Dr. Dan Druckermann, post-cyber historian of the 22nd century, happened across something enormously old. It was stuffed into the wall of another empty church undergoing remodeling into an apartment. It survived probably because it had not seen air or light for a hundred years. It was a newspaper, a product once obtained from dead trees through a complex series of tasks that involved many workers and enormous machines.
The newspaper was dated June, 13, 2012. It was named after an ancient Roman debating spot called “The Forum.”
Not all old news is interesting, but this particular issue attracted Dr. Dan’s attention. It reported issues from a primary election the day before. While even a regional history specialist like Dr. Dan had hardly any knowledge of vague early 21st-century issues such as “abolishing the property tax” or “keeping the Fighting Sioux,” he knew plenty about one thing reported: “protecting religious freedoms.”
This was an issue that drew support mostly from Christians. Many conservative churches, and particularly the Catholic Church, had preached its approval in pulpits and political signs.
Yet the measure had been defeated. Soundly. “Of course it was,” thought Dr. Dan. “Not at all surprising.”
Dr. Dan’s research specialty, early 21st century American history, took him inevitably into the expanding effort of American religious leaders to aggressively inject themselves into United States political debates. Historians traced the movement to the late 1970s. This was when a conservative Christian minister named Jerry Falwell founded a group called the Moral Majority.
The movement was frankly political; Falwell was determined to save the country’s supposed moral decay by recourse to politics. We must, he said, defeat the liberal agenda that’s destroying America. Before Falwell Christian churches had traditionally shied away from promoting political agendas.
Some 30 years later American Christians who agreed with Falwell’s efforts found new energy in the election of a liberal president, Barack Obama. Even the Roman Catholics—not natural allies of evangelicals who traditionally detested Catholicism—came on board when the president proposed to protect women’s rights to contraception through a new health care law.
“It was a weird, quixotic quest,” mused Dr. Dan. Hardly any women at that time, Catholic or not, opposed contraception. And yet it formed a springboard to Catholic bishops joining aggressive political campaigns.
The “Tea Party Movement” of this period was an attempt of the religious right to create an alignment of church and state. “A fusion,” as socialists writing in Foreign Affairs at the time called it.
By mid-21st century Christian leaders had formed their own conservative “Christian Capitalists for Jesus” (CCJ) political party, and fielded politicians in most elections. Yes, their tax-exempt status had been revoked in response to their frankly political motivations. But Christian leaders believed that loss to be worth the price, as political contributions might make up the difference.
“But American Christian leaders had forgotten their history,” Dr. Dan wrote in one of his research articles on the topic. “Or maybe they refused to learn it, because it was European history. Conservatives of the era detested European approaches to improve their societies. These Americans called it ‘socialism,’ and belittled anything European.”
But what European Christian leaders found out was this: if you turn Christianity into a political movement, you lose your authority as spiritual guide. Britain in 2014 dumped the Church of England after its archbishop in 2012 refused to accept gay equality. And democratic France in 1905 had violently separated itself from the politically royalist Catholic church, confiscating property of church leaders discredited by political machinations.
In France and England of the early 2000s, people who called themselves practicing Christians formed a tiny minority.
Dr. Dan thought American Christians, at the least, should have seen this coming. Because in 30 years of the Moral Majority, none of its key political issues had advanced. Abortion, same-sex marriage, smaller government, religious freedom—not one of these issues, or any others promoted by the original movement, had been successful in changing American minds by 2012. In fact, surveys showed the opposite, that a new generation of Americans was becoming more liberal.
And also more suspicious of organized Christian religion. Polls showed young Americans in 2012 perceived Christianity as being too political, and too conservative. The next generation was apparently saying, “If religion is just about conservative politics, I’m outta here.“
By the time this antiquated old newspaper hit the streets in 2012, American Christianity already was doomed. Its fateful decision to become political had been greeted by a sustained decline, seen in almost every sort of statistic, from number of practitioners to influence over culture. The number of self-identified Christians in America was dropping dramatically—about a percentage point a year—and confidence in Christian institutions had sunk to an all-time low.
The truth, as Dr. Dan and everybody else in 22nd-century America knew, was that when Christian leaders became political, they discredited their power to persuade Americans that they stood for Jesus.
By Dr. Dan’s time, Christianity in America still existed, just as it had existed in a European country such as France in 2012. And similar to France, those Americans who still described themselves as practicing Christians stood at about 4.5 percent.