What bothers me the most about Jon Meacham's piece, "The Decline and Fall of Christian America," is the cheerfulness with which he apparently welcomes the decline of Christian self-identification in the United States.
After reading and re-reading the article, I really have little to disagree with regarding Meacham's description of America's identity as a community grounded not in the promulgation of Christianity, or any other religion, but in a commitment to liberty, expressed both as individual freedom and free enterprise. Meacham is encouraged by the fact that "while we remain a nation decisively shaped by religious faith, our politics and our culture are, in the main, less influenced by movements and arguments of an explicitly Christian character . . . ." He adds, " I think this is a good thing — good for our political culture . . . ."
Without describing all the features of Meacham's article with which I agree, especially his reminders about the nature of a social contract and the dangers long evidenced historically by the corruption of religion with the use of secular power, I am concerned about his simplistic distinctions between personal morality and a just social order. What I fear Meacham and many others fail to realize is that it is precisely the formation of personal virtues — humility, a love of the other, truthfulness, and a desire to subordinate one's own individual interests in favor of the greater good of others — that prepare us for citizenship. And these virtues, though not necessarily so, are nonetheless largely the cultural heritage of our Christian religious experience.
A society in which freedom prospers is one in which the will to power is both personally and corporately limited. Furthermore, as many have shown and George Washington argued in his farewell address, it is very difficult to separate morality from religion and consequently religion from politics. Productive liberty requires the voluntary restraint of its exercise. This is almost invariably a moral and religious decision on the part of the citizen. The faith and worship that taught me not to steal or to lie also teach me not to embezzle or to cheat on a contract. It is the discipline enjoined by Christianity and other religions that encourages the self-restraint that promotes the respect that leads to a community of tolerance and justice.
Meacham welcomes the decline in a robust kind of religious fervor that commits itself to partisan political change. What he should not celebrate, though he leaves unmentioned and unconsidered, is the inevitable result of a decline of Christian and any other type of formalized worship and religious identification– i.e., the decline of virtue which is the very ground and seedbed of freedom and indeed the very kind of nation, such as ours, in which freedom is prized. Meacham is far too sanguine about what the decline of religion may mean in terms of the virtues that make a just society possible.