Casey Chalk

As Christianity Declines, We Must Confront the Threat of Pagan America

Christians cannot simply escape into their little ghettoes. The Christian religion cannot avoid witnessing in the public square, and its adherents, whether they be doctors, lawyers, teachers, government employees, business owners, or landscapers, cannot help but have their work informed by their faith. That battle, even if it is a losing one, must be fought in every place inhabited by faithful Christians, an exemplar of Hunter’s “faithful presence” in this disastrously post-Christian society.

In 2010, sociologist James Davison Hunter, famous for, among other things, popularizing the term “culture war” provocatively argued in To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World that conservative Christian attempts to restore Christian values on American society were misguided, if not harmful.
Such efforts to “redeem America,” argued Hunter, not only hadn’t worked but would never work, both because they represented an erroneous grasp of how cultures change, and because they distracted the faithful from their real task as Christians. Instead, Christians should pursue what Hunter termed “faithful presence,” by focusing on living authentically Christian lives in our families, communities, and spheres of influence, rather than programmatic political or cultural solutions.
Almost 15 years removed from Hunter’s book, things look quite a bit gloomier for Christianity in America. Over that period, the number of religiously unaffiliated adults has almost doubled to 28 percent; weekly church attendance rates have dropped from about 40 percent to 30 percent; and 80 percent of American adults believe religion’s influence on public life is declining. De-Christianizing trends are particularly salient among younger generations, who are less likely than older Americans to believe the government should protect religious liberty. Almost half of Gen Z-ers think the First Amendment should not protect hate speech (which, according to many Americans, includes religious criticism of LGBT identities and behaviors).
We inhabit an America less friendly to Christianity than was the case halfway through Obama’s first term as president. Various political, cultural, and demographic trends suggest that antipathy will only grow in the years to come. In Pagan America: The Decline of Christianity and the Dark Age to Come, Federalist Senior Editor John Daniel Davidson offers an even more pessimistic perspective: We’re already in a post-Christian society that is paganizing (or re-paganizing, to take the long historical view) in ways that will make life increasingly difficult and dangerous for American Christians.
From Pagan Exploitation to Christian Human Dignity
The historical narrative grade-school and collegiate students learn today portrays pre-modern societies across the world living in peaceful symbiosis with nature… until they were brutally defeated, if not destroyed by an intolerant Christian civilization. Davidson relates a number of historical anecdotes proving how blinkered this story is. Whether we are talking about the ancient societies of the Mediterranean, pagan northern Europe, or indigenous America, all demonstrated a profound disregard for (or exploitation of) the weak and vulnerable. Davidson cites the Vikings, Aztecs, and 19th-century kingdom of Benin as civilizations engaging in ritual human sacrifice to appease angry, bloodthirsty gods, but there are plenty of others.
Judaism and then Christianity repudiated such societies, built as they were on power, fear, and the fulfillment of base sensual desires. It was the church that rejected the common Roman practice of abandoning (if not murdering) unwanted children, stopped human sacrifice in northern Europe, and discouraged polygamy in the Americas and Africa.
Citing Tom Holland’s popular book Dominion, Davidson writes: “Human rights, equality, care for the poor, mercy for the condemned, refuge for the persecuted, charity for the marginalized and downtrodden: these were never self-evident truths.” Rather, “they are unmistakably Christian ideas that rely on specifically Christian doctrines, without which they are unintelligible.” Obviously, Christian societies were by no means perfect and were often hypocritical, but it’s undeniable that they ushered in a paradigmatic shift via their understanding of the dignity of the human person.
This was no less true of the culture of the founders, who, though coming from a variety of religious traditions, recognized the need for the maintenance and propagation of religion and morality for the survival of the republic, something that can be found across their letters, including in the Federalist Papers.
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A Church without God Is Dead on Arrival

A church without God, prayer, or the Bible; a church for fellowship not faith, service not sacraments: that’s supposedly what lonely Americans need. Yet can such a civically focused ecclesial institution, or set of institutions, replace our increasingly empty (or repurposed) churches? In fact, they already exist, and have proved just as incapable of replacing the role vacated by that “old time religion.”

