The turbulent ride of post-church America

Yet the decline of church membership hasn’t only had an impact on the GOP.

While the trend may point in the direction of increased agnosticism and outright atheism for some, for many others it has been and will continue to be an occasion to take spiritual experiences in new, unstable directions. Here two books, Ross Douthat’s Bad Religion (2012) and Tara Isabella Burton’s Strange Rites (2020), are useful guides. Both treat the decline of institutional religion as a given and claim that, far from producing a more secular America, it is inspiring forms of “heretical” religiosity unbound by the constraints of received traditions and institutions. The result is a proliferation of new sociocultural formations facilitated by the internet and the digital marketplace.

On the left, this could help to explain the quasi-religious character of the Great Awokening — the fervent devotion of so many young progressive activists to the cause of “social justice,” which tends to involve the redrawing and policing of the bounds of morally acceptable thought and speech in institutions of civil society rather than the enacting of changes in public policy, as political activists have typically aimed to do. This crusading character of “cancel culture” links it in some respects to the style and preoccupations of the old mainline Protestant churches — and may make it their post-institutional successor. (Published just as the woke trend was getting underway, Joseph Bottum’s An Anxious Age (2014) is quite insightful and prescient on the emergence of a left-wing spiritual descendant from the once-dominant Protestant establishment.)