The prophet Jeremiah gave the following message to those who would be exiled from their land:
[S]eek the peace of the city whither I have caused you to be carried away captives, and pray unto the Lord for it: for in the peace thereof shall ye have peace. (Jeremiah 29:7
This post by Russell Moore has a great many things wrong with it, but one of the central things wrong with it is that Moore does not understand that we should seek the peace of the city in which God has placed us.
But before I get started on the many strikes against Russell Moore's post, let me mention one possibly true thing he was trying to get at that could have been said better. As it happens, it has been said better here by Ed Stetzer. That is simply that the recent Pew survey results have been confusingly reported, cum misplaced glee, by the MSM and that they should not be taken to signal the demise of Christianity in America.
Stetzer actually has an argument for his thesis that the majority of the demise in self-identified Christians between 2007 and 2014 came from those previously nominally Christian rather than deeply committed. He argues as follows:
--A different survey (Gallup) shows that weekly religious attendance as a percentage of population has remained remarkably stable.
--The absolute number of evangelicals in the U.S. is growing, according to the Pew survey.
--The percentage of evangelicals in the population dropped very little, according to the Pew survey. (Stetzer says mistakenly "nine percentage points" when he should say "nine tenths of a percent.")
--When the phrase "or born again" is thrown into the mix, the percentage of Americans who self-identify as "evangelical or born again" actually went up by about 1% in the same time period during which the overall number of self-identified Christians was dropping.
Stetzer makes an interesting case. It appears that Catholicism and mainline Protestantism have sustained the biggest drop in self-identified members during this time period, and unfortunately there is the "cradle Catholic" phenomenon to be contended with there, not to mention the nominal Christians in the mainline Protestant denominations.
So Stetzer may well be right that what the survey shows, for the most part, is people shifting from being nominal Christians to being self-identified as atheist, agnostic, or nothing in particular.
That being said, Moore is not satisfied with making this statement. Nor is he satisfied with making this statement and then saying that some good may come of the situation. He does much more, and much worse.
[T]he number of Americans who identify as Christians has reached an all-time low, and is falling. I think this is perhaps bad news for America, but it is good news for the church.
Christianity isn’t normal anymore, and that’s good news. The Book of Acts, like the Gospels before it, shows us that the Christianity thrives when it is, as Kierkegaard put it, a sign of contradiction.
Moore starts right off on the wrong foot (first quotation) by making a false dichotomy between what is bad news for America and what is good news for the church. The entire post will follow the same trend: Hey, America may be going to hell in a handbasket, but that's actually good for the church, don't you know, because it will clarify things, or make Christians stronger and more sincere, or weed out the Pharisees, or something. Let America go to hell in a handbasket. The church will emerge better off than ever before.
This is pernicious foolishness, and it is unbiblical to boot. Scripture never countenances this sort of contrast, not to say clash, between the good, just, moral, stable society and the good of the people of God. To the contrary. The message from Jeremiah was that the good of the city in which the people of God dwell conduces to the good of the people of God. Nor is this connection merely an Old Testament phenomenon. In a similar vein, St. Paul writes,
I exhort therefore, that, first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men; For kings, and for all that are in authority; that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty. For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour; Who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth. (I Timothy 2:1-4)
Paul says that we are to pray for those in authority so that we (Christians) may lead a quiet and peaceable life. God may and often does bring good out of persecution, but, contra Moore's implication in his reference to the book of Acts, by no means does Paul imply that we should therefore pray for persecution! From the historical fact that Christianity grew originally under conditions of persecution it by no means follows that we should prefer a society in which Christianity is despised and persecuted.
God may bring good out of societal collapse, but by no means does that mean that we should welcome "bad news for America." Notice, too, how seamlessly the Apostle Paul moves from praying for those in authority to desire for the peace of the church to God's desire for the salvation of souls! Here is no implication that souls are more likely to be saved out of a debauched, corrupt, violent society. (More on that later.)
