Religious Freedom and the Church

We’ve been discussing on this blog the prospects for religious freedom, and factors that may affect those prospects.  Here’s one factor that we haven’t really mentioned, but that I think will be crucial: the church.  The fortunes of religious freedom, I would argue, have always been connected in close if complicated ways to the fortunes of the church.  And this connection is likely to continue.

So ultimately, if the church continues to be (or, some might say, if it becomes) a vibrant and vital institution in society, religious freedom will probably be okay.  Conversely, if the church declines, religious freedom (and, I fear, much else) is likely to go down with it.

Which may seem to be a gloomy observation, because the church may seem to be in poor shape these days.  For one thing, someone might say, “the church” (in the singular) doesn’t exist anymore; instead we have a proliferating multiplicity of independent and sometimes mutually antagonistic churches and faiths.  For another, some of the major churches have been conspicuously afflicted with scandal and internal dissension.  And then there’s the perennial streak of anticlericalism– or suspicion of “organized religion”– that even religious believers often display.  And the increase in the percentage of “nones.”  And . . . .

So then, is the situation hopeless?  I don’t think so, and I’ll offer just two quick observations in support of my customary (long-term) optimism.  First, history doesn’t unfold in linear ways.  So if you take current trends and project forward, you’ll nearly always be wrong.  This is true in particular of the church (and, more generally, of religion).  Who would have predicted in the year 100, or 200, or even 300, that Christianity would become the official religion of the Empire?  Who would have predicted the papal revolution from the midst of the scandalous “dark century” that preceded it?  In 1787, who could have foreseen the flourishing of faiths and churches in new American forms that would unfold in the nineteenth century?  Through the nineteenth century and as late as the 1960s, how many social scientists anticipated that not only Christianity but other faiths would be as vibrant as they are today, problems notwithstanding?

This first observation is in a sense defensive: it counsels believers not to get discouraged by present apparent trends and conditions.  My second observation is a bit more positive.  At least in the view of believers, the fortunes of the church will not be determined by merely human agency anyway.  “The wind (spirit) bloweth where it listeth . . . .”

Nonbelievers will find this to be a fool’s hope, or gamble.  They will think the believers are deluded.  But then again . . . if the believers are deluded, does all of this really matter much?

— Steve Smith

One response

  1. Steve, very interesting. Here’s some more evidence for your point about history not being linear. The 1950s were characterized by a large increase in religiosity in the US, including among young adults. Based on the numbers, one would have expected religion to flourish in the 1960s and 1970s. Of course, the opposite occurred, especially in the mainline churches. This suggests we should be careful about predicting future religious trends on the basis of current data. The large increase in the number of “Nones” among young Americans today, and the unprecedented level of distrust for organized religion that shows up in Gallup polls, may presage a real falling away from religion over the next few decades. But you never know.

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