Andrew Sullivan argues that despite the recent predominance of evangelicals in American public life, the intellectual quality of American Christianity is on a downward slide. There are very few broadly articulate outstanding Christians in public or cultural life, and the traditional Christian churches are rapidly losing their place where they once held the attention of the majority of the people.
Yes, America is far more devout than most of western Europe; but it is not immune to the broader crises facing established religion in the West. The days when America’s leading intellectuals contained a strong cadre of serious Christians are over. There is no Thomas Merton in our day; no Reinhold Niebuhr, Walker Percy or Flannery O’Connor. In the arguments spawned by the new atheist wave, the Christian respondents have been underwhelming. As one evangelical noted in The Christian Science Monitor last week, “being against gay marriage and being rhetorically pro-life will not make up for the fact that massive majorities of evangelicals can’t articulate the Gospel with any coherence”.
The quality of the Catholic priesthood has also drifted downward: the next generation of priests is more orthodox, but also more insular and less engaged with the wider world. There are a few exceptions: the 29-year-old orthodox Catholic Ross Douthat has just won a treasured opinion column slot in The New York Times. But he is sadly an exception that proves a more general rule. American Christianity may be stronger in some pockets, but it is dumber too. In the end, in the free market-place of ideas and beliefs, that will count.
What one yearns for is a resuscitation of a via media in American religious life – the role that the established Protestant churches once played. Or at least an understanding that religion must absorb and explain the new facts of modernity: the deepening of the Darwinian consensus in the sciences, the irrefutable scriptural scholarship that makes biblical literalism intellectually contemptible, the shifting shape of family life, the new reality of openly gay people, the fact of gender equality in the secular world. It seems to me that American Christianity, despite so many resources, has ignored its intellectual responsibility. And atheists, if this continues much longer, will continue to pick up that slack.