By / Jun 22

In her brilliant book, Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life, Zena Hitz writes that true education involves “a reaching out past the surface, a questioning of appearances, a longing for more than is evident.” Her contention contrasts with modern conceptions of education that see the goal as absorbing correct opinions and dictating to students the predetermined correct interpretation.

Thomas S. Kidd’s new biography of Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Jefferson: A Biography of Spirit and Flesh, models the kind of intellectual exploration Hitz celebrates. There is perhaps no more controversial figure from American history than Thomas Jefferson, our nation’s third president and the author of America’s most cherished document, the Declaration of Independence. Kidd succeeds in revealing the complexity of this enigmatic man by, on the one hand, refusing to bypass his moral deficiencies, while, on the other hand, elucidating his intellectual genius and unmatched contributions to America’s political formation. As a result, Kidd’s biography takes readers, perhaps more successfully than any previous attempt, into the inner life of the “sage of Monticello.”

Just like Disney and the COVID-19 pandemic, the telling of history has been unable to evade the forces of politicization. On one side, we are told that figures like Jefferson are anathema and that their contributions should be deleted from the pages of history books because of their obvious moral failures. On the other side, such figures are placed on pedestals and celebrated as heroes with their mistakes fully whitewashed. Kidd wisely avoids both extremes in his biography, which serves as a “narrative of Jefferson’s moral universe more than a traditional biography” (3).

Through Kidd’s close examination of Jefferson’s inner life and corresponding actions, a picture emerges of a man with many contradictions. How could the same man write one of the most compelling arguments for universal human freedom in history while holding slaves in bondage for the entirety of his life? How could the same man champion frugality as a republican virtue, yet pursue luxury to the degree that his entire adult life was lived under a dark cloud of suffocating debt? How could one so skeptical of dogmatic religious assertions call himself a Christian and remain a lifelong reader of the Bible?

The central dilemma in Jefferson’s moral universe

Of course, perhaps the greatest enigma—and one that Kidd treats in depth—involves Jefferson’s sexual relationship with his slave (and half-sister of his deceased wife), Sally Hemings. Kidd’s discussion of Hemings occurs in several places throughout the book, and he calls the affair “arguably the central dilemma in Jefferson’s moral universe” (89). Hemings was inherited by Jefferson upon the death of his father-in-law and was herself the progeny of a sexual affair between master and slave.

Jefferson’s affair with Hemings began in France after Sally served as travel companion for Jefferson’s young daughter Polly in 1787. By this time, Jefferson had been a bachelor for nearly five years after the tragic death of his wife from complications following childbirth. Jefferson apparently promised her he would not remarry. While Jefferson would never speak openly about the affair, it became the source of public speculation and scorn during Jefferson’s many political battles. 

Kidd deftly examines Jefferson’s letters from Paris around the time of the affair to find clues but ultimately concludes that we have no direct evidence concerning the precise nature of their relationship. Jefferson envisioned himself in the style of the biblical patriarchs, ruling over his estate and slaves at Monticello, and followed that lifestyle even in his sexual habits. Sally Hemings would bear six of Jefferson’s children. Her son would later write that she was hesitant to return from Paris to the life of a slave in America but relented when Jefferson promised certain privileges and vowed to free her children when they reached the age of 21.

Sally herself was not mentioned in Jefferson’s will, even though he did emancipate two of her children presumably in keeping with his promise to her. Jefferson likely left her name out of his will to avoid political scandal. Nevertheless, she was informally freed at Jefferson’s death and formally emancipated five years later by Jefferson’s daughter.

Despite expressing early opposition to slavery, Jefferson never expended political capital to end the wicked institution and maintained negative views of Black people as a race throughout his life. In old age, Jefferson wrote against emancipation on the grounds that free Blacks’ “amalgamation with other colour produces a degradation to which no lover of his country, no lover of excellence in the human character can innocently consent” (195). As Kidd points out, it’s hard to imagine how any man could reconcile such sentiments with his own contradictory actions. But again, we see in Jefferson a man of many enigmatic contradictions. 

Jefferson and the question of religion

What are we to make of Jefferson’s own religious faith? Kidd concludes that Jefferson was a Unitarian. He denied the Trinity, cut out most of the miraculous stories for his infamous cut-and-paste Bible, and despised esoteric conversations on matters of theological doctrine. But he maintained a lifelong belief in a Creator God who providentially ruled the universe and held the teachings of Jesus in high esteem. 

Jefferson’s writings are filled with references to God’s guiding providence, and Jefferson even appealed to God in prayer. He based the Declaration of Independence on the Christian doctrine of creation and adorned the walls of Monticello with French paintings of biblical scenes. He sent his daughter Patsy to Catholic school in France while they were living there during his diplomatic mission and preferred the spiritual temperament of America to the apathetic luxury of Europe. But these words and actions must not lead to Jefferson’s christening; to him, Jesus was a man—the most excellent one—but just a man all the same. 

Further, Jefferson was reared in a context informed by the Bible, and Jefferson himself knew the Bible better than many Christians today. Kidd masterfully recognizes scriptural allusions in Jefferson’s writings and points out how Jefferson and the other founders envisioned themselves repeating biblical and classical scenes from history on the new American stage (29).

But Jefferson’s most intense religious passions were reserved for his political convictions. Kidd deftly points out many instances of Jefferson applying biblical imagery to political happenings. The Age of Revolutions was, for Jefferson, a new creation. His Federalist political opponents were deemed “heretics” because of their longings for monarchical ways. The victory of republican liberty in America was a sure sign of God’s providential hand guiding history toward its climactic end. In Jefferson, we see already the seeds of that tendency to conflate America’s political actions positively with God’s actions in the world. 

In conclusion, Kidd’s biography leaves no stone unturned in examining the inner life of America’s third president. Jefferson’s legacy has loomed large since America’s inception, and Kidd’s deep dive into Jefferson’s moral and religious universe will aid readers who want to understand this brilliant man of confusing contradictions. 

By / Jul 9

A new survey on American religion finds that the percentage of Christians has stabilized, after falling for two decades.

The survey, called the 2020 Census of American Religion, finds that 7 in 10 Americans (70%) identify as Christian, including more than 4 in 10 who identify as white Christian and more than one-quarter who identify as Christians of color. Christians of color include Hispanic Catholics (8%), Black Protestants (7%), Hispanic Protestants (4%), other Protestants of color (4%), and other Catholics of color (2%). Nearly 1 in 4 Americans (23%) are religiously unaffiliated, and 5% identify with non-Christian religions.

The largest religious demographic are those who identify as white and Christian. More than 4 in 10 Americans (44%) identify as white Christian, including white evangelical Protestants (14%), white mainline Protestants (16%), and white Catholics (12%). Black Americans are also mostly Christian (72%). More than 6 in 10 (63%) are Protestant, including 35% who identify as evangelical and 28% who identify as non-evangelical Protestants.  Three in 4 Hispanic Americans (76%) also identify as Christian, and half (50%) are Catholic. About 1 in 4 (24%) identify as Protestant, including 14% who say they are evangelical and 10% who identify as non-evangelical Protestant.