We need a church for the nones, or Americans who say they don’t belong to a particular religion. That’s what The Washington Post’s Perry Bacon calls for in a much-ballyhooed column last month. “Start the service with songs with positive messages. … Reserve time when church members can tell the congregation about their highs and lows from the previous week. Listen as the pastor gives a sermon on tolerance or some other universal value, while briefly touching on whatever issues are in the news,” Bacon suggests. Sunday services would be supplemented by volunteer, community-service activities, he adds.
Bacon, who grew up evangelical, communicates a yearning felt by many Americans in this atomized age. Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy, in a recent advisory titled “Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation,” asserted: “Religious or faith-based groups can be a source for regular social contact, serve as a community of support, provide meaning and purpose, create a sense of belonging around shared values and beliefs, and are associated with reduced risk-taking behaviors.” Church, even our post-Christian culture can admit, is healthy for us. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., argued much the same in a June speech, citing the values of churches to address our “epidemic of loneliness” by giving us “connection” and “meaning.”
A church without God, prayer, or the Bible; a church for fellowship not faith, service not sacraments: that’s supposedly what lonely Americans need. Yet can such a civically focused ecclesial institution, or set of institutions, replace our increasingly empty (or repurposed) churches? In fact, they already exist, and have proved just as incapable of replacing the role vacated by that “old time religion.”
Mainline Protestantism Has Already Failed at Church Without God
Some have recommended Unitarian Universalism, which welcomes a wide diversity of religious (or areligious) beliefs as long as their adherents accept various mantras associated with the political left (e.g. “justice, equity and compassion in human relations”). Yet Bacon doesn’t like the fact that the Unitarian Universalist church remains predominantly white and elderly, and lacks activities for children. He also cites a 10-year-old organization called Sunday Assembly that has attempted to establish “nonreligious congregations” around the world, though the group, which promotes “wonder and good” and “celebrat[ing] life,” is attracting few followers.
But let’s be frank. We don’t need to look to secular simulacrums of Christianity to identify craven appeasements to the gods of progressivism. Liberal Protestants long ago capitulated to the gods of the left and are little more than mouthpieces for the Democrat Party.
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How the False Promises of the Sexual Revolution Created a New Religion

Mary Eberstadt’s new book, “Adam and Eve After the Pill, Revisited,” agues, not only has the sexual revolution been disastrous for American society, politics, and churches, but it has become a simulacrum of a religion, with its own dogmas, creeds, and saints. One of the most arresting substories of Eberstadt’s book is how the sexual revolution — and its celebration of contraceptive sex — resulted in the exact opposite of its promoters’ promises. Instead of reducing abortion, out-of-wedlock births, divorce, and fatherlessness, it accelerated them. Eberstadt cites a 2015 study that found contraception encourages sexual encounters and relationships that would not have happened without it.

In the days leading up to Texas federal Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk’s ruling on a lawsuit seeking to revoke U.S. government approval of abortion drug mifepristone, the Washington Post ran a front-page feature (read: hit piece) on him. It is not difficult to intuit that authors Caroline Kitchener and Ann E. Marimow wrote the article to undermine Kacsmaryk’s credibility by painting him as a religious zealot whose rulings are influenced by his adherence to “biblical scripture” (their bizarre phrase, not mine), rather than a careful, unbiased consideration of American jurisprudence.
It’s unsurprising the dogmatically pro-abortion WaPo would run such a piece. But what is curious is that WaPo ran the article despite having so little ammunition to support their not-so-subtle thesis. Among the evidence weighed against Kacsmaryk includes that he was raised in a pro-life Christian family; he served on the board of the pro-life organization Christian Homes and Family Services; and he “prays often … and is constantly rereading the Bible.” Beware those Bible-reading (excuse me, “biblical scripture”-reading) federal judges!

Besides proving the embarrassing religious ignorance of leftist corporate media (the piece went through at least three rounds of edits, for goodness’ sake), the WaPo feature also demonstrates something else: the pervasiveness of the fruits of the sexual revolution over our culture, especially that of our secular elites.

In that sense, the response of the Washington Post — and, for that matter, all institutions of the secular left — to the fallout from the Supreme Court’s Dobbs v. Jackson ruling adds further credence to Mary Eberstadt’s new book, “Adam and Eve After the Pill, Revisited.” For, Eberstadt argues, not only has the sexual revolution been disastrous for American society, politics, and churches, but it has become a simulacrum of a religion, with its own dogmas, creeds, and saints.
The Exploitation of Women
One of the most arresting substories of Eberstadt’s book is how the sexual revolution — and its celebration of contraceptive sex — resulted in the exact opposite of its promoters’ promises. Instead of reducing abortion, out-of-wedlock births, divorce, and fatherlessness, it accelerated them. Eberstadt cites a 2015 study that found contraception encourages sexual encounters and relationships that would not have happened without it.
“In other words, when couples use contraception, they agree to sex when pregnancy would be a problem,” the study’s author argued. The frequent consequence of that choice, unsurprisingly, has been more abortions.

