by Rod D. Martin
December 24, 2004
As Christmas approaches, media pundits still can’t get over the results of the Newsweek poll about faith in America.
A vast majority of Americans not only call themselves Christians, but embrace what C.S. Lewis called “Mere Christianity”: the key doctrines of the faith.
Now this is hardly news of the “stop-the-presses” kind. For years polls have shown over 90% of Americans both believe in God and that Christ really lived. Indeed, these beliefs have routinely been discounted as nominal, reflecting little either meaningful or deep.
But the Newsweek poll paints a very different picture.
82% of Americans believe that Jesus was and is both God and the Son of God, a very specific Trinitarian point. More significant still, 79% believe that Christ was born of a virgin, without a human father.
This is a very specific confession, one implying acceptance of virtually the full range of Christian orthodoxy, including God’s existence, omnipotence and providential provision for salvation.
Indeed, 67% believe every detail of the Biblical account of Christmas, and 55% believe the truth of every word of the Bible. And belief in God’s sovereign creation of the world is so widespread that 60% of Americans favor the teaching of creation science in addition to evolution in public schools, and fully 40% favor teaching creationinstead of evolution.
The American people are and always have been an overwhelmingly Christian people, who take their faith more seriously than any other people in the developed world. That the picture of America we generally see seems very different is less the reality and more a reflection of the longtime cultural dominance of a small, radical minority.
It is, of course, no surprise that that extremist elite should be surprised by the Newsweek poll. There has rarely been a ruling class as out-of-touch with ordinary people since France’s Bourbons.
What truly is surprising, though, is how at odds these polls are with the longtime perceptions of millions of American evangelicals. Indeed, for the better part of a century, most evangelicals have been painting an unrelentingly bleak portrait of religion and culture in America.
After the Scopes monkey trial in the 1920s, and after the liberal takeover of most of mainline Protestantism, literally millions of evangelicals pulled out of American political and cultural life. In so doing they produced a self-fulfilling prophecy. By pulling retreating from the culture en masse, and by inculcating their biases to their children, evangelicals rendered themselves irrelevant, and left America at the mercy of the coming storms of the Woodstock generation.
Yet even during the days of flower power and the “God-is-dead” movement, most Americans outside of Greenwich Village, Berkeley, Harvard and CBS continued to embrace traditional Christianity, even those who remained in liberal mainline denominations.
Now that doesn’t mean the ’60s cultural revolution didn’t impact America and American Christians.
Of course it did. Profoundly.
Millions of baby boomers who believed Christianity’s creeds threw off moral restraints practically overnight; many of them continue to do so, and have passed that on to their children. Indeed, for a time it seemed that America was teetering on the brink of moral collapse.
Yet that didn’t happen.
Alone among the western democracies, America not only recovered from the 1960s, but began experiencing spiritual renewal in the years that followed, within that same boomer generation that had triggered moral revolution in the first place. And beginning in the 1980s, AWOL evangelicals — still muttering about America’s inevitable collapse — began reporting for political and cultural duty for the first time in half a century.
And then, a funny thing happened on the way to America’s demise: everything got better, across the board.
Abortion rates: dropping. Unwed pregnancies: lower. Violent crime: falling dramatically. Teen drug use: down each year for a decade straight. Teen chastity rates: at levels not seen since the early 1960s. Liberal church attendance: crashing. Conservative church attendance: soaring.
And who predicted and chronicled these signs of increasing moral and spiritual health in America?
Periodicals in Middle America? Evangelical leaders? Hal Lindsey?
Two neoconservative publications in New York City, one run by Richard John Neuhaus, a Catholic priest, the other by Norman Podhoretz, an ex-liberal Jew.
Writing in First Things, Neuhaus continually highlighted the goodness of America and its people, not with maudlin words, but with facts and figures.
And in Commentary Magazine, Podhoretz showcased many writers whose findings indicated the same trend.
They had more faith in America’s heartland, it seemed, than those who were in it. And time has borne them out.
It’s long past time for evangelicals to take the Newsweek poll to heart, as well as the signs that American culture is getting better, not worse. There is an entire nation out there which needs discipling, not hand-wringing, and especially not self-righteous superiority. Because no one can doubt that a certain amount of the writing-off of America is inspired by a “we’re better than them” mentality in certain quarters of the church, and it is as unbecoming now as it was in the Pharisees of old.
For the sake of every American who wants this nation to remain what it’s always been — a bastion of freedom against the totalitarian impulse — Christians must recognize the blessings God has bestowed, both human and material; and having realized our actual and potential strength, show our countrymen in humility and love a way that truly is better. That is our calling this Christmas, and beyond.