Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Mission Theologian at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.
Within the sociology of religion, the secularization thesis states that religion becomes a less significant part of societies and individual lives as history progresses. The evolution of religion in Europe in the past century has been the main evidence cited in support of this theory, though recent declines in religious belief and identity in the United States have injected new life into this debate.
A variety of causal mechanisms are suggested as the driving force(s) behind secularization. These include modernity broadly, the rise of science and de-mythologizing of people's worldviews, urbanization, religious and social pluralization, the rise of market capitalism, an increase in individualism, and others. I will not rehearse the details of this debate here.
But as I've been thinking about the relationship between religion and power recently, another possibility has occurred to me: What if the process of secularization in Europe and the United States was actually related to the collapse of empire?
In this version of the theory, a decrease in collective and individual religiosity within a society is connected to a decreased sense of national power and efficacy brought on, at least in these recent cases, by the collapse of formal or informal imperial systems. In Europe and North America, there has been a lengthy and tight relationship between Christianity and government. When European empires expanded, Christianity traveled with them, though it was admittedly a complicated relationship. Given that sustained history of connection, we should not be surprised, then, if a decline in imperial power should have implications for the religion which for so long had been connected to it.
This explanation would make sense of the timing of secularization in most of Europe (1950s and 1960s) and its later onset in the United States (2000s and 2010s), despite similar levels of modernization on other scales. It would also explain the greater resilience of religion in Eastern Europe (which had lower participation in the age of imperialism) than in Western Europe, though there are certainly individual outliers, such as the Czech Republic.
Moreover, this explanation might account for the different trajectories in the United States between mainline Protestants and Catholics, on the one hand, and evangelical Protestants, on the other, given that mainline Protestants and Catholics were impacted by post-colonial critiques much earlier than evangelical Protestants, who were forced to reckon with the United States' changed role in the world more significantly only after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. It also could explain differences between white and non-white religiosity. The religiosity of white Americans, who have been the primary beneficiaries of American empire, has declined faster than that of people of color, who have been farther from the seats of American imperial power.
This explanation also fits with general impressions I have about the difficulty that American Methodism has with providing a theological accounting of failure of any type and the difficulties that British Methodism has faced in providing an accounting for Britain's changed role in the world since the 1960s. In both cases, a loss of confidence seems to be both cause and effect of membership decline.
This thesis (and secularization theory in general) may well be incorrect. I have not done extensive research to substantiate it. But if there is at least a kernal of truth in it, it has several implications for the fields of missiology and World Christianity.
First, the amount of research that missiologists have done on the relationship between Christianity and empire makes them well-prepared to investigate this connection. While most of this research has looked at the relationships as they have played out in imperial territories, there is more of this story to be written about the relationship between Christianity and imperial power in imperial metropoles, and mission historians could easily be the ones to write it.
Second, if secularization is caused by the relationship between Christianity and secular power and declines in that secular power, rather than modernization or other factors, that would give scholars of World Christianity curious or concerned about the future of Christianity outside of Europe and North America a new set of indicators to pay attention to.
Rather than wondering whether economic development will undercut religious belief, this thesis would lead scholars to pay more attention to the relationship between Christian groups and local political power and the power trajectories of nations. In many cases where Christianity is far from political power, there should be little concern about secularization. Furthermore, even when Christianity is proximate to political power, but that power is not waning, Christianity should (at least for the time being) be unaffected.
Finally, such a connection would give missiologists another consideration in setting evangelistic strategy as it relates to proximity to secular power. The proper relationship between Christianity and societal elites has been a debate for hundreds of years within mission circles, with pros and cons enumerated on both sides. This thesis would, however, suggest that those "who take the sword will perish by the sword."