Here is a very interesting article about the state of Christianity in America today. Thomas Kidd, who is an evangelical scholar at Baylor, promotes a version of the secularization thesis in his attempt to help us avoid religious nationalism.
To be clear, by “secularization thesis” I mean the claim that, on the whole, people are becoming less and less religious. By “religious nationalism” I mean an unhealthy blend of faith and national pride.
As I read the article, I was struck by
how bad his premises are, and
how pervasive they are in the evangelical world,
so I thought I would share these observations as a kind of intellectual antidote.
Article summary: Kidd cautions against religious nationalism (with specific cautions about Trump) by highlighting the superficiality of American religion and inconsistent politicians.
I realized that Kidd's first paragraph is a good example of the overall problem with this article, so I'm going to look at it sentence by sentence, and then offer a response.
Kidd: "In America, some of the most (apparently) devout people behave in the most secular ways."
True enough, although the "In America" seems to miss the fact that this is true literally everywhere at all times and places, or at the very least it implies that the tension between orthodoxy and orthopraxis is/was less pronounced at other times and places that in America.
Kidd: "This is not a new phenomenon—the great sociologist Will Herberg was one of the first to identify it in his classic book, Protestant-Catholic-Jew (1955)."
Wait a minute. Did Edwards not observe this in his day when he preached about "Sinners in the Hands of Angry God" and tried to enforce church discipline in a way that got him fired? Was not Whitefield observing this identical phenomenon when he railed against unregenerate ministers? Is this not the complaint of almost all preachers in all generations? Benjamin Franklin made numerous comments to this effect, as well. It may be that Herberg was among the first to assert it as a sociological phenomenon, but that does not warrant his identification as "one of the first to identify it."
Plus, while I'm eager to grant that this is not a new phenomenon, the idea that it could be identified as early as the 1950s implies that it's truly not all that old.
Kidd: "Polls in the 1950s already showed that Americans were overwhelmingly religious, but they often seemed to know little about the faith they affirmed."
The word "already" is troubling, because it again implies that people used to be religious AND know a lot about the faith the affirm, but now they are religious and know very little about their faith. Paired with the word "Americans", the implication is very clear: this phenomenon of a "hollowed out faith" was not happening elsewhere.
The first major problem with the claim that this is a recent phenomenon (through the word "already"), is that we have no way of knowing exactly how new it is because mass opinion polling is itself a recent phenomenon.
The second big problem is that, when we attempt to discover what Christian faith and depth was like at other times and places, we turn up some very depressing results. For example, once the Reformation was underway in NW Europe, bishops went around to inspect local progress, and they kept excellent reports. They reported things like this in Germany:
In Saxony: ‘In some villages one could not find a single person who knew the ten Commandments.’ In Brandenburg: ‘A random group of men was . . . asked how they understood each of the ten Commandments, but we found many who could give no answer at all . . . [N] one of them thought it a sin to get dead drunk and curse using the name of God.’ In Notenstein: parishioners ‘including church elders, could remember none of the ten Commandments’. In Salzliebenhalle: no one knows ‘who their redeemer and savior is’. In Nuremberg: many ‘could not name Good Friday as the day of the year when Jesus died’. (Quoted in Rodney Stark's, Reformation Myths: Five Centuries Of Misconceptions And (Some) Misfortunes (Kindle Locations 172-176). SPCK. Kindle Edition.)
Gerald Strauss (1922-2006), the historian who sifted through the German records, remarked that, "I have selected only such instances as could be multiplied a hundredfold."
Here's another report from England:
When the Bishop of Gloucester systematically tested Church of England diocesan clergy in 1551, of 311 pastors, 171 could not repeat the Ten Commandments, and 27 did not know the author of the Lord’s Prayer. (Quoted in Ibid., Kindle Locations 189-191).
Granted, these accounts are anecdotal and they predate modern statistical sociological studies. But the problem with Kidd's claims is that they are based on equally anecdotal evidence, yet they are presented as verified truth.
Historians have an enormous problem, which has only begun to be acknowledged in the last 40 years or so, since Kahneman and Tversky demonstrated the radical selectivity of the human mind and its insufficiency when faced with the tasks of objective event reconstruction and decision-making. (Their work so revolutionized the way we understand how humans act and had such enormous ramifications for our understanding of economics, that Kahneman was later Awarded a Nobel Prize in Economics (Tversky had died already).)
The fact is, human memory is not designed to create an accurate, objective depiction of the past. It is designed to give an adequate, pliable reconstruction of the past, for the purpose of playing out different scenarios and formulating ideas about how to act in the future (see Kahneman, Thinking Fast and Slow, Seligman et al., Homo Prospectus). In this regard, our minds are spectacular!
The negative side of our memory is called "hindsight bias", which is what happens when we reconstruct a simple chain of events leading up to a truly complex outcome in such a way as to allow ourselves to believe that we "saw it coming" (or conversely that we "should have seen it coming"), and thus fool ourselves into believing that we were/are smarter than we actually are (or stupider, in the latter scenario). This kind of reconstruction leaves us over-confident about our ability to understand events in the present and what they will bring about in the future.
Hindsight bias gets really sticky when it comes to actually recording history, because we are all inclined to recreate events in a way that justifies our own mode of existence, and as a result we frequently screen out the obvious and focus on things that allow us not to make changes to ourselves. This is why there is a lot of truth to the claim that "the winners write history." It could be said more realistically that unless a historian is depressed or self-loathing, he/she will always write history so at to make him/herself into a winner.
A classic example of hindsight bias in church history is the so-called "Great Awakening" of 1739-1742. It has long been known that the "Awakening" coincided almost exactly with George Whitefield's first full-scale revival tour of the colonies, but the causality involved was obscured for two reasons: 1. Whitefield (like every good Christian) did not want to attribute the sudden popular interest in Christianity to himself, but to God; 2. other, less-effective preachers (like every loser) also did not want to attribute the incredible success to Whitefield (because that would imply that IF THEY DID THINGS DIFFERENTLY, THEY TOO COULD "WIN" LIKE WHITEFIELD WON), but to God.
With all parties involved attributing the success of Whitefield's revivals solely to God, and talking about the "Surprising work of God" as Jonathan Edwards did in terms that make it sounds totally magical, is it any wonder that the "Awakening" did not continue long after Whitefield left town, or that historians today still regard it as an inexplicable, quasi-magical event? And so to this day we are told of the strange, inexplicable things that happened in those years in colonial America.
In reality, Whitefield worked like a dog and promoted his events like an aggressive salesman. He used new media (widespread newspapers) in innovative ways, preached like lively play-actors unlike his monotone coreligionists (e.g. Edwards), and who was condemned by man of his more traditional contemporaries as a shameless "peddler in divinity". The people in his day marveled at his success, but nobody wanted to actually do things like Whitefield so they wrote him out of his own revival, and instead called it an inexplicable "Great Awakening".
This is hindsight bias at it's finest! To top it all off, the people who wrote the story this way probably had as little notion that they were doing it as you and I do when we remember a chain of unpredictable events as though we could see it coming all along.
To go back to Kidd, I have serious reservations about his ability to keep his own hindsight bias (and the biases of others) in check. Too much of this short article is a regurgitation of truisms and platitudes that are demonstrably false.
Kidd is prolific, smart, and articulate, but he uncritically regurgitates the "secularization thesis" that says everyone used to believe, and now nobody believes. In my opinion this position is one of the best ways to keep evangelicals from doing what they're good at (and what they're supposed to do) - namely, evangelism - because it reinforces the message that:
religion is on the way out,
they cannot replicate their past successes,
and the most promising course of action for successful cultural engagement is to become more moderate.