Six in 10 Native Americans (60%) identify as Christian, with most (47%) identifying as Protestant (28% evangelical, 19% non-evangelical) and an additional 11% who are Catholic. Asian American and Pacific Islander Americans are as likely to be religiously unaffiliated (34%) as they are to be Christian (34%). The Christian subset includes 1 in 5 (20%) who are Protestant (10% evangelical, 10% non-evangelical) and 10% who are Catholic.

(All respondents who identified as Christian were asked: “Would you describe yourself as a ‘born again’ or ‘evangelical Christian,’ or not?” Respondents who self-identified as white, non-Hispanic, or Protestant and affirmatively identified as born-again or evangelical were categorized as white evangelical Protestants.)

A much smaller percentage of Americans identify as Latter-day Saint (Mormon), Jehovah’s Witness, or Orthodox Christian. The rest of religiously affiliated Americans belong to non-Christian groups, including 1% who are Jewish, 1% Muslim, 1% Buddhist, 0.5% Hindu, and 1% who identify with other religions. Religiously unaffiliated Americans comprise those who do not claim any particular religious affiliation (17%) and those who identify as atheist (3%) or agnostic (3%).

Until 2020, the percentage of white Americans who identify as Christian had been on the decline for more than 20 years, losing roughly 11% per decade. In 1996, almost two-thirds of Americans (65%) identified as white and Christian. But a decade later that had declined to 54%, and by 2017 it was down to 43%. The proportion of white Christians hit a low point in 2018, at 42%, but rebounded in 2020 to 44%.

The recent increase is primarily due to an uptick in the proportion of white mainline Protestants, as well as a stabilization in the proportion of white Catholics. The report notes that since 2007, white mainline Protestants have declined from 19% of the population to a low of 13% in 2016. But over the last three years, the mainline has seen small but steady increases, up to 16% in 2020. White Catholics have also declined from a high point of 16% of the population in 2008 to 12% in 2020.

Since 2006, the most radical decrease in affiliation has occurred among white evangelical Protestants, a group that shrank from 23% of Americans in 2006 to 14% in 2020. That proportion has generally held steady since 2017 (15% in 2017, 2018, and 2019).

The proportion of white Christians decreases for the younger generations. A majority of white Americans 65 and older (59%) identify as Christian, as do those ages 50-64. But that drops to 41% for those ages 30-49. Only 28% of Americans ages 18-29 are white Christians (including 12% who are white mainline Protestants, 8% who are white Catholics, and 7% who are white evangelical Protestants).

Roughly one-in-four Americans ( 26%) are Christians of color (including 9% who are Hispanic Catholics, 5% who are Hispanic Protestants, 5% who are Black Protestants, 2% who are multiracial Christians, 2% who are AAPI Christians, and 1% who are Native American Christians). More than one-third of young Americans (36%) are religiously unaffiliated, and the remainder are Jewish (2%), Muslim (2%), Buddhist (1%), Hindu (1%), or another religion (1%). 

The shift among Christians of color is more modest. While the numbers are small, African American Protestants make up 8% of Americans ages 65 and older but only 5% of Americans under the age of 30. Among those aged 18-29, 26% are Chrisitans of color (including 9% who are Hispanic Catholics, 5% who are Hispanic Protestants, 5% who are Black Protestants, 2% who are multiracial Christians, 2% who are AAPI Christians, and 1% who are Native American Christians). By contrast, the proportions of Hispanic Protestants are significantly higher among younger Americans than among people over 65. 

White evangelical Protestants are also the oldest religious group in the U.S., with a median age of 56, compared to the median age in the country of 47. Black Protestants and white mainline Protestants have a median age of 50. 

By / Jun 28

Beneath many—if not all—of the pressing social and cultural questions that our nation faces today sits a fundamental question about the nature and role of religion in the public square. From the often-fraught debates over abortion and sexuality issues like transgenderism to the increased discussions over online governance and the role of the technology industry in moderating public discourse, there lies a deep tension among ethical worldviews and disparate visions for the pursuit of the common good. 

Although it was published in 1984, The Naked Public Square by Richard John Neuhaus offers a deep critique of these contrasting visions and models an understanding of the public square that reveals the constant interplay of religion and politics. Ultimately, they cannot be kept separate, regardless of what some proponents of a “naked” or purely secular public square want to claim. Neuhaus defines the vision of a naked public square as the desire to “exclude religion and religiously grounded values from the conduct of public business” (ix).

Neuhaus was a prominent public theologian who served in a variety of clerical positions in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod and Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, later serving as a Roman Catholic Priest until his death in 2009. He was the founder and editor of the ecumenical and conservative monthly journal First Things, the director of the Institute on Religion and Public Life in New York City, and the author of over 36 works. 

In The Naked Public Square, Neuhaus offers a constructive critique of both the moral majoritarian movement of his day — as seen in the “religious right” led by so-called fundamentalists like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson — and what some have deemed “the rainbow coalition” of the religious or secular left who seek to shift the conversation of public morality away from any transcendent reality toward radical concepts of “naked” pluralism based in an expressive individualism. Neuhaus concludes that the concept of a “naked public square” is simply untenable and fails to account for the public nature of religion itself. He forcefully argues that religion cannot simply be relegated to a private matter as seen in the language of freedom of worship or belief. And this concept of religion as purely a private matter of the individual is even more prominent today than it was in the 1980s when Neuhaus penned this monumental work.

Dangers of the “naked” public square

In this second edition, released in 1986, Neuhaus seeks to build upon his original cultural critique and begins to flesh out a constructive proposal for bridging “the connections between biblical faith and democratic governance” (xi). He opens the work by exposing the rise of civil religion in his day and critiques the constant debate over the proper role of religion in public life. Much of this debate has devolved into caricaturing opponents’ views, all the while defending the moral purity for our own tribe through comparison. He wisely points out that “in principle, we should be suspicious of explanations for other people’s beliefs and behavior when those explanations imply that they would believe and behave as we do, if only they were as mature and enlightened as we are” (16). This honest and humble posture is evident throughout Neuhaus’ work.

In this book, Neuhaus traces the history of public theology and shows that many critics of religion in the public square express fear that if allowed, politics may again degenerate into the religious wars of the past. Quoting Alastair MacIntyre, he states that “in the absence of a public ethic, politics becomes a civil war carried on by other means” (99). This is a prescient critique of today’s public square based on how many of Neuhaus’ predictions have become reality in recent years with the warring factions of political tribalism — fueled by the rise of the social internet — and the almost religious-like devotion to secularism of our day. Both of these political and inherently religious tribes are at odds over what should constitute a serviceable public ethic, which Neuhaus believes is “not somewhere in our past, just waiting to be found and reinstalled” (37). It will take hard work on behalf of all parties in order to navigate the challenges ahead.

