A few months ago, in Ireland, someone asked for my thoughts about today’s "post-Christian" culture. I said then as I say again now, that "post-Christian" society may seem very similar to the pagan world that St. Paul first confronted. But in fact, it’s much worse. Why? Because the pagan world had an excuse. We don’t. There’s really no such a thing as a "post-Christian” era. The redemptive mission of Jesus Christ is unique, unrepeatable and forever. Christ is the center and meaning of history. There is nothing after Jesus Christ except a void.
The modern turning away from Jesus is not a return to the pagan past. It’s an apostasy, and when Scripture tells us that Christ will spit the lukewarm out of his mouth (Rev 3:16), we need to reflect very soberly on what that implies for people who once knew him, but then repudiate him. The early pagans had an alibi in their ignorance. Today's paganism involves a specific choice against Jesus Christ.
This is why I found some words of President Obama so interesting on his recent trip to Turkey. You’ll remember that the President’s supporters stressed his religious credentials pretty hard in courting the Christian vote last year. But in seeking common ground with Turkey, a NATO ally whose own secularist revolution was often brutal and intolerant, the President said: "We do not consider ourselves a Christian nation."
President Obama’s remark in Turkey was much more tentative than his predecessors. And this is useful because it highlights two serious problems for anyone interested in evangelizing American culture. First, the public witness of many American Christians is softening. Second, some groups are working very vigorously to secularize – or more accurately, de-Christianize -- our public life and our popular culture.
The information from recent studies on U.S. religious trends is sobering. The percentage of self-identified Christians has fallen in the past two decades. The number of people who see the United States as a Christian nation has dropped to 62 percent, down from 69 percent last year and 71 percent in 2005. The number of Americans who think faith will help answer the country's current problems has dipped to a historic low of 48 percent, down from 64 percent in 1994.
For Catholics who actually practice their faith, this news probably doesn’t come as a surprise. For the past 40 years and longer, too many American Catholics – and I mean not just average laypeople, but Catholic clergy, scholars and religious as well – have worked frantically to fit into American culture. We succeeded. Now we can see the results. Too many of us are happy with our complacency, vanity, compromises, comfort and bad formation. And something similar is obviously happening with many of our fellow Christians.
By the way, this habit of vanity and compromise is really what the argument is about in Notre Dame’s decision to honor President Obama at its commencement. The issue is not whether the President is a good or a bad man. He’s obviously a sincere and able man, and we always have the duty to respect our public officials -- even when we disagree strongly with them. But the President’s views and actions on sanctity of life issues – and remember that the right to life is the foundation of every other right – run directly against Catholic belief. And a Catholic institution should not honor that kind of behavior.
Finally, this is one of the best practical approaches that can be implemented at the level of the domestic church:
From a Pauline point of view, whether America is really 80 percent or 50 percent or 10 percent Christian is unimportant. The only thing that matters is what you and I do right now with the gift of faith we’ve been given. God will do the work; he’s got a pretty good track record when we don’t get in the way. Our job is to become the best cooperators and instruments of his will that we can be.
One of the best things we can do for our own faith is to simply turn off the noise around us one night a week. Computers, televisions, cell phones, DVD players, radios, iPods – turn them all off. Not every night. Just one night. This is a very fruitful habit we can borrow from Mormon families: one night a week spent reading, talking with each other, listening to each other and praying over Scripture. We can at least do that much. And if we do, we’ll discover that eventually we’re sober again and not drunk on technology and our own overheated appetites.