The lead editor of the report tells The New York Times that secularization—mainly in terms of those who identify as “nones” or with no specific religious affiliation—isn’t isolated to the progressive Northeast and Pacific Northwest. He notes, “The change is taking place all over, including the Bible Belt.”
This is precisely what several of us have been saying for years. Bible Belt near-Christianity is teetering. I say let it fall. For much of the twentieth century, especially in the South and parts of the Midwest, one had to at least claim to be a Christian to be “normal.” During the Cold War, that meant distinguishing oneself from atheistic Communism. At other times, it has meant seeing churchgoing as a way to be seen as a good parent, a good neighbor, and a regular person. It took courage to be an atheist, because explicit unbelief meant social marginalization. Rising rates of secularization, along with individualism, means that those days are over—and good riddance to them.
Again, this means some bad things for the American social compact. In the Bible Belt of, say, the 1940s, there were people who didn’t, for example, divorce, even though they wanted out of their marriages. In many of these cases, the motive wasn’t obedience to Jesus’ command on marriage but instead because they knew that a divorce would marginalize them from their communities. In that sense, their “traditional family values” were motivated by the same thing that motivated the religious leaders who rejected Jesus—fear of being “put out of the synagogue.” Now, to be sure, that kept some children in intact families. But that’s hardly revival.
(Notice how many paragraphs I quoted there. By all means go and read the whole thing. I have no doubt that Moore's passionate defenders will say that I am "cherry-picking" or "taking him out of context." On the contrary, the context is part of the problem!)
So Moore is gloating over the fall of muddle-headed but not fully-committed self-identified Christianity. "Let it fall!" he cries with glee. "Good riddance to those days!" Better for people to say that they are atheists or have no religious affiliation than for them to say that they are Christians if they aren't, in Moore's view, real, deeply committed Christians.
Then he momentarily admits that this is actually bad for American society, and he instances rising divorce rates. But he has an answer to that, too: The people long ago who didn't divorce because of social pressure were not-divorcing (a sort of hypocritical non-act-act, he implies) for the wrong reasons. They weren't refraining from divorce because they loved Jesus, so...er...something.
So, what, precisely, Dr. Moore? So it would have been better if they had identified themselves as non-Christians and gotten a divorce? That would be just a pietistic version of what free thinkers and progressives said long ago while attacking marriage, only their god was romantic Love. They said that it was hypocritical to remain married if you didn't really do it because you love each other, so better to divorce if you "want out of your marriage." Moore skates very close indeed to implying that it is hypocritical to remain married if you don't do it because you love Jesus, so better to divorce if you "want out of your marriage" and aren't staying in it for the purest of religious motives. No, he doesn't quite come out and say that (and I'm sure his defenders will become apoplectic that I am "putting words in his mouth"), but it is extremely difficult to interpret in any other way his shouts of "Let it fall!" and "Good riddance!" followed by this very example with its unpleasant insinuations that everybody who refrained from divorce even in part as a result of social pressure was just a Pharisee whose self-restraint was without any spiritual value.
Moore pauses in his flight to damn with faint praise: The pressure not to divorce kept some children in intact families, but that, he sniffs, was "hardly revival."
What, then? Is revival the only thing worth striving for or valuing? For that matter, are we closer to revival in a land of rampant divorce and rising numbers of self-identified atheists?
Again, pernicious nonsense.
Secularization in America means that we have fewer incognito atheists. Those who don’t believe can say so—and still find spouses, get jobs, volunteer with the PTA, and even run for office. This is good news because the kind of “Christianity” that is a means to an end—even if that end is “traditional family values”—is what J. Gresham Machen rightly called “liberalism,” and it is an entirely different religion from the apostolic faith handed down by Jesus Christ.
Either way, a Christianity that reflects its culture, whether that culture is Smith College or NASCAR, only lasts as long as it is useful to its host. That’s because it’s, at root, idolatry, and people turn from their idols when they stop sending rain.
"Incognito atheists." What a cool phrase! My tablets! My stylus! Gotta get that one down before it goes!
