Archives For Pew Survey

rp_Untitled101111-683x1024.jpgI’ve been working on writing a catechism, a distillation of the faith into concise questions and answers with brief supporting scriptures that could be the starting point for a conversation. The reason being I’m convinced its important for the Church to inoculate our young people with a healthy dose of catechesis before we ship them off to college, just enough so that when they first hear about Nietzsche or really study Darwin they won’t freak out and presume that what the Church taught them in 6th grade confirmation is the only wisdom the Church has to offer.

You can find all the previous posts here.

III. The Son

25. What is the Gospel? 

The Gospel is Jesus.

The Gospel is the life of the 2nd Person of the Trinity made flesh in Jesus Christ and made known to us through the community constituted by the narrative which witnesses to him, what we call the Gospels.

In that narrative we hear the good news of how the God who raised Israel from slavery in Egypt has raised Jesus from the dead, vindicating Jesus’ faithfulness to God’s Kingdom, defeating the kingdoms which had crucified him, and inaugurating a New Age in which Jesus is Lord and we are called to witness to the God who refuses to let our violence and sin determine our relationship to him.

The Gospel is not the effect of the Gospel.

It is not atonement. It is not justification. It is not salvation. It is neither being forgiven your sin nor is it going to heaven when you die.

The Gospel is the entire story of Jesus Christ, for the person and work of Christ cannot be separated or abstracted from one another; that is, there is no meaning to what we mean by Gospel- no universal human dilemma- that can be known prior tom or without submission under, the story we call Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John.

The Gospel is the entire narrative about Jesus Christ because there is no way to know Jesus apart from discipleship, apprenticing under him through this story in which he reveals himself to us.

“Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David—that is my gospel.” 

– 2 Timothy 2.8

Untitled101111I’ve been working on writing a catechism, a distillation of the faith into concise questions and answers with brief supporting scriptures that could be the starting point for a conversation.

Cancer has gotten me off writing these for a few months now but, back by semi-popular demand, I hope to get back in the swing of things.

You can find the previous posts here.

III. The Son

13. Do You Have to Believe in Original Sin to be a Christian?

Of course.

We can’t intelligibly consider ourselves Christian and not believe in original sin.

Of course, by calling it ‘original sin’ we do not refer to the origin of humanity- as though we believed Adam was a real, historical person or as though we failed to realize that mythology was the methodology of the first authors of scripture.

Instead by calling it original sin we name the sin in which we are all implicated, by which we are impaired from our very beginnings as creatures and from which we could not hope to be immune even were we raised by angels.

In other words, the term original sin characterizes the sinfulness we have by virtue of being persons in the world.

From the start.

Making sin not so much something we do but, firstly, something we are all in.

Original sin, then, points not to something chronological or biological but existenstial; that is, the human condition within which we come into being but also the precondition for our individual sinful acts and choices and they damage they incur.

As it is written: “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” “Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive.” “The venom of asps is under their lips.” “Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.”

– Romans 3.10

14. Do We Believe in a Literal, Historical Date for Original Sin?

Absolutely.

Christians call it Good Friday.

For if ‘sin’ refers to our deprivation of the divine life through our rejection of God’s love and goodness then- obviously- the occasion sin on which original was committed was the crucifixion of Jesus.

Good Friday marks the occasion of original sin not in the sense that sin did not exist prior to the incarnation but in the sense that sin had no meaning before it.

The crucifixion of Jesus finally gave meaning to what we mean by the word ‘sin.’ The crucifixion of Christ is not just another of humanity revealing its inhumanity; the cruficixion is humanity making the most ultimate sort of rejection and, in doing so, rejecting itself.

“They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart.”

– Ephesians 4.18

No One Chooses Evil

Jason Micheli —  June 26, 2015 — 2 Comments

Untitled101111I’ve been working on writing a catechism, a distillation of the faith into concise questions and answers with brief supporting scriptures that could be the starting point for a conversation.

Cancer has gotten me off writing these for a few months now but, back by semi-popular demand, I hope to get back in the swing of things.

You can find the previous posts here.

