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A Polarized World is a Clear World

May 30, 2024 3 min read
waves on rocks

It’s a polarized world out there. From political to moral to social issues, more and more people are more and more often identifying themselves with one of two camps – liberal or conservative, traditional or progressive, religious or secular, whatever set of poles they like – that are more and more stern in their opposition to each another. (The nationwide controversy sparked by Harrison Butker’s commencement address at Benedictine College is one blip signaling it. When one takes a step back, what’s surprising is that a relatively short speech, at a religiously affiliated university, to some few-hundred graduates, has inspired such fierce responses in the news media for weeks. A comparatively small gathering of people expressing support for traditional values probably wouldn’t have found such a stable foothold in a society less keen on a fight.)

A polarized world makes for a hot-blooded world. But one useful effect of it seems to be a much clearer picture of American religion. A recent set of data analyzed by one writer suggested that the “rise of the nones” over the past thirty years or so – the dramatic increase in those who claim no religious affiliation at all – has leveled off over the past four or five years. They aren’t necessarily getting fewer, but surprisingly, they’re also not growing in numbers.

Naturally one wonders why, and one stipulation this author offers is that nominal Christians have more or less disappeared. Indeed, he writes that “a lot of marginally attached people switched to ‘no religion’ on surveys over the last decade or two,” such that those who had no real commitment to Christianity, other than for its bygone social or political respectability, have now largely abandoned ship. To put it another way: folks have been pushed to decide their allegiances at this point, and the dust has settled.

This might not seem like good news, but it’s clear news, and clarity is always helpful to the Christian mission in the world. What’s come to the surface is a more accurate picture of what the Christian/non-Christian terrain probably has been for the past few decades: those who claim to be Christian are more confidently, and sometimes combatively, so; those who claim not to be religious are also more confidently, and sometimes combatively, so. And then there’s a swath of people not yet won over, still unsure – and probably more sincerely so.

A polarized world is often an uncomfortable world. But these are the circumstances we’ve been given, and whatever unique challenges they may bring, they’ve at least come with an increasingly clear mission field. And that’s no small gift.

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