Like a skilled surgeon, Neuhaus dissects the political moment of his day and shows the fundamental issue with religion in the public square is not an issue of Christian truth “going public,” which he points out is an essential element of Christian faith (19). Rather, he critiques the substance of the claims made by both the politicized fundamentalism and the utopian dreams of the naked public square of secularism. He argues that both pose a grave threat to human flourishing and the preservation of democracy as a whole. Whereas fundamentalism can lead to a paving over of conscience and may even devolve into forms of totalitarianism (99), secularism removes the “agreed-upon authority that is higher than the community itself” (76). The naked public square then becomes a place where “there is no publicly recognizable source for such criticism, no check upon such patriotism . . . therefore criticism becomes impossible and patriotism unsafe” (76). 

Neuhaus later proposes a new way in this debate that seeks to reorient the public square as one based on a transcendent reality, one that seeks to honor the real differences in worldview and groundings of morality through the framework of democratic values and a robust public square of reinvigorated discourse.

The morality of compromise

Neuhaus’ vision for the public square draws criticisms from both sides of the debate. To the ire of secularism, he refuses to grant that religion is simply a private matter that shouldn’t be allowed in the public square. Instead, he argues that it is also at odds with the religious right by stating that religion dogma cannot go unchecked in this democratic experiment. He articulates a vision of compromise and tolerance in the public square that seeks to understand both religion and democracy in their proper forms — a vision that is much more robust than critics often ascribe to him. For Neuhaus, compromise doesn’t equate with weakness or giving up on deeply held beliefs but rather engaging in a robust dialogue over important issues and seeking a workable solution for all parties. He states, “Compromise and forgiveness arise from the acknowledgment that we are imperfect creatures in an imperfect world. Democracy is the product not of a vision of perfection but of the knowledge of imperfection” (114).

Neuhaus goes on to argue that compromise “is not an immoral act, nor is it an amoral act” because the person who makes a compromise is making a moral judgement about what is to be done when moral judgements are in conflict.” He rightfully critiques the terminology of “two-kingdoms” in popular public theology and proposes a “twofold rule of God” that “underscores that it is the one God who rules over all reality, and his will is not divided” (115). This ensures that the public square is not devoid of a transcendent grounding for morality. Though, some on both sides of the divide will argue that Neuhaus gives away too much in the debate to the other side and that his middle ground approach is ultimately untenable in the increasingly hostile public square.

Neuhaus’ vision of compromise picks up on the idea of true toleration that has been popularized by some today as a path forward in these divisive times of polarization and tribalism. In his view, compromise is not about giving up truth or abandoning principle but recognizing that there are multiple moral actors present in any given decision and the need for humility in a workable vision of democracy. It means that “having set aside the sectarian and triumphalist alternatives, one acts with moral responsibility in an arena that requires compromise” (124). He later describes this project as one true democracy that understands that there “will always be another inning, another election, another appeal, another case to be tested” (181). It is understandable why this particular vision would be unsettling to both sides of these public debates because it means seeing the humanity of your supposed “enemies” and working toward a common future.

In seeking to lay out this vision for religion and democracy in America, Neuhaus describes a “very large number of Americans who feel they have for a long time been on the losing end have come to believe that the winners are trying to deny them their innings” (181). This is also one of the prevailing issues of today and bears acknowledging that particular communities — especially those of color — have actually been historically disenfranchised. But given Neuhaus’ context and intention of this volume, he does not particularly highlight the plight of these communities in his vision for the public square and discourse. While this is a weakness of the argument presented, it does not invalidate the principles that he lays out for his constructive proposal for the public square. He simply shows that those who hold a “pragmatic and provisional view of the democratic process” would understandably be alarmed by his proposal. Neuhaus rejects this pragmatic vision of the democratic process and argues for a more robust public theology.

Overall, Neuhaus offers a credible and healthy alternative to the warring factions of society and the outright secular rejection of religion in the public square by showing that these disparate visions of religion and democracy are simply untenable by their very nature. In the preface to the second edition of The Naked Public Square, Neuhaus writes that many critiqued the first edition of this work because it lacked a substantive proposal for applying the vision he articulates. While this second edition does move toward that type of proposal, it still lacks a detailed outworking of his vision for the public square. But Neuhaus believed others would be able to develop that type of proposal as they built upon the foundation that he laid out for an alternative understanding of the relationship of religion and democracy in the public square.

By / Jun 21

What does the future of Christianity in America look like? Better yet, what will the global religious landscape be like in a couple of decades? As secularism broadens its appeal and more and more people are religiously unaffiliated, we may find ourselves struggling to answer these questions. Or, we may simply be fearful of the answers.

A recent report titled “The Future of World Religions: Population Growth Projections, 2010-2050,” published by the Pew Research Center, outlines more than six years’ worth of data collection, coalescing their research into a document projecting the world’s religious makeup in 2050 and the trends that lead there. While the authors of this report are quick to admit how fickle some of these projections may be (due to potential factors like war, famine, disease, and others that cannot be accounted for), nevertheless, there is much in “The Future of World Religions” that should grab our attention. 

Here are three takeaways from the Pew Research Center’s report.

1. More religious, not less

If you are paying attention to Western religious trends, you may assume that the global religious trajectory is consistent with what we seem to be experiencing in the U.S., a wayward procession toward secularism. But you would be wrong. Even now, if we were to peer out beyond our own geographic context (and some would argue, even within our own), we would find that the world is not becoming irreligious but more religious. Pew researchers project that this will not only continue, but will surge in the coming decades.

“Atheists, agnostics and other people who do not affiliate with any religion (the report refers to this group as ‘the unaffiliated’) – though increasing in countries such as the United States and France,” the report states, “will make up a declining share of the world’s population.” Of course, because the global population is forecast to increase by 35% from 2010 to 2050, the raw number of religiously unaffiliated people is projected to increase, as we would expect among virtually every religious group. However, “their share of the global population is projected to decrease” from 16% in 2010 to 13% in 2050.

What this means, fundamentally, is that people, despite our technological advancements and “progress,” still possess a deep-level “ache” that goes unrelieved without some sort of transcendent remedy. There are questions that atheism and/or secularism (or any other false worldview, for that matter) simply cannot answer. Religion is not losing global influence. On the contrary, it is growing, and picking up steam. And while religious adherence grows among many faith traditions, Islam is projected to grow most rapidly. 

2. The continued growth of Islam

“By 2050, the number of Muslims will nearly equal the number of Christians around the world.” 

There is not a religious group that is projected to experience more rapid growth in the next several decades than the Muslim population, both worldwide and here within the United States. From Middle East-North Africa to the Asia-Pacific to Europe and North America, Islam is forecast to grow both numerically and in its share of each region’s total population. If Pew’s projections hold, Christians (31.4%) and Muslims (29.7%) will make up a nearly identical percentage of the world population, totaling an estimated 60% of all people on earth

While Christians will undoubtedly find this news distressing, we should view these predictions not as something to fear but as an opportunity. After all, these are projections, not certainties. Who’s to say that Christians can’t win to Christ those who are searching, those who are spiritually hungry, and those who are seeking a remedy for their “aches” rather than losing them to another religion like Islam or to the hopelessness of atheism? Despite all the evidence to the contrary, what if the church set out to upend these projections?

