On Christmas and Christians ... do you see what I see? – Ted Vaden

Ted Vaden
Ted Vaden

Riding my bicycle out Dairyland Road in Orange County last week, I came across a home with a large holiday display that said, “Consume.”

I’m guessing the homeowner had a sardonic meaning in mind, and perhaps it had the intended effect of making some people stop and think.

It put me in mind of the handsomely decorated homes I see in our neighborhood in Chapel Hill, where residents go all out for the holidays. A walk down the lanes of Southern Village in the evening is a visual treat of displays in red and green. My favorite is an inflatable Snoopy paddling a canoe atop a hedge.

But I also wonder how many of us pause to reflect upon the religious tradition behind the cultural celebration. How many will be found in the pews of churches this Christmas?

A declining number, say the pollsters who measure such things. The United States remains one of the Western world’s most religious nations. Fifty eight percent of Americans say religion is very important in their lives, according to the Pew Research Survey, compared to 17 percent in Britain, 13 percent in France, 21 percent in Germany and 22 percent in Spain.

But that percentage in the United States has declined in recent years, while there has been an increase in the percentage of Americans who have no religious affiliation – from 15 percent in 2007 to 20 percent in 2012, the most recent survey by Pew. The surge is most pronounced among young adults, where nearly a third declare no religious affiliation. Pew attributes this to millennials’ perception that “religious organizations are too concerned with money and power, too focused on rules and too involved in politics.”

This so-called “Rise of the Nones” has been much commented on, and is a source of consternation in my own church, which like most mainline denominations is contending with stagnant and aging membership.

What is less known, and more surprising to me, is a low level of knowledge among Americans – churched and unchurched – of the basic tenets, practices and history of faith traditions, including their own. Pew has found that Americans on average could correctly answer only 16 of 32 questions measuring religious knowledge, such as what communion is and who Martin Luther was. Agnostics and atheists, interestingly, were more knowledgeable than Protestants – a factor of their education, Pew said.

In the Washington Post, University of Virginia religion professor Charles Mathewes sees such ignorance as a reason why “the main threat to Christianity in American comes from American Christians themselves.”

Thus, he says, it’s no surprise that evangelicals applaud the Colorado baker who refused to make a wedding cake for a gay couple, out of religious convictions, or that white Christians voted overwhelmingly (80 percent) for Roy Moore for Senate in Alabama, despite multiple allegations that he had preyed upon teenage girls.

“When we’ve reached a place where good Christian folk think it’s a matter of major theological principle not to sell pastries to gay people but we’re willing to give pedophiles a pass,” Mathewes said, “I think it’s safe to say that American Christianity today – white American Christianity in particular – is in a pretty sorry state.”

Mathewes attributes this condition to fear among Christians, especially white evangelicals, of threats to their beliefs from societal changes such as demographic diversity and immigration.

In the age of Trump, the visibility of religiosity is plain. Our president says his goal is to make it OK to say “Merry Christmas” again, “You go to the stores,” Trump said at a recent rally, “and they have the red walls, and they have the snow, and they even have the sleigh and the whole thing. But they don’t have Merry Christmas. I want them to say, ‘Merry Christmas, everybody.’”

One evening last week, my wife and I were surprised to find outside our door a cheery group of caroling teenagers from nearby Christ United Methodist Church, singing, “We wish you a Merry Christmas.” I much preferred hearing my ‘Merry Christmas’ from people who meant it.

Ted Vaden, a former News & Observer editor who lives in Chapel Hill, can be reached at tedvaden@gmail.com.