The United States has always been the world’s leading religious marketplace. Even before independence, the American colonies were more fervently Protestant than any country in Europe. The Pilgrim Fathers turned Massachusetts into a witch-hunting Calvinist theocracy, and no sooner had Puritan power begun to wane than New England was seized by a ‘Great Awakening’ in which vast crowds declared their faith in Jesus with hysterical enthusiasm.
But it was the Founding Fathers’ decision to deregulate religion completely that really set America apart from the Old World. In successive ‘awakenings’ lasting well into the 20th century, thousands of sects sprang up, some barely Christian but all of them 100 percent American. Catholics arrived in their millions and, picking up a few tricks from the Protestants, created a national church so prosperous that the Vatican became pathetically dependent on it for money. Meanwhile, Pentecostalism turbocharged the faith of poor white and black evangelicals with ‘gifts of the spirit’.
Sober suburban congregations flourished, too. Churchgoing and material prosperity peaked together after World War Two, making a nonsense of academic theories about religion as a resource of the downtrodden. Christian morale was dented by Vietnam and economic recession but bounced back with Reagan. At the end of the 20th century, 40 percent of Americans were regular churchgoers, more than twice the British percentage. It seemed that Christianity was part of America’s DNA and if Europeans didn’t understand that — well, that was their problem.
And now, suddenly, in this devastating election year of 2020, Americans are waking up to the reality that four centuries of Christian flourishing have come to an end. Instead of one of those ‘awakenings’ that periodically jolted their faith back to life, Americans are caught up in a Great Unraveling.
The latest statistics gathered by the Pew Research Center are shocking. Between 2009 and 2019, the number of American adults describing themselves as Christians fell from 77 percent to 65 percent. Meanwhile, the number of atheists, agnostics and ‘nothing in particular’ rose from 17 to 26 percent.
This European-style decline has been on the horizon for some time, but this is the year in which it has hit home. Politicians and the media are only interested in religious demographics once every four years, when they try to work out how Christians will vote. This is the first election in which the data indicate that American Christianity is imploding.
The state of American Christianity doesn’t tell us much about what will happen in November, however. On the other hand, this election tells us a lot about the looming collapse of American Christianity. Each of the four candidates represents a different strand of the Great Unraveling, and that includes the only passionate Christian among them, Mike Pence.
Let’s begin with Trump. While the 45th president’s personal eccentricities put everyone else’s in the shade, his Christianity is in some ways the most conventional. He’s a nominal Presbyterian who doesn’t believe much and only shows up at church when he has to. As a child he attended the Marble Collegiate church on Fifth Avenue and married his first wife, Ivana, there. At the time, its pastor was Dr Norman Vincent Peale, author of The Power of Positive Thinking, a self-help bestseller that teaches readers how to pray their way to prosperity. Peale’s brand of spiritual narcissism could have been tailor-made for Trump, but presidents Eisenhower and Nixon were also fans. The latter, raised a Quaker, had scarcely any religious beliefs as an adult; when he was living in New York and needed to be seen in church, Marble Collegiate’s almost doctrine-free services were an obvious choice.
In other words, Donald Trump’s reduction of religion to civic playacting is nothing new: he’s just more shameless than Nixon. When he was elected, evangelicals seized desperately on the notion that he was a ‘baby Christian’, on the verge of being born again. Imagine their faces when Trump, attending his first National Prayer Breakfast as president, gloatingly asked for prayers for Arnold Schwarzenegger, who had sent the ratings of The Apprentice ‘right down the tubes’ when he took over from Trump as presenter.
Marble Collegiate now performs same-sex wedding ceremonies. That wouldn’t bother Trump. During his last presidential campaign, he said he opposed gay marriage. Now he says he’s ‘fine with it’. He was certainly fine with it back in 2005, when he described Elton John’s civil partnership with David Furnish as ‘a marriage [sic] that’s going to work’.
Trump’s relaxed attitude to homosexuality isn’t unusual for a 74-year-old American businessman. Millions of people his age hold far more liberal views on gay rights and other issues than they once did. Unlike their parents, they’re not racists. They think of white nationalists as paranoid losers — a view almost certainly shared by Trump, even if he is happy to send the odd dog whistle in their direction.