III. The Son

11. What Do We Mean by the Word ‘Sin?’

To sin is not to will something bad or wicked, as many believe.

To sin is not to choose evil. Evil is a privation, a no-thing.

No one chooses evil; choosing evil is impossible. It cannot be done.

Just as evil is a no-thing, sin is best understood as a ‘not-doing.’

As icons of the invisible of God, our greatest good is friendship with God. Sin is a rejection of our creaturehood. Sin is a failure to choose happiness, opting instead for something we think will make us happy.

When we sin, we choose a lesser good over the greatest good of friendship with God; therefore, sin is not sin because of anything we positively choose: pleasure, power, or wealth.

Sin is sin because of what we fail to choose, what we forsake for trivial goods. Sin is sin because we have chosen not to live up to our full humanity as creatures made in the image of God.

Sin is a not-doing.

To confess that you have sinned is to admit what you have not done, what you have freely chosen not to do- not, for example, loving your neighbor as yourself and choosing wealth and comfort for yourself instead.

Because sin is a ‘not-doing,’ it is the only thing with which God has nothing to do.

Sin (and Hell for that matter) because they are failures of full humanity are the only two things in creation which are uniquely and exclusively the work of human choosing with which God has nothing to do whatsoever.

Sin alone is the product of individual initiative.

‘I have come so that they may have life and have it abundantly.’ – John 10.10

Jack-WhiteI’ve been listening to Jack White’s new album, Lazaretto, incessantly over the last two weeks.

Running, reading, driving.

Cooking.

In case you’re one of those cretans who only listen to pop music or, worse, are still listening to the same 11 Steve Miller Band songs you did in high school, Jack White is the auteur garage rocker behind the White Stripes, Raconteurs and Dead Weather.

In the early aughts Jack White took a plastic guitar and a 2-man garage band and made blues relevant again. As White truthfully said in Rolling Stone last month (and got crap for it), without him there would be no audience for popular bands like the Black Keys.

As the world gets more pop, an article recently described him, ‘the more rock Jack White strives to be.’ White’s music consistently goes against the grain of what we’re told people want in today’s culture, but as with any good gift- or should we say grace- White’s music points out wants we didn’t know we had prior to the gift.

I often describe Jack White as ‘music you can run to without blushing.’

Nor is he boring. For his last album’s tour, White traveled with two completely different bands, one all-male and the other all-female. Neither band knew which one was performing on a given night until just before showtime. Rather than varying up the same set list of 20 songs as most bands do, White insists the audience shout out requests spontaneously. His new record has hidden tracks and alternate beginnings.

He’s not so eager to please that he’s cringe-inducing lame. Neither is he boring.

And running, reading and driving to him these past two weeks, I’ve been thinking that on those two counts at least Jack White has something to teach the Church. Because on those counts, in particular, we’re frequently guilty as so often charged.

His bands and albums are all a little different, but in each iteration Jack White simply takes an old, supposedly antiquated medium- 12 bar blues- and has fun with it. He happily accepts the constraints of his small, outdated canvas and plays with it.

And by playing with it, he makes the antiquated relevant.

Through sheer fun, the familiar seems fresh again.

This is no small lesson as the Church presently wrings its hands over the trends showing the meteoric rise of ‘the Nones’ who report they want nothing to do with traditional Christianity. Jack White, however, shows that to give up on the tradition would be every bit the mistake it would be to go chasing after whatever the culture tells us they want.

How could they possibly know what they (don’t) want if they’ve not yet experienced it?

Rather our trust in the tradition should be strong enough such that we have the confidence to play and experiment with it. The dichotomy between ancient and contemporary misses the point.

The power is in the play- and so is the engagement.

While this may be a helpful lesson to the Church, it’s not an easy one, for such play is inherently a personal, intimate experience. It’s no surprise then that White writes all his own songs, plays all his own instruments (even makes some of them) and produces all his own records.

Playfulness with a tradition requires the authenticity of

direct engagement with the material.

Christians and congregations, White’s music would suggest, need to be hands-on involved in experimenting with the small, antiquated canvases the saints have given us.