But is it really accurate, even if we accept Stetzer's interpretation of the recent Pew report, to characterize nominal Christians in general as atheists?
Even at the most basic, propositional level, obviously not. There is no doubt that most nominal Christians are not atheists at all. They probably believe in the existence of God, for example. Their religion may be a silly form of "therapeutic deism," but that just ain't the same thing as atheism, and it doesn't help our clarity of thinking to call it "incognito atheism."
Beyond that, both here and in the previously quoted paragraphs we see Moore's simplistic approach to that complex thing called human nature. Moore fails to show an understanding of what real people are like and of the multifaceted ways in which God works in the human spirit. According to Moore's dashing metaphors, either you are totally committed to the Lord Jesus Christ and do everything (e.g., staying in an unhappy marriage) entirely for the love of Christ or else you are an incognito atheist, a Pharisee, and an idolater. (I gather Moore's motto is, "If you're going to mix metaphors, mix them boldly.")
But that isn't what real human beings are like. Every single human being is a mixture of motives, some higher, some lower, and it simply is not true that everything that is not done for the purest motives is bad, debased, and idolatrous. Nowhere in the entire Bible do we find this sort of white-hot, pietistic over-simplification. On the contrary, the entirety of Israelite culture was deliberately built on the principle of putting social pressure on people to conform to the Law of God. When Paul tells the Corinthians to cut off fellowship with the man who is having a sexual relationship with his father's wife (I Corinthians 5), he obviously intends that the social pressure will help to bring the man both to repentance and to right behavior. When parents raise their children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, they are constantly applying the tools of social approval and disapproval (at that smallest level of society--the family) to influence and to teach. The razor-sharp distinction Moore wants to draw between social influences to do the right thing and pure religious motives simply does not exist, and it doesn't look like God ever intended it to exist.
We do not have more atheists in America. We have more honest atheists in America. Again, that’s good news. The gospel comes to sinners, not to the righteous. It is easier to speak a gospel to the lost than it is to speak a gospel to the kind-of-saved. And what those honest atheists grapple with, is what every sinner grapples with, burdened consciences that point to judgment. Our calling is to bear witness.
We don’t have Mayberry anymore, if we ever did. Good. Mayberry leads to hell just as surely as Gomorrah does. But Christianity didn’t come from Mayberry in the first place, but from a Roman Empire hostile to the core to the idea of a crucified and resurrected Messiah.
To return to the previous point, Moore does not actually know that we don't have more atheists in America. It actually looks like we do, and there is a strong suspicion of unfalsifiability in Moore's declamations. Apparently no matter what the statistics say, Moore is going to declare that we don't have more atheists in America, because all the people calling themselves atheists now would have been atheists anyway, only dishonest. How he knows this I can't imagine.
But even worse than that is Moore's starry-eyed portrayal in these paragraphs of deeply conflicted, conscience-haunted, ripe-for-the-gospel atheists. For smug complacency and inoculation to the gospel, an atheist can beat all the denizens of Mayberry put together, and all the more so in the Internet age. The biblical phrase "hardness of heart" might have been made for most of the atheists of our own day and age. And a few other biblical phrases, too, like "given over to a reprobate mind." Sin makes you stupid, and the more people are encouraged to identify their freedom to sin with their very selves, the more their minds will be darkened, their eyes blinded, and their hearts turned away from the Word of God. Moore is a fool if he thinks that we are better off even in terms of the effectiveness of evangelism confronting a country filled with out-and-proud atheists rather than with nominal Christians.
To be sure, the nominal Christian often creates his own barriers to evangelization, and anyone raised Baptist, as I was, has heard about those barriers from his mother's knee: Such a person may believe he is a Christian when he has no real commitment to Christ. He may believe that he will go to heaven merely because he is a nice person. He may not recognize his need for forgiveness of sins. He may need some disastrous personal tragedy to jar him into acknowledging his need for a real relationship with God.