These unexcitable Protestant Christians like the idea of regular churchgoing, so long as they’re not required to spoil family barbecues by loudly declaring that Jesus is their Personal Savior. They cherish the family Bible, but it’s not exactly well thumbed. (When Donald Trump was put on the spot on live television about his favorite Bible verse, he explained that ‘I don’t want to get into specifics because it’s too personal’.) On the other hand, they have no problem identifying as conservatives because ‘liberal’ for them has come to represent woke thought police, Black Lives Matter rioters and the opening of US borders to criminals and welfare scroungers.
The crucial point is that these millions of Christian voters can no longer find churches that reflect their attitudes and anxieties. They can’t identify with the evangelicals’ obsession with sexual purity, and the mainstream Protestant churches just strike them as spineless, especially right now. Conservative Catholics feel the same way about their own bishops. They had nothing inspiring to say during the COVID pandemic and retreated into cowardly platitudes when antifa mobs moved from defacing statues to trying to burn down whole cities.
The key word here is cowardly. These older Christians, culturally fairly conservative and socially fairly liberal, increasingly think of church leaders as no better than politicians. Both groups have lost their once distinctive voices: everything they say is a feeble reaction to the latest media obsession. The Democrats, in particular, are beginning to look like marionettes whose strings are being operated by the far left.
Which brings us to Joe Biden, the only politician still in public life who was first elected to Congress by large numbers of people born in the 19th century. That was almost 50 years ago, since when he’s had plenty of time to explain how he reconciles his Catholicism with his public support for abortion. The former vice president is serious about his faith: he likes going to Mass and he has turned to the Rosary during a series of horrible family tragedies. But whether that faith can truly be described as Catholic is open to question, since his position on reproductive rights keeps ‘evolving’ away from Church teaching.
He’s not alone in this: Sen. Tim Kaine, Hillary Clinton’s running mate, moved from voting to restrict abortions when he was governor of Virginia to what Planned Parenthood called a ‘perfect voting record’ in the Senate. Biden, meanwhile, has reached a point where he actually seems comfortable with late-term abortions. A Biden administration would not only support the easing of restrictions on abortion up to birth; it would also probably back Kamala Harris’s plan to use executive authority to strike down any state laws that restrict abortion.
The ever-widening boundaries of what pro-abortion Catholic Democrats can get away with without serious censure from the US bishops speaks volumes about the enfeebled state of the once-mighty American Catholic Church. Since Biden entered Congress in 1973, the percentage of Catholics who go to Mass on Sundays has fallen from 50 percent to around 35 percent — and most of that decline has happened since the early years of this century. The percentage of Protestants attending church, meanwhile, has remained stable — though that’s not exactly good news when you consider that the number of Americans identifying as Protestant has fallen from 51 to 43 percent since 2009.
The crisis in American Catholicism is inseparable from the clerical abuse scandals. Together they explain the suddenness of the falling-off in Mass attendance over the past decade. It’s clear that the national hierarchy is grotesquely compromised, having sanctioned endlessly devious attempts to cover up abuse. We now know that, incredibly, the US bishops’ major response to the crisis, its 2002 Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, was drawn up by Cardinal Theodore McCarrick at the same time as he was vigorously abusing young seminarians at his beach house on the Jersey Shore. Many of his fellow bishops knew about the beach house; McCarrick’s successor, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, was caught lying about it and was forced to resign his see.
All of which leaves the US bishops with precious little moral authority with which to challenge Biden’s support for virtual infanticide. Pious conservative Catholics recognize this and it troubles them. But even more disturbing, from their point of view, is the suspicion that some left-leaning bishops don’t want to challenge him.
There’s growing evidence that certain Catholic bishops, even cardinals, hold views similar to those of Biden, Kaine and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, another ‘devout Catholic’ with a soft spot for Planned Parenthood. Leading liberal Catholics, whether members of Congress or the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, take it for granted that only Democrats can secure ‘social justice’. If that means that the decision to end the life of a child in the womb is left up to the woman and ‘counselors’ employed by the abortion industry, then they’re not exactly thrilled — but they’re not going to say anything that might provide ammunition for the Republican party.