What would this take? Well, for one, we’d have to stop all the in-fighting and get serious about the Great Commission. And, certainly, we’d have to take the Great Commandments, the very words of Jesus, seriously — to love God with all that we have and love our neighbor as ourselves. And if we can do that, Lord willing, the Pew Research Center might just have to make significant amendments to their report. 

3. Christianity’s net losses

By far, the most distressing projection included in Pew’s report as it relates to Christianity is what they call the “Projected Cumulative Change Due to Religious Switching, 2010-2050.” According to their projections, no religious group will lose more adherents to “switching,” or leaving one’s faith tradition for another belief system, than Christianity.

“Over the coming decades, Christians are expected to experience the largest net losses from switching. Globally, about 40 million people are projected to switch into Christianity, while 106 million are projected to leave, with most joining the ranks of the religiously unaffiliated” (emphasis added). If you do the math, that is a projected net loss of more than 66 million people, exponentially more than any other group represented in the report. 

While the report isn’t concerned with answering this question, it would be negligent of us not to ask “why?” Is it because those leaving will have found Jesus’ teaching “hard” (John 6:60) like we read in John’s account of the gospel? Is it because we will have practiced some sort of Pharisaical hypocrisy, driving them away from the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 23:13-15)? Or, will they have “gone out from us” because “they were not of us” (1 John 2:19)? Regardless, this projected seismic “switch” will be a tragedy if we do not resolve to prevent it. 

The thing about projections is that they don’t come true until they come true. May we work with all the strength God gives us to see to it that these 66 million who are expected to desert Jesus never actually do. 

Perseverance in the face of projections

Regardless of what any report might project, the church of Jesus Christ is assured of its perseverance. 

Will Christianity always maintain its majority in global population numbers? I don’t know, maybe not. Will American culture continue to secularize? According to this report, it looks that way for the next 30 years or more. Does this put Christianity and Christ’s church in jeopardy of ceasing to exist? By no means!

The first-century church, under the threat of its Roman overlords, would not have been on the favorable end of any projections. I am certain that Christianity’s eventual extinction would have been the recurrent prediction in that day. But here we are, continuing to persevere, because we do not live by the words and projections of man, “but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matt. 4:4). And the Word that has proceeded from the mouth of God has clearly stated that not even “the gates of hell will prevail” against his church (Matt. 16:18). 

We should take Pew’s projections seriously, but let’s not allow them to drive us to despair. Instead, let’s be driven to carry out our mission. Those hungering for some sort of transcendent answer to their aches, those flocking to Islam, and even those disillusioned by their experience of Christianity — whatever the source of that disillusionment —let’s echo the words of Philip in the gospel of John when he said to Nathaniel, “Come and see” (John 1:46). And let’s bring them to Jesus.

By / Apr 7

America is no longer a Christian nation if one goes by the official membership rolls of churches. According to a recent study by Gallup, church membership dropped below 50% for the first time in their 80 years of studying religion. This follows a decades long trend of increasing disaffiliation, rejection, and apathy of faith by Americans. The data from Gallup points to some trends that all pastors and leaders in ministry should be aware of, but it also holds some important points about how to stem the growing number of people walking away from Christianity specifically, and faith generally. 

Problem of decline

The decline noted by Gallup is not a new phenomenon. As Gallup’s polling shows, church membership held steady at roughly 70% for most of the 20th century. However, in the mid-to-late ’90s, there was a sudden uptick in the number of people moving away from religious identity. These “nones” represent the fastest growing segment of the American religious landscape. As Ryan Burge has written in his study of this group, it includes those who are atheists and agnostics as well as those who are “nothing in particular.” It is this third group, who eschew religious labels even as they retain a limited number of religious beliefs, that account for the decrease in religious behavior. For an interview with Burge, view this ERLC article. 

However, the rejection of affiliation is not just from those who dismiss the tenets of the faith. Even among believers, formal membership has declined. What can account for this? While there has always been a fluidity to church membership in America’s religious marketplace where people could leave one church and go to another without much trouble, a trend that has accelerated with the rise of larger parachurch organizations and the ability to “go” to church online. But based on the rapid increase, it seems that there are other reasons for this decline rooted primarily in our loss of trust in institutions across society of which religion is just one victim. 

Crisis of institutions

The trend toward declining membership began in the late ‘90s and has accelerated over the past two decades. While monocausal explanations are rarely sufficient to capture the complexity of any situation, it is not a understatement to say that the past two decades have revealed deep rot within our institutions and a growing distrust by the public that institutions serve the public good. From the scandals of sexual abuse within Catholicism and Protestantism to the #MeToo revelations in the halls of Hollywood, not to mention abuses by celebrities and leaders (both religious and secular), the last decade especially has evidenced the deep problems that exist. 

And the effect of this crisis is that younger generations are less likely to see a reason to join any traditional institution because of a creeping cynicism about the motives and purpose of the institutions. Rather than being places of formation, the institutions are viewed as means for those in power to protect themselves and ensure their ongoing prosperity. And the response increasingly is “Why bother?” Why bother with a church that prioritizes politics over fidelity to the gospel, an abusive leader over protecting the vulnerable, or that is satisfied with “only preaching the gospel” without ever asking what the gospel requires of us when we go into a world filled with injustice? A church that is no more sanctified than the local Kiwanis Club is not worth the effort it takes to invest your life, and at least the Kiwanis don’t require you to give up a Sunday morning. As Russell Moore has said,

“The culture often does not reject us because they don’t believe the church’s doctrinal and moral teachings, but because they have evidence that the church doesn’t believe its own doctrinal and moral teachings. They suspect that Jesus is just a means to an end—to some political agenda, to a market for selling merchandise, or for the predatory appetites of some maniacal narcissist.”

Places of hope and renewal

But it is not all bad news. In fact, the problem reveals the solution, even if it is a generations long project. First, though church membership is declining, religious belief still remains strong. Though the nones are growing, and growing rapidly, over 70% of Americans still identify with some form of organized religion, even if they are unwilling to formally join that religion. As discussed above, it is the institution that needs to be reformed as well as the individual; just because people aren’t on the roll at their church doesn’t mean that they aren’t finding their identity somewhere else. So the task of Christian leaders and congregations is to help situate their members’ identity primarily in the gospel, and especially in the context of a local church that is part of a global body. Institutions are strongest when they are places of character and identity formation.

Someone who goes through the military comes out a certain type of person. He or she has been molded and shaped by the norms of the institution into a person who values, loves, lives, and acts in accordance with institutional norms and expectations, often to such a degree that it is apparent in all areas of their life. 

The church should be no different. The decline in church membership is not the real problem, only the evidence of the deeper problem that people are not being formed into the type of people that prioritize the local body. In order to change this, a perspective is required that looks not just at the immediate circumstances, but generations down the line and into eternity. As C.S. Lewis reminds us, it is in the everyday choices that we are being conformed into either a heavenly or hellish creature. It is an ongoing process of formation and molding—or sanctification, to use the terminology of the New Testament—that occurs over a long period of time. 