All this is true, or at least may be in particular cases. On the other hand (there's that complexity of human nature again), some nominal Christians gradually recognize their need for a deeper commitment. Some hear a sermon and are inspired. Some are brought to salvation by the influence of a friend. Some draw nigh unto God through the deepening maturity that comes through parenthood or through the natural trials of old age. And so on and so forth.
And several of those barriers set up by the nominal Christian can be found in the atheist in spades. Does an atheist recognize his need of divine forgiveness? Does an atheist think that he deserves to go to hell? Merely stating that you don't believe in God does not make you noble because you are so "honest." Indeed, atheism often involves a great deal of intellectual dodging and weaving to get around the evidence for Christianity.
And then we come to this howler, of a piece with the rest of the post:
Mayberry leads to hell just as surely as Gomorrah does.
To which I answer firmly, even in some (hopefully righteous) anger: No, Dr. Moore, it does not.
In Gomorrah, they slaughter infants in the womb in their millions, pressure the doctors to stifle their consciences and participate, and teach everyone that this is a woman's right.
In Gomorrah, they pretend to turn little boys into little girls and little girls into little boys.
In Gomorrah, they take the infant hands of the children from the time they are able to toddle and carefully walk them down the road to hell until they are old enough to think that this is the only normal way and to walk it of their own will.
In Gomorrah, if any happen to escape the indoctrinators at younger ages and make it to college while still headed for heaven, the wolves circle round with blandishments, bribery, and bullying to head them off into the wide road that leads to destruction.
In Gomorrah, the number and weight of the millstones needed to hang about the necks of those who cause the little ones to stumble is so great that a mountain would be insufficient to provide the raw materials.
I defy Moore or anyone else to find similar, true things to say about "Mayberry," or the society it stands for. Imperfect, yes, but I daresay if you looked hard enough you could even find fifty righteous men.
No, Mayberry does not lead to hell as surely as does Gomorrah.
Again, Moore's approach here is unbiblical. The Bible tells us that we are to abhor that which is evil and cleave to that which is good. (Romans 12:9) The Bible says to examine all things carefully and to hold fast to that which is good. (I Thessalonians 5:21) The Bible says to think on those things which are pure and of good report and that have virtue. (Philippians 4:8) But Moore, in his sneering derogation of what he calls the "almost Christianity" of the "Bible belt" and "Mayberry," apparently in the name of some strange notion of theological purity, instead drags down what is good to the level of what is evil.
The theology on display here is seriously misguided and could with some fairness be called a form of Manichaeism. The things of this world, including those culture war issues that make Gomorrah what it is, are treated as existing in a sealed box where they do not touch the purely spiritual issue of "being saved." The attacks on nature, the subversion of conscience, the pressure to conform to all manner of evil, the careful training in calling evil good, the drive to approve of and even participate in the murder of the helpless, the predatory nature of pornography, the full acceptance of divorce--all of this Moore tacitly treats as if it couldn't possibly damn anyone's immortal soul to hell. Hence he can dismiss the relative absence of these things in an older version of our society and the pressure in that society to live in a way that is (as it happens) more in conformity with the will of God as nothing better than a backdrop for bourgeois smugness and hell-bound Phariseeism and cry, "Good riddance to those days!"
All sincere Christians want to declare triumphantly that all will be well in the end. The Bible certainly does tell us that all things will be put under the feet of Jesus Christ and that God will be all in all. The Bible also tells us that the gates of hell will not prevail against Christ's church. But reaching that conclusion by deprecating the good of the city and saying "Good" about the destruction of our surrounding society is dangerously foolish. It saps the will of God's people to fight for and cleave to what is good. It encourages millenials in their contempt for the virtues of their parents and in an arrogant certainty that the virtuous old men they knew were really just hypocrites. It blinds the eyes of Christians to many ways in which the prince of this world seeks to devour the souls of men.
Jesus Christ leads his church onward through the night by ways we cannot see. But at this point, I'm afraid he is leading it despite the influence of Russell Moore rather than because of it.