This attitude — best exemplified by Cardinal Blase Cupich, a liberal careerist parachuted into Chicago by Pope Francis — represents a radical, if disguised, retreat from the Vatican’s teaching on the sanctity of life. But it’s not exactly new. Its roots go back to the 1980s, when liberal Catholics started stretching the definition of ‘sanctity of life’ in order to oppose almost any Republican policy proposal. And it was at this point that Mike Pence left the Catholic Church.
The Vice President’s spiritual odyssey throws a fascinating light on the shrinking landscape of American Christianity. Pence is fervently pro-life and passionately opposed to the LGBT lobby; Trump teases him about his strong views. Conservative Catholics admire him for his ‘Christian witness’ and prefer not to dwell on the fact that this Bible-thumping Protestant is a former Catholic altar boy who considered becoming a priest. When Pence entered Hanover College, a liberal arts college in southern Indiana, he was a scrupulous Mass-goer. By the time he left he was well on his way to becoming what he is now, an evangelical Protestant allied to historically anti-Catholic institutions.
An earlier generation of Catholics would have regarded Pence’s embrace of heresy with as much horror as Biden’s support for abortion. In turning his back on the Church and its sacraments, he technically committed what’s known as a ‘reserved sin’ — one so serious that, should he wish to rejoin the Church, only a bishop would have the authority to grant him absolution.
These days it’s off-limits for discussion among Republican Catholics. Now is not the time to raise the subject, they say. And they have a point, because — to put it bluntly — Joe Biden has dementia and, if elected, will quickly be succeeded by his running mate. And for conservative Christians of all denominations that is, or should be, a terrifying prospect.
Kamala Harris, the 55-year-old junior senator from California, was born to a Jamaican immigrant father and an Indian mother. She was raised as a liberal Protestant — she still identifies as a ‘Black Baptist’ — but also attended Hindu services; her husband is Jewish and the media love to talk about the ‘multi-faith heritage she brings to the table’. What she’s really bringing, however, is a hard-edged secularism that is fast becoming the default ‘religion’ of Americans born after 1981, less than half of whom describe themselves as Christians.
And in Harris’s case it really is secularism, not a super-liberal brand of Protestantism. In a recent article in National Review, Alexandra DeSanctis described her as ‘without question the most radically pro-abortion candidate to run for president or vice president in the history of our country’, a politician with ‘frightening’ authoritarian instincts.
As president, Harris would use executive power to strike down state laws that restrict abortion. The ‘conscience rights’ of Americans opposed to funding initiatives that go against their religious beliefs would be swept away, violating — or at least rendering meaningless — the First Amendment’s ruling that Congress shall make no law ‘prohibiting the free exercise’ of religion. We had a taste of this in 2018, when Harris subjected Brian Buescher, a Catholic federal judicial nominee who had joined the Knights of Columbus as a teenager, to a surreally nasty line of questioning. Was he aware at the time he joined, she asked him, that America’s largest charitable organization for Catholic laymen (two million members, 138 years old) ‘opposed a woman’s right to choose’?
A Harris presidency would seek to banish Christianity from public life for the first time — something only made possible, of course, by the demographic trends that have already eviscerated it. Biden’s running mate is the candidate of the great unraveling. And yet, ironically, there is more than a hint of religious zeal in the way she attacks conservative Christians, especially Catholics, who dare to challenge the strict creed of identity politics.
Exactly 400 years ago, the Plymouth Covenant of 1620 condemned the townsfolk of Massachusetts to decades of official snooping; of precisely formulated ideological formulae from which they departed at their peril. Then came the witchfinders. If Biden wins in November, and is quickly ushered out of the Oval Office by his vice president, the witch-hunting season will resume. This time the victims will be devout Christians, perhaps especially Catholics — and it’s worth remembering that being a Catholic was a dangerous thing to be in the godly Commonwealth of Massachusetts: priests faced execution if they persisted in making converts. Kamala Harris may subscribe to a fanatically secularist worldview, but in one sense, at least, she is planning to bring the history of American religion full circle.
This article is in The Spectator’s October 2020 US edition.