More importantly, the church should hold out the beauty and power of the community that is the church to the world. The early church had its share of struggles and growing pains, with division between rich and poor, Gentile and Jew, and controversies over who had baptized them, all of which were rebuked. They were also called to unity and community because of their shared identity in Christ. It has become increasingly obvious over the past year that we are not meant to live life alone. Isolation is not good for our souls. And the community the church offers in its rituals and membership is a fellowship that goes deeper than just a Kiwanis meeting. 

The church is a place of vulnerability as we reveal our pains and hurts. It is a place of love as we are served by and serve those around us. It is a place of welcome as we are brought in without regard for our past and are seated at the table where the cup and bread are passed from one broken individual to another. And it is a place where the markers of identity that matter outside the church—race, gender, income, marital status—are not ignored, but they are subsumed in the deeper identity shared by all who are united to Christ. People are looking for community. May they see the church as a place where they are pursued and welcomed into deep, lasting relationship.

By / Apr 5

The odds are increasing that you know someone (if not multiple people) who identifies as part of the “nones” of religion, whether that is someone who identifies as an atheist, agnostic, or nothing in particular. According to multiple studies, the nones make up one of the largest segments of religious America and are the fastest growing religious demographic, especially among young Americans. How can the church respond to this shifting religious landscape? Part of that response starts with understanding just what is going on. 

In his new book, The Nones: Where They Came From, Who They Are, and Where They Are Going, social scientist and pastor Ryan Burge offers a detailed study of the nones in order to offer churches and ministry leaders the tools necessary to understand and minister to those who have given up on religion. Drawn from his years of research and data analysis, Burge provides an excellent and accessible resource for those seeking to understand both why the nones have grown so much in recent years and the variety within this large subgroup of Americans. 

You spend the first part of the book introducing yourself and describing the relationship between your role as a professor and a pastor. How do you see those connected, and how does each inform the other in this book?

The impetus for writing the book was really a confluence of my work as both a pastor and a political scientist. I’ve been on the staff of three different American Baptist churches in rural Illinois. Two of them are substantially smaller today than they were a decade ago, and the third one has closed. I’ve seen it in the pulpit in my current church. When I began my work there in 2006, we had about 50 in the sanctuary on a good Sunday. Today, we are lucky to get 15. That makes you ask the big questions like: Why is this happening? And, can I do anything about it? 

Luckily for me, I have the tools at my disposal to answer a lot of those queries in a fairly rigorous way. I’ve been digging into survey data about religion and politics for the last 15 years and have made a name for myself by publishing a lot of that analysis in a variety of outlets. It seemed like a worthwhile endeavor to focus my analytical lens onto the biggest story in American religion during my lifetime—the rise of the nones. I felt like I could help pastors understand what was happening in American society in a more neutral and nuanced way than they would be able to on their own. 

In your discussion of religious affiliation, you describe “the three B’s: religious behavior, belief, and belonging. When looking at the rise of the “nones,” is there one of these that seems especially important? 

For anyone who is a serious scholar of religion, the biggest question they face on a daily basis is foundational—how do we measure religion? Because if you really sit back and think about religion, it’s so incredibly multifaceted. The most widely accepted way to classify religious expression is the three B’s—behavior, belief, and belonging. Behavior is usually measured by how often someone attends religious services or prayers. Belief is typified by questions about theological matters like a person’s view of the Bible, belief in Heaven and/or Hell, or willingness to believe there is evil in the world. Belonging is more of a sociological approach. It focuses on who you are willing to associate with when you are asked about your present religion on a survey. Respondents are typically given a range of choices such as Protestant, Catholic, Mormon, Buddhist, or Atheist.

What’s interesting about the nones is that they seem to cast off the B’s in a pretty similar pattern. The first to go is almost always religious behavior. About a third of Americans say that they attend church less than once a year. That seems to be accelerating as the society has become less social and more digital. After behavior, the next one to fall by the wayside is clearly religious belonging. Today, about 30% of Americans indicate that they have no religious affiliation, and that has been climbing without any plateaus since the early 1990s. However, the last to leave is clearly religious belief. The GSS has been asking respondents about their belief in God since 1988, when just about 5% professed an atheist or agnostic worldview. In 2018, that had only climbed to about 11%. Even though about a third of Americans don’t behave or belong, 90% still believe in God at least sometimes. That says something about us as people—many of us still want to believe. 

One of the examples you point to in the difficulty of measuring all of these changes is “social desirability bias.” You highlight one study of Ashtabula County in Ohio as a case study of this phenomenon. First, what is social desirability bias, and how does it affect the way that social scientists study religiosity? What does it reveal for pastors and ministers about the way their communities think of their own religious behavior? 

Social desirability bias is the thing that keeps researchers up at night, especially those who study things that have a strong moral component like sexual behavior, drug use, racial attitudes, and church attendance. There is a well-documented reality that when people are asked on surveys about these types of behaviors, some of them lie. They want to make themselves look good in the eyes of the survey administration, which means they typically underreport drug use or sexual partners and overreport the rate at which they attend church. The study of Ashtablula County, Ohio,is a perfect example. On a survey, about 36% of respondents said they went to church weekly, but when researchers did a thorough check of the pews on a Sunday, attendance was only about 20%. 

Because of social desirability bias, we can never be entirely sure what the true beliefs and behaviors are of the public we are trying to study. This, unfortunately, is not good news for pastors and denominational leaders because the reality is that the real rate of religious adherence, church attendance, and belief in God is probably overreported. We will never be able to determine how inaccurate our estimates are, but it’s well understood that the public is less religious than they want us to believe.  

Looking at the declines and gains in the major traditions, some have pointed to theological differences as the only reasons for decline or maintenance, particularly in the Mainline denominations. Why is that narrative too simple? What other factors are contributing to the decline across the traditions?    

Whenever I show the graph of the American religious landscape over the last 40 years, there are two lines that move dramatically. The nones were 5% of the population in 1972, and then they were 23.5% of the population in 2018 using the GSS calculation. However, the other big shift is among mainline Protestants. These are the more theologically moderate Protestant traditions like United Methodists and Episcopalians. They were 30% of the population in 1976. Today they are 10%. 

It would be easy to say that the rise of the nones is easily explained—lots of mainline Protestants became nones. Except that’s much too simplistic. The data indicates that mainline Protestants have clearly had problems with retention for decades, but those who left that tradition were nearly evenly split between becoming evangelical or leaving religion all together. Under the surface, there’s a lot of turbulence in the religious marketplace. Nearly half of Americans raised in a specific Protestant tradition are not members of that denomination as adults. So, while many mainliners left to become nones, there were Catholics and evangelicals who also walked away from faith as well. 

There is a fear that America (and other parts of the world) are secularizing and that this is inevitable? How is America like the European countries that have become “post-Christian?” How does it differ? What does this mean for the American religious landscape?