The Church of Jack White is the opposite of passive pew-sitting and pre-packaged messages and praise lyrics that speak to no one so desperate are they to speak to everyone. The Church of Jack White doesn’t want worship songs made to sound like Coldplay but neither does it un-ironically sing antebellum hymns exactly as our forebears sang them.

In odd dress, old sound and against the grain posture Jack White intentionally presents himself as the last true rock musician in a culture that wants ‘None’ of that anymore.

Counterintuitively- or maybe not counterintuitively at all- his very popular appeal is in the promise that he can offer you what everyone else has forgotten.

Therein lies a lesson if we the Church have ears to hear.

Plus, he’s not boring.

 

Church-RainbowA few days ago a friend in my congregation emailed me, responding to a series of posts I’d written about the ‘Way Forward’ proposal in the United Methodist Church. The Way Forward is an attempt for a third way through the impasse over homosexuality which presently besets the church.

He writes- and, trust me, he’s not whatever comes to your mind when you think ‘liberal:’

In 1990 golfer Tom Watson, one of the best players on the PGA Tour and winner of 8 majors, abruptly resigned from the exclusive Kansas City country club where he had grown up and learned to play golf. He said that as a matter of personal integrity, despite great memories and a long association, he could no longer belong to an institution that discriminated aganst and blackballed Jewish, black, Hispanic and Asian prospective members.
I can belong to a church where members disagree about whether the Primeval History in Genesis is literally word-for-word true. That difference does not affect our ability to live, love and serve together in Christian community.
The homosexuality issue is different.
As part of a Christian community, we are charged to make disciples; to invite friends and acquaintances to join us in that community. How can we invite friends and acquaintances who are gay and lesbian to join a community that publicly affirms and proclaims that they are evil, cannot hold positions of leadership and may not enjoy the blessing of holy matrimony?
I question more and more whether as a matter of personal integrity I can continue to be a member of such a group. How can I acknowledge (witness) on a Facebook post that I am a member of a Methodist church and then look my gay and lesbian friends in the face the next day? Make no mistake, about 50 of my Facebook friends are gay or lesbian.
“A Way Forward” is something I can live with. I’m not sure that the status quo is. If I were not positive that you do not hold the hard-line position on his issue I would already be gone.
In case you skipped ahead, my friend’s point boils down to this:

Methodism’s posture towards gays makes for increasingly bad advertising.

Or as we like to call it in the Church: evangelism.

My own cul de sac of the United Methodist Church begins its annual 3 day conference today, and the first resolution on the docket is a motion to amend our denomination’s official language that homosexuality is ‘incompatible with Christian teaching*.’

If the resolution passes, not at all a certainty, the motion simply moves on to (possibly, maybe) be debated at the global meeting of the United Methodist Church in 2016.

 

Two full years from now.

 

Where most of the delegates will be from the most conservative parts of the world.

Meanwhile, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the denomination which educated me, just this week voted to allow gay marriages.
By the healthy margin of 429 to 175. You can read about it here.
Where Methodists are still stuck in the love the sinner/hate the sin time warp, debating whether we can officially regard homosexuals as fully human or not, Presbyterians have moved ahead to grant homosexuals access to the sanctifying grace Christians call ‘marriage.’
The Presbyterians, as this article rattles off, join the ranks of other mainline denominations which have ameliorated their previous positions on sexuality, such as the Episcopal Church, the Lutheran Church, and the United Church of Christ. Not to mention 2 out of 3 of America’s Jewish denominations.
Which leaves who exactly other than the United Methodist Church as the remaining ‘mainline’ Protestant traditions that still take a hard line against gay Christians?
Can Methodists really consider ourselves mainline anymore when we now have more in common with Southern Baptists than we do Presbyterians or the Episcopal tradition whence we came?
Do we really want to be the last ones to this party?
What will be the demographic cost of lingering prejudice associated with our particular brand of Christianity?
And I know this is the place where some will want to interject and point out how the above mentioned denominations are all smaller than they were mid-century before they purportedly went liberal. Therefore, the argument always goes, United Methodists cannot change their position without losing members and their money.
Two quick responses:
If people really do led-by-the-Spirit believe the Church should change its stance towards homosexuality then the moral imperative of that belief- our compassion for people- should outweigh our ‘compassion’ for an institution.
Likewise, if people really do led-by-the-Spirit believe the Church should keep its stance towards homosexuality then that’s fine too so long as institutional maintenance is not the mission.
Two:

There’s a pernicious fallacy in linking the gradual decline of mainline Protestantism with its supposedly liberal policy positions.

