Not long ago, we reported a landscape change in American politics. People who self-identify as non-religious now make up the largest bloc of registered voters in America.
This means, politically speaking, non-religious people are the largest religious group in the United States. This, according to data from the Pew Research Center, is a first for a presidential election year.
Since 2008, those with “no religion” grew from 14 to 21 percent—which puts them just past Catholics and white evangelicals, both at 20 percent. Not surprisingly, this increase of non-religious voters correlates to a decrease in the importance people see of religion in American public life—most famously, the rise of the so-called “nones.”
This no doubt means a lot of different things. At least one of those is that Christianity’s influence on culture won’t happen in a voting booth. We can make the case—and it’s a strong one—that this has always been the case. But now that reality is clearer than ever.
This runs contrary to a strong impulse during the past 20 or 30 years for Christian cultural engagement to take an (almost) exclusively political form. An America in which legislation isn’t a plausible way to influence culture will—finally—force Christians to rethink how their faith works out in public.
For North American Christians of the 20th and 21st centuries, this new landscape is all but unprecedented. But that doesn’t mean we should bemoan this shift.
“I don’t even think it’s a bad thing that Christians might not be the majority,” pastor and best-selling author Rick Warren told me recently. “Because we’ve never been a majority in any culture, except the last 150 years in America.”
Christianity and Majority Religion
A couple of weeks ago, I talked about all of this with Warren. As you probably already know, Warren is author of the international bestseller The Purpose-Driven Life and senior pastor of Saddleback Church—one of the largest churches in the United States.
Anyone who follows him knows Warren generally avoids politics. You won’t hear him endorsing a candidate. But he’s far from being a stranger in the political arena. In 2008, he prayed at the inauguration of President Barack Obama, only four years after he did the same for President George W. Bush. He’s hosted presidential candidates at certain events, and he’s received the backlash that comes from that kind of thing. Basically, he knows what he’s talking about.
Generally speaking, the American political scene considered about 25 percent of Americans were “evangelical” with another 25 percent considered Catholic. So, of course, if a candidate or movement could attract the faith-based crowd, you could get a majority. But, according to Warren, the whole idea of Christians being a cultural or even religious majority was overblown in the first place.
“They were cultural evangelicals or cultural Catholics or cultural Baptists or cultural charismatics or whatever,” said Warren, talking about the so-called Christian voter base. “And, their voting and their beliefs were not really attached.”
They were cultural Christians and little more.
Warren thinks Christians need to “look farther back.” He talked about how Christianity grew faster and more rapidly in its first 300 years than in any other time, and he attributes this growth to three things:
1. “It was against the law to be a Christian. You were more likely to be crucified by the Romans.”
2. “There were no church buildings. There were no church buildings in the first 300 years of the church. People met in homes. … In those things where it wasn’t culturally advantageous to be a Christian, that’s when Christianity survived—and not only survived but thrived.”
3. “As the plague and some of those diseases began to fill the urban areas, people began to leave the cities, and Christians moved into the urban areas to care for the dying. That’s where the phrase ‘See how they love one another’ began to show.”
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