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This Chart May Reveal the Secret to American Greatness

As America rose from unruly British outpost to unrivaled global superpower, the country’s religious devotion steadily grew apace — and then the historic arc collapsed.


“In God we trust” may be more than just a motto.


New York Times columnist Ross Douthat this week resurfaced a chart, first published by a conservative think tank in 2020, showing the long rise and sudden fall of Americans’ rate of membership in houses of worship.

Douthat’s point, which he made on Twitter and then on Substack, was that Christianity did more to “make America better and more just” than some critics want to acknowledge.

  • “[I]n the history of the United States from the American Revolution to Martin Luther King Jr. you see two things happening together: the private practice of faith becomes pretty steadily more robust, and the government becomes more committed to what most of us, religious and not, now consider basic elements of justice and mercy,” Douthat wrote on Substack.
  • But in the past 50 years, Douthat suggested, America’s moral greatness has dwindled along with church membership.
  • He cited the apparent slowdown of liberal “progress” since the 1960s, the 1970s’ “breakdown of family and community and social order” and today’s “deaths of despair,” secularization and political disfunction.
  • Douthat, who is Catholic, was rebutting a recent essay in which David French, an evangelical Christian, argued, “America has become more just — and thus closer to the ideals one would expect of a Christian nation — as white Protestant power has waned.”

“So by all means, tell your co-religionists that the church’s decline reflects God’s judgment on Christian sins and failures, and that Providence is calling them to purification and renewal and not just a truculent war footing behind the shield of Imperator Trump,” Douthat advised French.

  • “But if you tell them they can’t lament secularization or religious disaffiliation or the collapse of the old Protestant center on any grounds, that they can’t look at the ebbing of their own faith, the loss of American belief in what they consider the true story of the world, and see something regrettable and tragic and bad for the country in the long run, then that plays into the hands of the toxic avengers, because they’re the only ones saying the obvious: That for all our ample sins and failures, Christians are not obliged to celebrate our own decline.”

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