The problem with the United States from a social science perspective is that there’s not really a good comparison case to the rest of the world. Our closest neighbor socially and culturally is clearly western Europe. They are a region that can match us in terms of educational attainment and economic output, but they have a much different history with religion than the United States. Many European countries have a state religion, and lots of conflicts on the continent were fought for expressly religious reasons. In my estimation, both of those were bad for the health of religious institutions on the continent, and the data bears that out. In countries like Germany, France, and Sweden less than 10% of its citizens attend church on a weekly basis. 

But, I think that there are clear reasons to think that the United States will not get to the same place as our European counterparts. While most European countries had (or still have) a state religion, the Founders were careful to ensure a strong separation of church and state. Also, the United States was fortunate to have a great deal of religious pluralism from its earliest days. Many colonies had a nice mix of Baptists, Methodists, Congregationalists and others even before the Revolution. And now, it’s not at all uncommon for a state’s largest religious tradition to only be 30% of the population. That pluralism seems to drive down religious resentment and may be one of the reasons that the United States is still so religious compared to Europe. 

One phenomenon that appears to be starker in recent years is the relationship between political identity and religious behavior, and the growing “God gap.” Does a person’s political identity, whether by party or ideology, influence their religious identity, or is the reverse true? Are there any major outliers to this theory? 

For decades, social scientists just assumed that the most important framework that people used in making political decisions was a religious worldview. This is something that any evangelical has heard about countless times from the pulpit. Christians should have the “mind of Christ” and take on a biblical worldview. However, there’s mounting evidence now that this is probably not the way that many Americans make decisions on who to support in elections. Michele Margolis’ recent book, From Politics to the Pews, makes a strong argument that politics is our primary framework, and everything else lies downstream of that—which means that we make decisions on where to go to church based on the politics of that congregation, not on theological considerations. 

In the 21st century, the parties have become more polarized than ever before. And while most people only consider the political sorting that has occurred, they miss the fact that the parties have sorted on religious dimensions as well. For instance, just over half of the American public is white and Christian. Yet, 75% of the Republican party is white and Christian, and it’s only 38% of the Democratic party. Thus, to be a person of faith in the United States is increasingly becoming synonymous with being a Republican, and being a “none” almost automatically sorts you into the Democratic camp. 

One interesting data point is the relationship between childbearing and a return to religion. How does the fact that people are delaying marriage and childbearing play into the story of the nones? Is it likely that these people will return even later in life? 

There is a very popular concept in the social science world called the life cycle effect that has made its way into a lot of discussion of church growth over the last several decades. It works like this: when people are young, they are typically fairly religious. Their parents encourage them to be part of a youth group, and they attend camps, retreats, lock-ins, etc. However, when they move into young adulthood and move away for college, they drift from religion. This typically lasts until they get married and have children. Then, they want to replicate their own religious upbringing in their offspring and come back to more consistent church attendance. 

In the book, I take a deep dive on that concept to see if that theory actually matches the data. Looking at trends in religious disaffiliation dating back to people born in the 1930s, I find that the life-cycle effect was especially prominent among the baby boomers. Many of them did come back to faith when they moved into their 30s and 40s. However, that’s no longer the case. The lines of disaffiliation are only pointing upward now as younger generations age. Even when they have children, they still drift away from religion. Pastors can no longer take for granted that the kids in their church may be gone for a while, but they will be back. Instead, many who leave never return. 

The common perception of the nones is that they are a monolithic category of people, many of them resembling Christopher Hitchens or Richard Dawkins. Is this picture still relevant? How has the group changed in recent decades?

I hope that’s one of the biggest contributions I make in the book, to provide clear and compelling evidence that all nones are not the same. Social science considers three different groups under the umbrella of the nones—atheists, agnostics, and nothing in particular. Atheists make up about 6% of the population and agnostics are about the same size. However, nothing in particulars are over 20% of the population today. That makes them the same size as white Catholics or white evangelicals. 

Their growth over the last decade is notable. In 2008, atheists made up 3.4% of the population and agnostics were just slightly larger at 4.5%. By 2019, atheists had nearly doubled in size to 6.6% and agnostics were 6.2%. However, the increase in the nothing in particular category is worth considering. They were 14.4% of the population in 2008 but had risen to 21.5% of the sample in 2019. That growth (7.1%) is larger than all the atheists in the United States today. There’s no religious group that is growing faster than nothing in particulars, yet very little attention has been paid to this group by scholars, pastors, or the media. 

On that note, how is the category of nones a broad category? How are the three groups you highlight—atheists, agnostics, and nothing in particular—different from one another? Is one more open to outreach and religion? 

To compare atheists to nothing in particulars is to see just how large the disparities are between the two groups. Forty-four percent of atheists have a four-year college degree, they are one of the most educated religious groups in the United States. Only 19% of nothing-in-particulars have a bachelor’s degree, which means they are the least educated group in the United States. Three-in-five nothing in particulars make less than $50,000 per year, and it’s only 40% of atheists. 

Christians have seemed to make all the nones into atheists, when the data indicates that nothing-in-particulars are three times their size. Also, when you look at data surrounding religious switching, atheists are incredibly unlikely to ever return to a religious tradition, while about 20% of nothing-in-particulars come back to a religious tradition over a four-year period of time. Instead of making a boogeyman of atheists, churches would be a lot better served by focusing their efforts on reaching the nothing-in-particulars. 

One of the final conclusions you make in the book is that spiritual interest hasn’t declined, but rather people’s willingness to take on the label of Christian, Muslim, Hindu. What are the important takeaways for how the church can minister in this new context? How will outreach and evangelism need to look different? How can churches keep “throwing out seed” as you encourage them in the final pages of the book? 

When thinking about church growth, pastors would be well served by placing things into two categories: things that can be changed and things that cannot. The macro-level shifts in American society toward secularization can clearly not be held back. There’s just too much momentum now to think that it will not continue for the near future. Fighting against this is like trying to extinguish a forest fire with a garden hose. It’s just not a productive use of time. 

However, there are things that pastors can do when thinking about the rise of the nones and the future of their church. I mention several in the book, but a big one is to listen to each none’s story about why they left the faith. I talk in broad generalities in the book, because that’s the nature of social science. But, if there are 60 million nones in the United States, there are 60 million stories of why people left religion behind. Some are deeply traumatic and involve abuse or neglect. Others are important theological debates about the nature of God and sin. But some are incredibly trivial like they were upset that the church moved the Sunday service up 30 minutes. 

Listening to those stories without preconceived notions or judgment is a good place to begin. But the purpose of that dialogue should not be to convert, but instead to understand. At the end of the day, most people just want someone to really listen to them without an agenda. Churches have been failing at that for years and that’s only become more of a problem as many become hyper-focused on growth. A good conversation goes a long way to building bridges and forging bonds. 

By / Oct 20

During the current 45th session of the U.N. Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva, the ERLC advocated for the religious freedom of children in China. The ERLC joined the Jubilee Campaign and Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) in issuing a written statement to the UNHRC. The joint statement condemns the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) for its continued religious persecution of children in China.

How is China persecuting children?