We’re not the only ones in the decline as the Pew Survey on Religion has helpfully revealed. Southern Baptists and Evangelical Churches, no liberals and no friends of gay Christians, are in their own moment of decline and, were it not for immigration, ditto the Catholic Church in America.
The ecclesial decline to which we so often turn to homosexual-support for a scapegoat actually suggests a more general cultural shift towards secularism, a shift that shows no partiality to liberal and conservative alike.
And if what churches are really experiencing is a seismic shift away from religion in general, then the stakes of the current debate over homosexuality suddenly seem a lot smaller and more urgent.

How we vote on sexuality will not determine the demise or the future of the Church; how we tackle secularism will.

 

And if secularism is the true threat to the institutional faith then, to my mind, it’s all the more imperative that we do right by what the Spirit is showing us about gay Christians.
*Of course, our denomination’s official language also marks out war, unfettered capitalism, alcohol and tobacco, and disregard for the creation as contradictory with our Christian faith so let’s keep things in perspective and not suppose sexuality is the lynchpin of the moral universe.

In my sermon on Sunday for our Razing Hell series I mentioned how many people I’ve encountered in ministry who’ve been damaged by Christians talking fast and loose about Hell.

One of the first pastoral visits I ever made was to an 80-something woman who was only days from dying. Her niece was somehow connected to someone in my church and asked that I stop by to see her. Still a seminary student, I didn’t really know what I was doing.

Long story short, I learned from the dying woman that 60 years earlier she stopped worshipping, stopped attending church, stopped practicing her faith all together, convinced God looked upon her with condemnation and would one day send her to Hell.

Why?

Because she’d divorced her husband and her priest told her matter of factly that she would go to Hell for it. And sixty some years hence she lay in an adjustable automatic bed on her enclosed porch, struggling to breath and swallow, but holding on to life because she feared the after life.

A corollary of God being the Word made flesh is that words matter.

What we say about Hell (and Heaven) can do harm.

This week NPR is doing a series of stories about the ‘Nones,’ those who report to pollsters that they identify with no religious tradition. The series is called ‘Losing Our Religion.‘ On Monday, the report included a young person who bailed on Christianity because of callous Christian speech about Hell.

Today, the report highlighted a widow who righteously rejected her faith after Christian peers tried to sugarcoat her grief by telling her that her dead husband was in a ‘better place.’

Here’s the transcript. Click here to listen to the story.

rich_man_and_lazarus

The Mile High Gliding facility at the Boulder Airport in Colorado is one of Carol Fiore’s favorite haunts. And it’s a perfect day for flying: clear, breezy and with a gorgeous view of the Rocky Mountains.

Fiore used to fly gliders regularly, but a few years ago she stopped. Flying them had become painful.

“I felt, in a way, that I was searching for something that wasn’t there,” Fiore says. “I was looking for that laughter and that incredible time that I had flying with Eric, and he wasn’t in the plane with me. I was by myself.”

Eric was Fiore’s husband for 20 years. After they married, he flew F-15s in the Air Force. Then the couple moved to Wichita, Kan., where he was a test pilot for the airplane manufacturer Bombardier.

On Oct. 10, 2000, the plane Eric was co-piloting crashed upon takeoff. When Fiore arrived at Via Christi Hospital, she learned that her husband had sustained burns over 50 percent of his body.

“Then I found out they had given him his last rites,” she says.

That wasn’t a surprise, since Via Christi is a Catholic hospital. But even after Fiore announced that Eric would not want anyone praying for him, a priest hovered and prayed, day after day. Finally, she kicked the priest out.

