple statement of fact. Among all the things I am or have been or hope to be, I am undeniably an American. It is not the most important thing, but it is an inescapable thing.”

Neuhaus recognized, as his biographer Randy Boyagoda has written, that “every Christian is first and always a citizen of what Augustine called the heavenly and eternal City of God…that this citizenship informs how he lives in this fallen, mortal world, the City of Man” and that “God is not indifferent to the American Experiment.”

If God cares about the American Experiment, so should we.