“Religion stands on tiptoe in our country”


By 2070, Christianity will decline to the point that Christians will no longer be the majority in the United States. So say the journalists, based on a recent Pew study.

Now, the actual study is a projection based on four scenarios. And the conclusion is based on the most questionable kinds of predictions: extrapolating current trends to the nth degree. This is what computer models do – including those that predict climate Armageddon – but they can never account for all factors and fall far short of proving any objective truth.

But it is true that the number of Christians, even nominal ones, is decreasing and this may well continue. This is not a disaster for Christians, except for those who believe that numerical growth is the test of whether or not the church is “alive”. After all, Jesus himself said:narrow is the gate, narrow is the way that leads to life, and few find them” (Matthew 7:14).

The thought of the decline of Christianity in America reminded me of a few lines from my favorite poet – and the subject of my first book – George Herbert.

After his death in 1633, and when his friend Nicholas Ferrar attempted to publish his poems, this supreme Christian poet was quashed, as conservatives call him today. Or, if you prefer to use the term favored by liberals, his book was banned. Not because it violated the canons of political correctness or moral rectitude. But because of these four lines in a 305-line poem titled “The Church Militant”:

Religion stands on tiptoe in our country,
Ready to switch to the American component. . . .

Then Religion will flee to America:
They have their Gospel times, just like us. (lines 260-262; 273-274)

Official censors of King Charles I – whose rejection of freedom of speech, press and religion would inspire the American Founders the other way – thought these lines showed support for the 1620 Mayflower Pilgrims and other settlers. who moved to America for religious reasons. Such support, along with the implication that there was something wrong with the Church of England, was not allowed.

Ferrar, who had strong connections himself, persuaded the censor to let it go. The result was the publication of The Temple, one of the greatest collections of Christian poetry by literary and theological standards, a book that all Christians would do well to read.

“The Church Militant” is about the progress of the Church as the Gospel spreads throughout the world, but it is also about its conflict with sin, which seems to overcome the Church where it was. once strong. Nevertheless, according to Herbert, the Church and sin are coming ever closer to the return of Christ and the final judgment, when the Church will be victorious.

Here is the context of these controversial lines about America:

Religion stands on tiptoe in our country,
Ready to switch to the American component.
When full of malice, and prodigious lusts,
Impudent sins, sorceries and distrust
(The marks of the future scourge) will fill our cup
To the edge, and do our measure;
When Sein will swallow the Tiber, and the Thames
By letting them both in, pollutes its streams:
When the Italy of us will have its will,
And all his calendar of sins is fulfilled;
By what we can predict, what sins next year
Will they dominate in France and England:
Then Religion will flee to America:
They have their Gospel times, just like us.

Malice, lusts, “impudent sins”, sorceries and mistrust – these are clear enough and speak of our time 400 years later, when religion now seems on tiptoe and ready to flee America.

What about the Seine (in France), the Tiber (in Rome) and the Thames (in England)? Religious historian Philip Jenkins – in his illuminating article Then Shall Religion to America Flee: George Herbert and the Church Militant – says these lines refer to Herbert’s concern over King Charles I’s marriage to Henrietta Maria , the Catholic daughter of the King of France, who was to bring Catholicism to the English court, a religion which Herbert feared was also making inroads into the English church.

Herbert believed that every country would have its chance to hear the gospel. His poem describes the Gospel – and therefore the Church he creates – stretching from Jerusalem to Egypt, Greece, Rome, Germany and England. In each of these lands he would fade after a while, but now he is about to venture to America.

Luther sometimes spoke this way, warning his fellow Germans that the gospel they had come to take for granted might also leave Germany.

And, in some sense (but not totally), the nations of Europe are being deprived of the religion they once cherished, as they lead the world in secularism. America is much more religious, but will that continue? Maybe not. Where will he “flee” to now? Well, as has often been reported, the gospel and the Church it creates are flourishing in Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe and, despite intense persecution, the Middle East.

The Pew study that projects the decline of Christianity mentions immigration in its scenarios, but associates it with the growth of non-Christian religions. But immigrants may well be bringing Christianity back to America and even Europe.

Illustration: George Herbert by Robert White (1674) via picryl, public domain


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