Over the last decade, China has increased its persecution of religious minorities. In its efforts to “sinicize” religious belief, that is, subjugate religious belief to the demands of the Chinese Communist Party, the Chinese government is attempting to erode independent practice of religion altogether. Sadly, children in China are not immune to such persecution.

Since releasing its Regulation on Religious Affairs in 2017, China has escalated its suppression of the religious liberty of Chinese children. Following the CCP’s Regulations on Religious Affairs, Chinese government officials have prohibited minors from attending any “religious-based activities.” They have enforced this by forcing children away from religious activities and interrogating them for holding religious beliefs. Government authorities are also confiscating Bibles and religious literature.

Two years ago, the CCP closed kindergartens because they were founded and operated by churches. In 2019, Chinese authorities stormed a Catholic mass in Zhengzhou and forced out all of the children. Police monitored the church for weeks to ensure no children, including infants, attended mass. Chinese police also entered a Guangdong province house church camp last summer and arrested the preacher. The police interrogated the church members and registered the names of all children in attendance.

Last August, the Xiaodian District Civil Affairs Bureau raided the Bethany Home for Children with Disabilities and sent the children away to state-run orphanages. The Home, founded by a Catholic nun, was the only home the children have known.  

In addition to these heinous actions, the CCP continues to persecute the Uyghur people, separating Uyghur children from their families and placing them in state institutions.

What does the U.N. Human Rights Council say about religious liberty?

The CCP’s religious persecution directly violates Article 14 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which provides the international framework for freedom of religion or belief for children. Article 14 declares that, “States Parties shall respect the right of the child to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.” Additionally, China is violating the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Article 18 of the ICCPR states, “Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.”

What actions should the United Nations take?

The ERLC, the Jubilee Campaign, and ADF strongly condemn China’s persecution of children. We urge them to end all government actions that deny children the freedom to practice their religious beliefs. Specifically, China must immediately repeal the 2017 Regulations on Religious Affairs as it unjustly restricts the religious freedoms of religious minorities in China.

The U.N. Human Rights Council must speak clearly about these abuses and condemn China’s failure to comply with the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The Council has a number of tools at its disposal to address these issues and must take action. Such action will be more difficult because of China’s recent election to the U.N. Human Rights Council, but this makes Council action even more crucial, to preserve the legitimacy of the Council itself. 

ERLC intern Justin McDowell contributed to this article. 

By / Sep 25

No topic is more fraught in American life than the relationship between religion and politics. Someone’s understanding of the American experiment often hinges upon their understanding of how the two relate: Is America a mostly secular nation that should eschew religious influence? Or, does religion play an important role in America’s legacy in terms of its values and national identity? 

Religion and public argument

Thinkers such as President John Adams and philosopher Alexis De Tocqueville both argued that religion is central to the American experiment of ordered liberty. But that raises the question of how religion is to function. We believe there are two primary ways: (1) Religion provides a system of morality necessary to teach virtue and restrain vice among its people, making self-government possible; (2) Religion provides a metaphysical account of moral norms that government looks to in order to make sense of its authority, purpose, and obligations. Hence, you have the language of the Declaration of Independence speaking of mankind’s “unalienable rights” being “endowed by their Creator.” Religion plays a vital role in making sense of the political community we live in, the values we hold dear, and the type of society and culture we hope to foster.

But this raises an important question: How should religion function in a public argument? Does a Christian legislator have the grounds to argue for a policy by citing a Bible verse? Properly understood, yes. But behind this question is the issue of authority. Considering that America does not have an established religion, it means there is a range of competing authorities to determine what moral norms are binding to policymaking. This is why theologian Jonathan Leeman refers to the public square as a “battleground of gods.” Christians do not accept the dictates of Islam, and Muslims do not believe in Christian Scripture. Moreover, we do not want laws enforced that are intelligible to or agreed upon only by members of one religion. Law is meant to advance a rational purpose and conform actions to its standards for all. So how can religion play an important part in shaping public debate if Americans have differing accounts of how moral authority originates when it comes to law and policy?

Religion and reason

In 2015, political philosopher Matthew Franck wrote an essay helping readers understand the steps one must take in translating their religious arguments to secular audiences. Franck argues positively for the rights and abilities of people—even public officials—to make religious arguments when advocating for a specific policy. To do so, he argues, religious adherents need to explain how their religiously-informed ethics relates not only to morality, but policy as well. Franck writes,

“There is no compelling reason in principle for religious citizens to refrain from employing religious discourse in the public square. They must, of course, reason together with their fellow citizens in order to persuade others of their policy views. But if their major premises, so to speak, are theological, there is no harm done, so long as their policy conclusions can be reasonably embraced by others who have different commitments.

The attribution of a “strictly religious” motivation to a policy view offers an incomplete account of how people actually reason in political life. Beliefs that may be called “strictly” religious or theological typically supply only a major premise for a policy conclusion. The minor premise will usually be supplied by other considerations—of cost, of prudence or practicality, of justice to others, of forbearance toward those same others. Even “thou shalt not kill,” for instance, is not a principle that by itself can lead straight to anything in public policy—not even a coherent homicide law—without intervening minor premises that will tell us when, how, and with regard to whom the principle will be applied.”

Let’s give a further explanation of Franck’s argument. According to Franck, the blunt use of religion to bring about a specific policy in itself is not immediately intelligible because, in a diverse country like America, it is more than possible, even likely, that someone will disagree with your account of who God is and how God has been revealed. But different understandings of who God is do not prohibit overt references to religion; rather, as Franck argues, this merely reveals the need for an act of translation to occur.

He uses the Sixth Commandment as an example. The Sixth Commandment (Ex. 20:13), in Christian moral thought, prohibits not only murder but also commands Christians to act in ways that prosper and protect life. The idea that life is worth preserving and safeguarding, to such a degree that prohibiting murder and establishing penalties for murder seems, on the surface, intelligible and rational. It may not be provable, but human experience would suggest that acting in such ways to foster life, rather than harm life, is praiseworthy. Not all moral principles are provable since they are underived and self-evident. To stay with this example, one need not be a Christian to understand that murder is wrong (Rom. 2:14-15). 

What the Sixth Commandment teaches in the broadest possible application is that we should act in ways and codify laws that reflect a fundamental good of human nature: It is better to live than to be dead. So a moral principle is on the immediate horizon, followed second by application to a particular law or policy enacted to uphold the principle. The moral principle is: Life is good, so act in ways that cause people to flourish. But, if we want to move from moral principle to public policy, we must decipher how moral abstractions can become particularized in law. This process is why, in American contexts, we have legal distinctions between first-degree murder, second-degree murder, and manslaughter. Law is deduced and specified based on the underlying moral principle. What this means is that simply saying “The Sixth Commandment should be a law” gives minimal specificity as to how to apply the underlying moral principle in particular cases. We would need to utilize wisdom and prudence to apply the broad principle of the Sixth Commandment in specific cases.