Bristling At ‘A Better Place’

“I think that was a turning point in the whole religion thing for me,” Fiore recalls. “That was the point when I said, ‘You know what?’ — and I told Eric this when he was laying there on the bed — I said, ‘Eric, I don’t care anymore that we have to pretend not to be atheist.’

” ‘We respected people’s religions our whole entire life and I can’t do it anymore,’ ” she told him. ” ‘People are going to respect you now, and you told me you didn’t want them praying over you, and that’s it.’ “

Fiore told everyone that she and Eric were atheists. And still, as he lingered near death for 36 days, people offered religious consolation. “God has a plan,” they told her. “Eric is going to a better place.”

“When he was in the hospital and they said that, he was lying in a bed with tubes coming out with 50 percent burns and no face,” Fiore says. “Is that a better place?”

Fiore continued to hear the sentiment after Eric’s death. “I’m an atheist,” she says. “Eric is in the ground, rotting. I know it sounds horrible to say that, but that is where he is. How is that a better place?”

After Eric’s funeral — which was held in an airplane hangar, not a church — Fiore was flailing. She was hardly able to take care of herself, much less her two young daughters. All the grief groups she found were attached to a church … so she tried the self-help section of Barnes & Noble.

“I was searching frantically for anything that would help me get through this,” Fiore recalls. “But everything I found had to do with God: putting your faith in God, believing that God had some sort of plan. I found nothing to help me.”

Fiore realized she would have to go it alone. She and her two girls moved from Wichita to Loveland, Colo., and as a coping mechanism, she began to write a book — not yet published — about her husband, as well as a grief workbook for atheists.

But mainly, it’s her daughters who give Eric’s tragic death some measure of meaning.

“I don’t believe in an afterlife and I don’t think I’ll see him anymore,” Fiore says. “But I just have to look in Tia’s eyes and hear her laugh, and hear Robin talk about history the same way that Eric did, and know that he is still there.”

Fiore’s daughter Robin, a student at the University of Colorado, Boulder, plans to go on to graduate school in science. She says she sees her father’s genetic influence in herself and in her sister.

“As an ecologist and as a scientist, we believe that when you die, your energy becomes part of a system again,” Robin says. “So there is a sense that he’s part of a system again. And in that way, I guess, people can never really be gone.”

And yet, her mother believes it’s harder for her to grieve because she’s an atheist.

When Mari Bailey’s son, Michael, was killed by an acquaintance in Phoenix in 2004, she lost not only her son but her faith as well.

Barbara Bradley Hagerty/NPR

“I often envy religious people who have that devout faith,” Fiore says. “They know that they’re going to see their … loved ones again when they die. But I don’t believe that. Sometimes, I wish I did.”

Faith Shaken, But Rarely Destroyed

This is a sentiment that Joanne Cacciatore, a professor at Arizona State University, hears often. After her baby died in 1994, Cacciatore started the MISS Foundation, a grief group for parents that has since extended nationwide. She also began focusing her research on how people grieve after a child dies.

Cacciatore says the group has observed that people with some type of spiritual base don’t necessarily cope more easily with the loss, but “they tend to take comfort or solace by the fact that they’ll be reunited with their child at some point,” she says.

Cacciatore says she’s seen nonbelievers embrace spirituality, and religious people wash their hands of God, in the aftermath of tragedy. But most often, she says, tragedy shakes your faith but doesn’t destroy it.

“What we find in the research — my own research and in other studies — is that their faith is generally challenged in some way,” she says. “And yet, they tend to come back full circle to a place of spiritual belief or faith.”

One theme is clear, Cacciatore says: Religious leaders are really bad at comforting people in grief. She surveyed more than 550 families, asking whom they found the most helpful during those first terrible days: first responders, doctors and nurses, social workers, psychologists, funeral directors or spiritual leaders.

“And of all of those, the spiritual leaders actually came in last,” she says.

This is something Mari Bailey can understand. She’s parked across from a brown stucco house in Phoenix. And while it isn’t her home, she knows it well.

