This morning brought a fresh round of discussion of religion and American moral culture, most notably a piece in the Times by David Brooks, and piece he references, in Time, by Rod Dreher. These add to the accumulating formation of a conversation about the prospects of American religion post-2015.

Brooks and Dreher like to call this a major marker the “Post-Christian” era, where a long-term decline in the force and significance of Christianity in American culture has become more obvious.

I’d like to respond to two claims in Brooks’s piece that deserve elaboration. First, Brooks sees the decline of Christianity entirely in terms of its waning influence on social values. What Dreher calls “Orthodox” Christianity (and by this he does not mean Eastern Orthodoxy, of course) no longer rules.

There are two parts to this. First, it is mistaken to conflate all of Christianity under one banner when considering this period of “decline.” In fact, Protestantism and Catholicism have distinct histories in this period of change and it obscures much to think of them together. And, I might add, a lot of ideology is wrapped up in exactly what period we have in mind? Do we mean across the whole of the 20th-Century (from the rise of the Fundamentalist movement onward)? Do we mean from mid-Century (where the role of the Neo-Evangelical movement comes to the fore)? Do we mean from the 80s onward (when Catholic conservatives began to come into full alliance with pro-Life Protestants)? Each of these “eras” binds you to a different version of the history, of authority, of the equities involved, and of the political and civic consequences.

Second, Brooks’s argument that “decline” must be seen entirely in moral terms is also debatable. Much of the language about “decline” speaks not to the influence of religious authority on the practice of social values but instead to the location of religious authority in public moral discourse, in the civic spaces where the consensual values of the culture are negotiated. In fact, religious authority lost its ability to direct social practice long ago, probably around the time that divorce rates in the US began their inexorable climb.

No, this whole argument is about something other than “values” per se, it is about who has the right to say–and where. Will “religion” ever again be able to be a singular voice in the culture in the way it once was?

But was it?

This is where it gets very complicated. We need to remember that for most of its history, this has been a nation defined, religiously, as Protestant, and defined by Protestant principles and by the authority of a Protestant Establishment. The era when that was the case (when was that exactly?). Certainly well before the 60s (about that I can agree with David Brooks). And when that authority was in that position—historians tell us—it was already itself needing to accommodate to religious change and religious diversity.

In fact, the reaction of the Establishment churches to the 60s evidenced this confrontation. That is what they are now excoriated for by conservatives like Brooks and Ross Douthat. In their view, Liberal Protestantism lost its way when it failed to “confront” the social revolution that roiled the North Atlantic West in the 60s.  This is a profound mis-reading of what the Protestant Establishment could have done and might have done and what might be possible for pretenders to that mantle (Orthodox Christians?) today.

There is a lot more that could be said, but I’ll again revert to my role as a scholar of religion and the media to point out how much of this is actually about media and mediation. The media in fact are the geography on which these battles were and are fought out, and it is articulation of the symbolic meaning of religious authority or ascendancy in public (and therefore its mediated presence) that is the motive force in all this. And, authority itself through much of this period of change has been media authority. Brooks himself, in the piece that occasioned my writing here, points to figures like Jerry Falwell as examples of a possible Conservative “dead-ender” reaction to all this change.

In the mid-20th Century, media changed everything for religion, including creating a space or a context for struggle over the symbolic meaning of which religions are “up” and which are “down” and how we even define things like “Christian Orthodoxy.” Why search for answers in supposedly concrete and material spheres like “social values” when we should be understanding this as a debate over various imaginations of religion?

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