We could repeat this logic for innumerable policy considerations: Property law, contract law, family law, and political authority among them. When we talk about the application of religion to politics, it does not mean that laws on marriage, for example, are designed with the intention to explicitly honor Genesis 1-2 because everyone in America accepts Genesis 1-2 as authoritative. That surely is not the case given the diversity of perspectives in America. But from the interior perspective of Christianity, when a nation’s laws get marriage right, we say so because Christians believe that the picture of marriage in Genesis 1-2 is creational. We believe that principles of natural law, derived from and compatible with, the Christian moral tradition, are relevant to all political communities and are essential properties for the just ordering of society and the common good.

Binding moral principles

The idea of natural law ethics is that there are binding moral principles, governed by reason and attested to in nature, that all persons, regardless of whether they are Christians or not, are obligated to obey for their own sake and God’s. Marriage in Scripture bears witness to a creational reality. And that’s the context where most discussions of how Christians relate to the political sphere begin: The portrait of reality given in creation is not “Christian reality,” but reality as it truly is. 

Thus, when Christians insist on laws upholding the dignity of the unborn or seeking justice for victims of sex-trafficking, we do so because concepts like dignity reflect a principle of morality that is binding on all persons. Christians believe this is true regardless of whether a person accepts the specific teaching that humans are made in God’s image. Every person possesses innate dignity and should have that dignity recognized and protected in the law. Someone will agree with this by appeal to revelation, or they will assert the same idea on other grounds, or they will reject the idea altogether. This is because the existence of human dignity is either true for all or false for everyone. Furthermore, because we believe that God’s common grace gives all persons an ineradicable sense of right and wrong, we believe that society can attain a reasonable morality to allow for its continued existence.

Public policy, from the perspective of Christian thought, incorporates themes of Christian ethics at the broadest possible level. To say that Christians should care about public policy and make arguments as Christians in the public square is not to say that Levitical laws on sacrifices or Deuteronomic civil law are going to make their way into federal statute. Nor should they, as Levitical laws foreshadow Christ and Deuteronomic laws dissolved with the passing of the Israelite theocracy. No, only those moral principles of broadest application to the public square are relevant to public policy, and then particularized to meet the needs of those living within a political community. It means we have a duty to explain and articulate the inner-workings of Christian moral thought and how they relate to an issue of public significance.

So do not be fooled. Banal, oft-quoted statements such as “you cannot legislate morality” are coined phrases meant to intimidate religious persons while smuggling in non-neutral secular morality. Far from being “neutral,” such an argument unfairly tilts public discourse in the direction of the non-believer, which violates the spirit of the First Amendment. The secularist and religious believer have just as much say in making their arguments in the public square. Those with the best, most persuasive arguments deserve to win out on matters of public concern.

By / Sep 23

For a long time I’ve had a serious problem. And it is the kind of thing I’ve always thought I couldn’t talk about. My problem is doubt. I know that might not seem like a scandalous revelation. But to be honest, for most of my life I felt enormous pressure to keep my doubts a secret. And I think there are two reasons why.

The first reason is that I didn’t want to undermine the faith of anyone around me. It’s not as though I felt like the people in my life only believed in Jesus because of me. But I didn’t want to have anything to do with causing someone else to question their faith. The second reason is even more personal. I didn’t want to admit that I often struggle to believe in my best friend. And that is what Jesus has been ever since I was a small child—my very closest friend.

Doubt and despair

I was in junior high school when I first began to deal with doubt. And of all things, I think it was reading Greek mythology that kicked it off. As I began to learn about the vastness of our world and the multiplicity of beliefs about God and life after death, I began to question my beliefs. And for the first time I wondered if I was merely assuming my beliefs were true because they were the only ones I’d ever known.

As time went on, more things compounded these questions. I learned about other religions, each of which had its own perspective on both the divine and the meaning of life. I was introduced to agnosticism and atheism, and alongside these, secular humanism and Big Bang cosmology. And even as a teenager, I realized that Christianity wasn’t something I could believe by default. My faith was no longer something I could take for granted.

In college I was surrounded, for the first time, by smart people who rejected my beliefs. Not only that, but many of them were effective apologists for their own. And during those years, I went through something like the dark night of the soul.

I remember lying on my bedroom floor in the middle of the night, crying out to God, and feeling ridiculous because I was certain no one was listening. I was crushed and in despair. My faith that was once so certain was anything but secure. And Jesus, my best friend, felt so far away. But probably the worst part was that I was ashamed to reach out for help. I didn’t want to harm anyone else’s faith, and I didn’t want to admit where I was with my own. 

But thankfully, Jesus came through.

Help for my unbelief

One day during this time I wandered into a LifeWay bookstore and picked up a tiny book called, of all things, Doubting. In this little volume, the author, Alistair McGrath, offered real answers to my questions instead of merely brushing them to the side. Though I have not read it in many years, what I remember most is that McGrath helped me understand that my doubts didn’t erase my faith. He showed me, as strange as it may sound, that my faith was actually the best defense against my doubts. 

 Jesus is God. He can handle my doubts. And he can handle yours, too.

Around the same time, I started to dig into apologetics. I wanted to learn the answers to the questions people put forward to challenge Christianity. The more I learned about defending the faith, the more answers and hope I gained. Ultimately, I realized that if the Christian story is true, it is strong enough to withstand any challenge or scrutiny.

But as much as those things helped, nothing helped me more than Scripture. I learned that the Bible is a book for doubters and skeptics. And in my early 20s, I began to devour God’s Word, specifically the New Testament. The more I read, the more I found that my doubts were relieved.

The men and women featured within the pages of the New Testament who followed Jesus and continued to advance his ministry after his ascension laid everything on the line to do so. Nothing stills my doubts more than this reality. The Apostle Paul suffered greatly—stonings and shipwrecks and snakebites—all for the sake of the gospel. For me, his most comforting words were these: “If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Cor. 15:19) Or as Lecrae put it, “If Christ ain’t resurrected, we’ve wasted our lives.”

Freedom to doubt, and believe

One of the most helpful passages of Scripture for doubters like me comes from Matthew 11, when John the Baptist—the cousin of Jesus, who declared him to be “the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world”—is in prison. At this time, John knows he is about to die. But before he makes that final sacrifice, literally giving up his head for the sake of his faith, John sends his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?”

John is imprisoned because he made enemies by faithfully proclaiming the words of righteousness. But before he embraces martyrdom, he sends his disciples to ask Jesus if he really is the Christ, just to be sure. Instead of rejecting John because of his doubt, Jesus answers John’s disciples, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”

Jesus assures John that indeed the kingdom has come and that he is the long-promised Messiah of Israel. Jesus was not ashamed of his cousin. In that very passage, Jesus offers John assurance, and then commends John as the greatest man ever born of a woman (high praise coming from the eternal king of the universe).

Meditating on that passage brought forth a realization for me. If Jesus wasn’t ashamed of John, he isn’t ashamed of me or my doubts either. Jesus is God. He can handle my doubts. And he can handle yours, too. After all, Jesus is also the good shepherd. He is patient and gentle with his sheep. If, like me, you are prone to wander in the midst of doubt, Jesus is always faithful to seek us out. And he will carry you, if necessary, in order to bring you back and help you believe.