Contraception, as much as it has “empowered” women to delay or avoid pregnancy, has also enabled men to avoid the responsibilities of fatherhood through what sociologist Mark Regnerus called “Cheap Sex” in his 2017 book. Economist Timothy Reichart in 2010 examined data from the 1960s onward that showed “the contraceptive revolution has resulted in a massive redistribution of wealth and power from women and children to men.”

How? By creating a “prisoner’s dilemma” in which women are encouraged to “enter the sex market and remain there for as long as possible,” even though the ultimate result of this will be less happiness for them, as well as increasing the likelihood of divorce, infidelity, and the desire for abortion.

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Listen to Your Elders, Not the Experts

It is not age-old wisdom, but credentialed expertise that engenders our trust nowadays. We take our cue not from grandpa and grandma and their advice of “a little bourbon on the gums,” but from experts in psychology and sociology penning peer-reviewed studies that tell us obvious, common-sense verities.

Several years ago my wife and I attended a party composed mostly of DINK (dual incomes, no kids) urbanites. We acknowledged to a pregnant woman and her husband that we had two children at home under the age of three. The wife, an expectant first-time mother, expressed her grave fears about crying babies, and confessed that she had spent hours searching for all the right videos she could show her newborn on her iPad to entertain or distract. Jokingly, I responded: “Well, what else can one do?” She, misunderstanding, nodded in solemn agreement.
Call me late to the party, but I just got around to reading Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt’s 2018 best-seller The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting Up a Generation for Failure, based on the authors’ viral 2015 Atlantic article. It is a decent book, identifying three terrible ideas popular among young Americans: we are fragile human beings who need to be protected from all pain or discomfort; that we should unequivocally trust our emotions; and that life is a battle between categorically good and evil people. Lukianoff and Haidt even offer some solid practical solutions to address these problems.
But as I read Coddling of the American Mind, I kept thinking of that nervous millennial couple clutching their electronic devices, trusting that technology and technocratic expertise, and not inherited wisdom, was the key to perfect parenting. Lukianoff and Haidt identify trends among American youth stemming from that parental faith in technology as something that can protect their children from harm, or, heaven forbid, anything that might curb future academic and professional success.
“On average, eighteen-year-olds today have spent less time unsupervised and have hit fewer developmental milestones on the path to autonomy (such as getting a job or a driver’s license), compared with eighteen-year-olds in previous generations,” they write. Smartphones and social media have in turn dramatically altered the way American children spend their time and the types of physical and social experiences that guide their development (or lack thereof, as the case may be). The results are alarming, to say the least. “Children deprived of free play are likely to be less competent — physically and socially — as adults. They are likely to be less tolerant of risk, and more prone to anxiety disorders.”
Members of iGen have far higher rates of anxiety and depression, and the suicide rate of adolescent girls has doubled since 2007. Many experts claim frequent use of smartphones and other electronic devices are the primary cause of that increase in mental illness. Add to that paranoid helicopter parenting (“safetyism”) that restricts children’s exposure to danger or ability to “develop their intrinsic antifragility,” and it is little wonder our universities have descended into hotbeds of emotive, activist outrage, prone to violent hysterics when confronted with any perceived threats to students’ well-being.
Lukianoff and Haidt offer many practical solutions for modern parents, most of which are aimed at restraining their protectionist tendencies and letting kids explore the world, encounter ideas different than their own, and even (gasp!) fail.
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Today’s Kids Despise Authority Thanks to a Disastrous Duo: Lockdowns And CRT

Let there be no doubt: It is the corrosive effects of lockdowns and the anti-racism education regime that best explain a generation of American students who oscillate between laziness and violent activism. Kids lost out on more than a year, and sometimes multiple years, of essential socialization and time in the classroom. When they were “educated,” they were exhorted to challenge authority and spit on the political, cultural, and economic inheritance bequeathed to them by their forebears. Moreover, the more students witnessed school authorities abdicate their responsibility, the more their activist, anti-authority mentality was reinforced.

The kids are not all right. The number of school shootings in 2020-2021 was the highest (93 in total) since 2000-2001, according to a recently released report by the National Center for Education Statistics. Other negative indicators also increased since the pandemic lockdowns: cyberbullying, student verbal abuse of teachers, student acts of disrespect for teachers other than verbal abuse, and widespread disorder in the classroom.
A separate federal study released in early July found that more than 80 percent of public schools reported that the pandemic had taken a toll on student behavior and social-emotional development, and that more than 70 percent of schools saw increases in chronic student absenteeism since the onset of the pandemic (and school closures). And about half of schools also reported increased acts of disrespect toward teachers and staff.