“When you walk in, there’s a kitchen, a very small kitchen,” Bailey says. “And that’s where Michael was shot.”

Her only son, Michael, was 21, fresh out of the Navy and newly enrolled in culinary school when he was killed in that house in August 2004. Bailey’s last memory of her son is vivid, hopeful.

“Michael had changed into his chef’s uniform, with his checkered pants and poofy hat, and he looked so cute,” Bailey recalls. “He said, ‘Well, Mom, I’m ready for school.’ He said, ‘I love you,’ and gave me a big hug. And that was the last time I saw him fully conscious.”

After school, Michael went to a friend’s house. An acquaintance dropped by and started yelling and waving a gun around. He shot Michael close up, square in the chest.

“That was when my world just shattered,” Bailey says. Soon, her faith would follow.

‘I’m Alone In This … I Need To Save Myself’

After Michael died, Bailey sought solace at St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church, where she and her siblings were baptized and took their First Communion. The priest there told her, “We all have our crosses to bear,” and, “It was time for God to call Michael home.”

But Bailey thought a priest couldn’t possibly understand the pain of losing a child.

“I just remember thinking, ‘That’s it. I’m done with the Catholic religion,’ ” Bailey says. “I think it got more personal with God when I tried just praying on my own. Then I became more angry and I questioned, ‘Why do I need to be praying at all? Why is my son dead? And what kind of God lets a child be shot?’

“And, I think that was more me, not only just leaving the Catholic religion, but that was me leaving God, too,” Bailey says.

But that decision brought her no relief.

“It was hard. It was a really hard break from religion to, ‘Uh oh, what am I going to use to save me now?’ And I really came to the realization that, yeah, I’m alone in this and I need to save myself,” she says.

Bailey saved herself by learning everything she could about traumatic grief — the subject of her dissertation.

Education helps her, she says, because “even though you might be falling apart into a million pieces, you at least know why, and where you’re at in the process. And you also know what’s going to happen next, according to the research.”

The research suggests one of the best ways to heal is to help others. Bailey runs a grief group for students in the high school where she teaches, and another for parents whose pain is usually fresher than her own.

Bailey is also on the board of directors of Parents of Murdered Children, for which she leads a monthly meeting. At a recent gathering, mothers told of children whose end was too violent, too soon: a son killed in a random gunfight; a daughter killed by a burglar; a son killed by his cousin; a daughter killed by her jealous partner.

It is here, in the pain, that Bailey feels a little more whole. And yet, she can’t quite abandon the hope of seeing her son again.

“For the sake of Michael, I just need to believe that there is more to life beyond death,” she says. “Because if it’s not, than that means that my son’s life is over completely.”

Bailey wishes she could believe in God again. But, she says, “I just can’t.”

23COVER-articleInlineTomorrow evening at 3, 5, 7, 9 and 11 many of the pews will be occupied by what preachers and church people call the ‘Christmas crowd.’ Or, as they’re called in the NY Times opinion piece this Sunday, ‘Chreasters,’ those who attend only on Christmas and Easter.

Every year, like the Times article, there’s a story in the paper or on TV talking about the preacher’s challenge on Christmas Eve. They  always want to know how does the preacher come up with a creative, attention-grabbing, stuffed-to-the-gills-with-the-gospel sermon to connect with those people who only come on Christmas Eve, who only come because their mother-in-law makes them, who will never come again until next Christmas. Or maybe Easter.

When it comes to the ‘Christmas Crowd’ here’s what I can’t say about them in my sermon tomorrow night:

The dirty little secret is that often the way preachers and church people talk about ‘Chreasters’ makes them sound like the bad guys, like we want to make them feel guilty for not being regular church-going people.

Which doesn’t make any sense to me because I gotta think ‘Chreasters’ are exactly the sort of people Jesus would prefer to hang out with.

It’s true. It’s all in the bible: those of us who look down our noses at those who only show up once or twice a year, while we faithfully serve and worship God week after week, have more in common in with the Pharisees, who killed Jesus, than we do with those Jesus chose to hang out with. How ironic is it that Matthew, to whom one of the Gospels is attributed and from whom many churches will be reading tomorrow night, was a tax collector. Not a good religious person.

