Moreover, behind this vague tendency to treat religion as a side issue in modern life, there exists a strong body of opinion that is actively hostile to Christianity and that regards the destruction of positive religion as absolutely necessary to the advance of modern culture.
Christopher Dawson, Author
My church, a mainline Protestant denomination, has experienced a 40% fall off in worship attendance in the 21st century and we are far from unique. The Pastor shrugs, and mutters something about too many distractions in our modern age and concentrates on keeping a shrinking budget in line with day to day needs.
Funny, the Sunday morning drive to church is about as un-rush hour as it gets. Where are all these distractions located anyway? Conventional wisdom along with a list of ecclesiastical excuses says we are too busy for religion. Doing what? Watching bloody special effect TV? Playing thumb hockey on our electronic alter egos?
This is not a preachy admonition about going to church and salvation. Rather, it is a look at a culture with diminished religious influence and the impact on all of us, churched and unchurched alike; the rude and crude of what passes for culture and all of its discordant sounds and unbridled permissiveness.
While churches provide opportunities for their members to serve the community, the spiritual aspect of religion is no longer relevant to that community at large. Let me explain. People have an innate desire to serve others as exemplified by the Boulder Atheists whose organization collects community needs and opportunities for service much the same way as churches function. When it comes to the spiritual aspects of churches, not so much. In the fifties and before, everyone was expected to have a faith affiliation whether or not they attended on any Sunday outside of Christmas and Easter, but that would be an awkward question to ask someone you just met now.
The usual excuse of people who stop going to church is that “we’re too busy or just too tired to get up Sunday morning. We’ve had a hectic week.” “Future Shock” by Alvin Toffler is about a lifetime of “hectic weeks” brought on by progress and “accelerative thrusts”. First published in 1970, it seems to say that invention is the mother of necessity; that is, as we develop new tools and toys, all sorts of new kinds of coping and behavioral modifications are thrust on us and faith practice is no longer an essential activity in a jam packed schedule. Hence the “distractions” referred to above.
Taking a look at Encyclopedia Britannica’s list of important inventions from 4,000 BC to the present reveals that more inventions were recorded between 1800 and 1900 than from 1900 to 2000. So if 19th century industrialization didn’t create future shock, what is special about 1970? The answer is, that ‘future shock’ or whatever you want to label our current culture, had nothing to do with invention of the pacemaker, respirator, satellites, ultrasound, hand held calculators, MRI or the internet and the world wide web that made Britannica’s list from 1950 on.
There are two, unrelated, events that account for our changing culture.
A Truncated Century
I recall a trip to my grandfather’s farm in rural Illinois as a youngster looking out the window at a field with tents pitched as far as the eye could see. In answer to my “what’s that”, I was told that it was the Civilian Conservation Corps, a depression era government make work project for the millions of unemployed.
My father was 25 and three years out of college when the stock market crashed in 1929. Ten plus years of the Great Depression was ended by World War II and by the time the U.S. economy was fully re-jiggered to make cars instead of tanks, it was 1949 and dad was 45 years old. While he was gainfully employed through all of this, the kinds of opportunities we are accustomed to in our most energetic prime years were simply not available to him.
The decade of the fifties was filled with optimism as war hero, general Dwight David Eisenhower began his eight years as U.S. President. Plastics was the IT of the time and sleek new cars with gaudy chrome, tail fins and 450 HP plus engines were housed in the attached garages of new ranch style houses. “Ike”, as the president was affectionately called, gave congress a federal budget of 79 billion dollars his last year in office which included money to start the interstate highway system.
General Electric’s slogan, “Progress is our most important product” summed up the ebullient attitude which prevailed among the population. Far from exerting pressures leading to “future shock”, progress was the fulfillment of dreams for millions of hard working American families who had been deprived too long. ‘Peace and Prosperity’ was the slogan of the decade.
And Then Came the 60’s
Like a clap of thunder announcing the arrival of a spring storm came 1960 right on schedule. The flowering of liberal governance with John F. Kennedy and his ‘New Frontier’ followed by Lyndon Johnson’s ‘Great Society’ preached their gospel to a population growing with young people who were too young to have learned the hard lessons of the thirties and forties. These ‘baby boomers’ were raised by indulgent parents who wanted a better life for them than they had. ‘Do your own thing’ became the morality code of the decade.