It’s not difficult to identify what might have triggered this new “pandemic” of student misbehavior. For an entire school year, if not longer, millions of American students went to a fully virtual learning environment in which it became easy to skirt the rules, avoid discipline, and still pass. Largely free from the structure and discipline of a school environment, many academically (and socially) regressed. Educators overwhelmed and frustrated by distance digital learning had difficulty teaching and motivating their students, and for many, burnout or apathy became the norm.

Lockdowns have been associated with all manner of problems in our nation’s youth, including declines in student mental and emotional health, motivation, social skills, reading proficiency, and general academic achievement. Some studies have found that students made little or no progress while learning from home. Lockdowns have also been correlated to increased child suicide rates.
This tracks with anecdotal information I’m hearing from those working in public schools in my native Fairfax County, Virginia. A high school athletic coach with more than 30 years of experience — including multiple state titles — recently told me that the most recent crop of players is the most arrogant, disengaged, and resistant to instruction he’s ever seen. He’s now contemplating retiring.
CRT to Blame Too
Yet I suspect it’s not only the (entirely unnecessary) lockdowns that are affecting students’ behavior and antagonism toward authority. For at the same time that lockdowns were beginning to have deleterious effects on students, another dramatic social crisis was already enveloping our nation’s schools: anti-racism curricula.

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There Is No City of Man Without the City of God

The City of Man and the City of God cannot be collapsed into one another without compromising the latter’s identity and mission. Coercing the world into the Christian faith contradicts its teaching regarding free will, while accommodating the City of God to secular beliefs risks undermining, if not vitiating, Christian doctrine.

In the second century, the Greek philosopher and anti-Christian Celsus warned: “If Christians refuse to perform the usual sacrifices and to honor those who preside over them, then they should not be allowed to be emancipated, marry, raise children, or fulfill any obligation in public life.”
For a good Roman citizen, such an opinion made sense: the preservation of the Pax Romana depended not only on the military’s might and citizen’s virtue, but the appeasement of the gods who protected and blessed the empire. By refusing to offer oblations to the pantheon, Christians threatened to throw the entire social order into chaos. “It only remains for them to go far away and leave no posterity behind. In this way such scum will be completely eradicated from the earth,” declared Celsus.
There are signs that some inhabitants of the formerly Christian West are beginning to think similarly. In 2013, British professor Richard Dawkins provocatively claimed that the kind of “religious indoctrination” impressed upon the young by their parents amounted to child abuse. Almost a decade later, such opinions are less unusual. Parents who shield their children from transgender ideology or critical race theory are censured as bigots whose parenting choices are harmful. In 2019, a presidential candidate endorsed financially punishing institutions who refuse to support same-sex marriage, while books that reject the dominant narrative on sex and gender are delisted and defamed. Those who refuse to bow to the twenty-first century gods of sexual and racial identitarianism must be rebuked, canceled, and banished to the margins.
French historian and philosopher Étienne Gilson (1884–1978, a member of the Académie française who was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature) saw this crisis coming long ago. Apart from his impressive academic credentials, Gilson was also involved in the attempts to remake Europe in the wake of the devastation of the Second World War. He served as a member of the French delegation in creating the UNESCO Charter and took part in the 1948 Congress of United Europe in The Hague. A newly published translation of his The Metamorphoses of the City of God illuminates the origins, story, and timeless tensions between what St. Augustine termed the City of God and the City of Man.
The City of God and the City of Man
In response to Celsus and other ancient critics of Christianity, many early Christian writers argued that, while it was true that their refusal to participate in Roman religious rites represented a new civic reality, the Christian faith was a blessing rather than a threat to the empire’s survival. Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, and Tertullian all made such arguments. “Caesar is more ours than yours, for our God has appointed him,” declared Tertullian, and Christians “do more than you (Romans) for his welfare.” Or, as Gilson writes: “The best thing that can happen to the Empire is that Christian teachings be faithfully observed.”
Much of the reason for this has to do with the nature of Christianity itself. Gilson explains:
The God of Christians requires them to do for love of him what they lack the strength to do for love of their country. Thus, amid the universal shipwreck of morality and civic virtue, divine authority intervenes to impose frugality, continence, friendship, justice, and harmony among citizens, so much so that anyone who professes Christian doctrine and observes its precepts will be found to do for the love of God everything that the mere interest of his fatherland would require that he do for it. . . . Have good Christians, and good citizens will be given to you in addition.
Counterintuitively, the transcendent quality of Christian belief and practice—which directs the worshipper to the eternal—serves as an unparalleled motivator for civic virtue.
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