So rather than looking down on them with guilt-inducing contempt. We should, like the Lord we adore, simply welcome them in the thrill to be with them.

The NY Times article reflects on how the changing demographics and the rise of the religiously unaffiliated means there will be less ‘Chreasters’ in the pews tomorrow night than ever before. As someone who loves Jesus, I gotta think that’s a bad thing.

THIS week millions of “Chreasters” — Americans who attend church only on Christmas and Easter — will crowd into pews to sing carols and renew their vague relationship with the Christian God. This year, there may be fewer Chreasters than ever. A growing number of “nones” live in our midst: those who say they have no religious affiliation at all. An October Pew Research Center poll revealed that they now account for 20 percent of the population, up from 16 percent in 2008.

Avoiding church does not excuse Americans from marking the birth of Jesus, however. Most of us have no choice but to stay home from work or school — and if you complain about this glaring exception to the separation between church and state, you must be a scrooge with no heart for tradition. Christmas has been a federal holiday for 142 years.

Yet Christianity’s preferential place in our culture and civil law came under fire this year, and not simply because more Americans reject institutional religion. The Obama administration subtly worked to expand the scope of protected civil rights to include access to legal marriage and birth control. Catholic bishops and evangelical activists declared that Washington was running roughshod over religious liberty and abandoning the country’s founding values, while their opponents accused them of imposing one set of religious prejudices on an increasingly pluralistic population. The Christian consensus that long governed our public square is disintegrating. American secularism is at a crossroads.

The narrative on the right is this: Once upon a time, Americans honored the Lord, and he commissioned their nation to welcome all faiths while commanding them to uphold Christian values. But in recent decades, the Supreme Court ruled against prayer in public schools, and legalized abortion, while politicians declared “war on Christmas” and kowtowed to the “homosexual lobby.” Conservative activists insist that they protest these developments not to defend special privileges for Christianity, but to respect the founders’ desire for universal religious liberty — rooted, they say, in the Christian tradition.

The controversial activist David Barton has devoted his career to popularizing this “forgotten history” through lectures, books and home-school curriculums. Mr. Barton insists that “biblical Christianity in America produced many of the cherished traditions still enjoyed today,” including “protection for religious toleration and the rights of conscience.”

Bryan Fischer, spokesman for the American Family Association, told me that he saw the “nones” as proof that “the foundations of our culture are crumbling.” The Pew poll, he said, “is one of the signs.” A couple of weeks after we spoke, he told a radio audience that God did not protect the children killed in the Newtown, Conn., massacre because of the Supreme Court decisions banning prayer and Bible reading in public schools. “God is not going to go where he is not wanted,” Mr. Fischer said.

How accurate is this story of decline into godlessness? Is America, supposedly God’s last bastion in the Western world, rejecting faith and endangering religious liberty?

The truth is that “nones” are nothing new. Religion has been a feature of human society since Neanderthal times, but so has religious indifference. Our illusions of the past as a golden age of faith tend to cloud our assessment of today’s religious landscape. We think of atheism and religious apathy as uniquely modern spiritual options, ideas that Voltaire and Hume devised in a coffee house one rainy afternoon sometime in the 18th century. Before the Enlightenment, legend has it, peasants hurried to church every week and princes bowed and scraped before priests.

Historians have yet to unearth Pew studies from the 13th century, but it is safe to say that we frequently overestimate medieval piety. Ordinary people often skipped church and had a feeble grasp of basic Christian dogma. Many priests barely understood the Latin they chanted — and many parishes lacked any priest at all. Bishops complained about towns that used their cathedrals mainly as indoor markets or granaries. Lest Protestants blame this irreverence on Catholic corruption, the evidence suggests that it continued after Martin Luther nailed his theses to the Wittenberg church door. In 1584, census takers in Antwerp discovered that the city had a larger proportion of “nones” than 21st-century America: a full third of residents claimed no religious affiliation.

Here’s the rest of the article.