The ‘Stormy Sixties’ brought us the civil rights act and the Vietnam War with greatly inflated budget demands fostered by indulgent politicians looking to lock up dependent voting blocs in inner cities. Churches saw their memberships grow as they actively participated in the march toward an end to racial discrimination, culminating in the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The Subsiding Seventies
Church attendance hit a mid-century peak from 1957 to 1964 and then began to decline as the civil rights fervor settled in to implementation of the legislation. In his book, Bad Religion, author Ross Douthat examines the churches’ choice between accommodation with the changing culture and resistance in support of orthodoxy.
In the chapter, “Accommodation”, he writes, “In the end, neither approach reaped the fruits that its adherents promised. But the forces of accommodation gained the upper hand first. They had the cultural wind at their back in ways the resisters never did. In terms of intellectual clout and institutional power, the 1960’s and 1970’s were their decades. Yet these were precisely the years of Christianity’s most dramatic decline.”
At the same time, liberalism was becoming more doctrinaire in their devotion to the state. The Establishment Clause of the constitution says that congress shall make no laws respecting the establishment of religion. In 1947, the U.S. Supreme Court extended that restriction to public bodies other than congress in Everson v. Board of Education and since then, organizations like the ACLU have used that to prevent public exposure to religious symbols on any public land.
Diminished Religion and Our Culture
If art and what passes for 21st century art, TV and movies, reflects the culture, then this is the century of the profane. Violence and sex amplified by special effects and liberal use of the seven deadly words have replaced the skills of story lines, dialogue, acting and directing. PC (Political Correctness) has replaced PC (Polite Conversation).
Freedom of expression goes to the loudest, especially on college campuses, and respect has become a four letter word.
Writing in, “The Catholic Thing”, July 2015, George J. Marlin reviews thoughts expressed by
Christopher Dawson in his book, “Understanding Europe” published in 1952.
He writes, “After the Second World War, Dawson detected a new generation of neo-pagans leading “a revolt against the moral process of Western culture and the dethronement of the individual conscience from its dominant position at the heart of the cultural process.
“Dawson foretold that the cult of state would become the religion of the contemporary world and that a hierarchic, bureaucratic state would “stand above and apart from the citizen body.” That all powerful, managerial state would also deny citizens’ fundamental rights and liberties that come from the hand of God.”
Marlin continues, “To recover Christian culture, Dawson called on Christians to rise up and break the secularist’s control of education. Education of our youth, he argued, is crucial, because it is the “process by which the new members of a community are initiated into its way of life and thought from the simplest elements of behavior or manners up to the highest tradition of spiritual wisdom.”
What Difference Does It Make?
Oscar Wilde said, “Life imitates art far more than art imitates life”. Rude, crude and lewd did not simply arrive through some kind of natural cultural evolution. Behavior is a symptom of what society teaches us and the curriculum is taught in the home, in schools, in scout organizations, Sunday school and any place that young people gather.
The question becomes, what informs this curriculum? For the first 203 years after the adoption of the U.S. Constitution, behavior norms were consistent with religious teachings – the Golden Rule and the Ten Commandments among others. G.K. Chesterton said, “when we stop believing in God, we don’t believe in nothing, we believe in anything.”
You don’t need to be a regular church goer or even believe in God to benefit from a culture that
- Creates the expectation of receiving smiles instead of scowls
- Treats people with respect, especially you, your wife, children, mother and father and others close to you.
- Makes an extended helping hand readily available when needed.
- Values discretion over gossip
- Gives you confidence that friends are true and truth is expected
There are things you can do
- Treat others the way you want to be treated (The Golden Rule)
- Choose wisely when you vote and take time to understand what they stand for. We are in the middle of a governing philosophy that degrades the gentle nature of mankind.
- Think before you speak – especially about others.
- Be tolerant of people with persuasions different from yours.
“It doesn’t matter what tradition you come from, what religion you have or don’t, what culture you were brought up in or what God you ascribe to: Faith is worthwhile as it helps us to be kinder, more generous, more loving and forgiving people.” Charity Sunshine Tillemann-Dick, a soprano, composer and presenter. A recipient of two double lung transplants, she speaks and performs frequently at concerts, conferences and events around the United States.