By Adam Lee
When the obituary is written for Christianity in America, Fields v. Speaker of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives will merit at least a footnote.
In this verdict, a federal court ruled that the Pennsylvania Legislature could invite guest chaplains to offer opening prayers while barring atheists from giving secular invocations. It’s clear that the intent and effect is to favor Christianity: Although the statehouse has had a few token representatives of other religions, the overwhelming majority of legislative prayers – over 90 percent – have been given by Christian clergy.
This is a disastrous decision. It consigns Pennsylvania’s atheist and agnostic citizens to second-class status, denying them equal opportunity before the law and shutting them out from the elected officials who are supposed to represent them. It’s the definition of a religious test, something the U.S. Constitution explicitly forbids. The court’s ruling sidestepped these arguments and asserted that legislative prayer passes muster merely because of “historical tradition,” an absurd argument that implies that constitutional violations become OK if they’ve been going on for long enough.
Still, I have a message to religious conservatives who are cheering: Be careful what you wish for. The more that state and church are entangled, the worse it will be for the church.
Of course, since I’m an atheist, I might be accused of offering this advice in bad faith. Apologists might say that Christianity is on the verge of revival and that I’m seeking to sabotage them at their moment of triumph.
To this I say: Have you seen Europe lately?
Europe has tied church to state for centuries, but instead of helping the church, this bond has drained it of vitality. Christianity as a faith is on life support all over the continent. In over a dozen countries, congregations are shrinking and graying; absolute majorities of the young profess no religious belief. Vacant churches are being converted to bookstores, gyms, pubs and skating rinks.
America is heading down the same road. Although we don’t – yet – have an official established religion, the Republican Party has tied Christianity tightly to a narrowly partisan and conservative set of policy priorities. They’ve spent the past several decades insisting that being Christian meant politically opposing LGBTQ rights, reproductive choice and science, and supporting war and tax cuts for the rich.
More recently, “pro-family” evangelicals in the ’90s offered thundering denunciations of President Bill Clinton’s admitted infidelity, then since the last presidential election all but bowed down to worship a Republican president who is twice divorced, bragged about sexually assaulting women and allegedly paid hush money to cover up his affairs. Now some Christian leaders are further cheering the separation of immigrant families, particularly at the border, as well as the brutal treatment of asylum-seekers, while demanding that the borders be slammed shut to keep out the tired, the poor and the huddled masses yearning to breathe free.
When such Christian leaders loudly insist that you can’t be a Christian if you don’t vote Republican or if you disagree with any part of this agenda, people act accordingly. They note the obvious hypocrisy, they become disillusioned and cynical about religion’s claim to moral superiority, and they head for the exits. And the demographics bear this out.
The United States is heading down the same path of religious rejection as Europe. Less than a third of Americans say they attend church weekly, and a record low percentage of people say they have confidence in organized religion. The two largest Christian denominations, Southern Baptists and Roman Catholics, have seen their membership sink to multidecade lows. Meanwhile, the nonreligious have seen surging numbers. For the first time, they’re in a tie for first among religious demographics.
The withering of Christianity is especially apparent among the young. Millennials were dubbed “the least Christian generation in American history,” until the next generation, the up-and-coming Generation Z, took that title from them. According to the polling firm Barna Research, as little as 4 percent of teenagers hold what they define as a “biblical” worldview. The conservative commentator Peter Wehner quotes a friend who laments: “We’re losing an entire generation. They’re just gone. It’s one of the worst things to happen to the church.”
And yet, we still get rulings like Fields in Pennsylvania, privileging religion (and de facto Christianity) above all else.
With a newly conservative Supreme Court majority, it’s unlikely the ruling will be overturned, which means we can expect more states to follow Pennsylvania’s lead and ladle out special privileges for Christianity. But government favoritism won’t reverse the decline in Americans’ religiosity; it will accelerate it. As Europe’s example shows, when churches are propped up by the government, people lose interest in following religion of their own free will.
In their pursuit of worldly power and dominion, American churches – especially conservative ones – threw away the moral authority they once possessed. Now, as their prestige declines and their membership ebbs, they’re clutching at state support. They think it’s a lifeline that will save them. Instead, it will prove to be a millstone that drags them yet further down.
Adam Lee is a writer and activist living in New York City who has written for Patheos, AlterNet, Salon, The Guardian, Free Inquiry and Freethought Today. His forthcoming book is Commonwealth: A Novel of Utopia. This article originally appeared on NBC News and is reprinted with permission.