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.
Last week, I offered a definition of imperial religions and suggested why and how they decline along with the imperial power structures that support them. This week, I would like to extend that analysis by looking at American Christianity as an imperial religion and drawing out some of the consequences for American Christian numerical decline from this analysis. Next week, I will examine some thoughts about what this analysis means for alternative futures of American Christianity.
I suggested that an imperial religion is "one whose symbols serve to affirm the reality of the imperial ordering of the world within its orbit. Put another way, imperial religions are those which accept and promote the power structures of empire." Thus, to say that American Christianity is an imperial religion is to suggest that American Christianity does serve and has served to affirm the ways in which the United States has sought to order the world and the power structures that have allowed it to do so.
Some may object to the premise of this analysis by asserting that the United States has never been an empire in the sense of holding vast territories. Yet, there are two problems with this analysis: First, Filipinos, Cubans, and others can quickly point out that the United States has indeed held territory outside its imperial center. Second, most analyses of empire examine it as about the exercise of power rather than direct control of territory. The British did not formally control Indian territory until 1857, but India was under the influence of the British Empire long before.
If American Christianity has functioned as an imperial religion, then there should be similarities in the trajectories of American Christianity and American foreign power. Indeed, that is exactly what one sees looking historically. Overall religious membership was low in the American colonies and early decades of the United States. US church membership began to increase significantly at the end of the 19th century, just as the United States became more influential internationally through expanded economic and political power. That upward trajectory continued through the 1950s, as the United States won two world wars and created an international political and economic system structured around its interests.
Decline in religious membership began at about the same time that the United States was proving unable to assert its international interests through the Vietnam War. While anti-Communist evangelical Protestantism and conservative Catholicism saw continued growth in the midst of the context of the end of the Cold War and its immediate aftermath, decline for all religious groups has accelerated in recent years, as the United States has again experienced vulnerability and setbacks in its foreign policy objectives, especially through, though not limited to, the 9/11 attacks and the War on Terror.
The decline of Christianity has been most marked among white liberals, who are also most likely to be critical of neoconservative ideas about America's place in the world. It is more resilient among white conservatives, who are more likely to hold an "America first" attitude about the United State's place in the world. It is highest among racial and ethnic minorities where religion serves as a marker of those group identities in addition to its function as a religion of American empire.
Of course, this may all be correlation rather than causation. Still, the fit seems close enough to warrant indulging further in this line of thinking.
At this point, it seems that, while the United States will continue to be an influential player in international politics and economics, the American century of unquestioned American predominance has ended. China is effectively challenging US economic predominance. Increased nationalism at home and abroad undercuts US cultural soft power. The mid-20th century post-war order built on a system of international alliances and institutions is looking increasingly rickety.
Along with this diminution of American imperial power, American Christian membership is continuing to decline significantly and shows no signs of reversing any time soon. Younger generations are increasingly secular, and almost all population groups within the United States are moving away from Christian affiliation. This trend thus continues the correlation between imperial power and religious strength, at least as measured by membership, though now in a downward fashion.
Thus, it makes sense to presume that, given anticipated decline in US imperial power, American Christianity will continue to decline in terms of members, as well as less easily-measured aspects such as practice and belief. Denominational reorganizations, changes in or affirmations of sexual teaching, trendy new styles of worship, and other revitalization strategies may make some difference for individual congregations or Christian groups, but these are all paddling against the current and unlikely to reverse the overall trend.
One might presume that if American Christianity is to avoid further decline as US international influence wanes, it must transform into a non-imperial religion. Yet that is much easier said than done. It is extremely difficult to de-couple an imperial religious tradition from empire.
Imperial underpinnings are not just about one or two doctrines that can be easily rejected or amended. They are woven into the practices, symbols, assumptions, and meanings of a religious system, often in ways so subtle that they are difficult to detect by those at the imperial center. Empire is the lens through which those at the imperial center see the world, including their religion. It is not easy to see the world from another perspective, let alone to see oneself and one's assumptions from another perspective. To create a post-imperial future depends on much more than loudly proclaiming that one will now be "de-colonial" in one's approach to the world. American Christians of all theopolitical stripes have proclaimed how they (unlike their opponents) are not colonial, all the while behaving in ways that continue to presume their preeminence as people from the imperial center.
Moreover, even if one were somehow successful in removing the imperial meanings from an imperial religion, that would leave the religion empty of meaning (and thus devoid of followers) unless something else is added back in. Because imperial conceptions give meaning to the symbols of an imperial religion, taking away those imperial meanings leaves nothing behind without new meanings taking their place.
If this analysis of American Christianity as an imperial religion holds, then the future continuation of American Christianity depends just as much if not more so upon American Christians' ability to add new, non-imperial meanings to the religion than it is upon their ability to sufficiently critique and root out imperial meanings within the religion. I will say more about that possibility next week.