Forgive my use of a term borrowed from philosophy. Our “worldview” is the set of assumptions that dictate how we view the world. Many Americans, for example, see the world through the lens of personal freedom, while many Middle Easterners see the world through the lens of personal and family honor.
In the Christian church, for 1,500 years, our perception of Christianity has been built on the relationship of the church to the state that began under Emperor Constantine, who made Christianity legal. In the following years, Christianity ultimately became the state religion of the Roman Empire. No one could vote or hold public office without being a Christian. The pagan temples were taken over by the church, and the pagan holidays were Christianized.
When the Protestant Reformation came, the leaders all assumed that the church and the state must remain joined. One reason infant baptism was insisted on is that the leaders saw being a Catholic, Lutheran, or Reformed Christianity as identical with being a citizen.
In fact, when the Anabaptists insisted that only believers be baptized, denying infant baptism, both the Catholics and the Protestants ruthlessly persecuted them. It was unthinkable that the church and the state be separate.
As a result, religious disputes often led to rebellion and war and the deaths of hundreds of thousands. The church used the tools of the nation-state to enforce its beliefs–armies, courts, executions, and war.
The brutality of the church led to atheism, as Spinoza, Voltaire, and others denied that the institutional church could possibly be worthy of obedience as it had little in common with the church found in scriptures.
In England, the Enlightenment led such philosophers as Locke to advocate the separation of church and state. Millions fled Europe to settle in America to escape persecution and to found colonies where their beliefs would be tolerated. Eventually, with the founding of the United States and the adoption of the First Amendment, the separation of church and state was fully realized.
Thus, only 250 years have passed since Westerners could practice any religion they wished–or no religion–throughout the United States. Europe and other Western nations adopted freedom of religion over the course of the following years.
However, although the U.S. has had no state religion, for much of the last 250 years, Christians lived in a nation where Christianity was the norm for culture and for government. There was often little need to do evangelism, as all our neighbors were already Christians of one sort or another. We might want to convert a Baptist to be Church of Christ, but rarely did we need to convert an atheist or agnostic to Christianity.
As a result, the churches tended to focus more on the doctrinal differences that separate them from each other rather than their duties to the surrounding world. In fact, we tended to imagine that there was no “world” in need of finding Jesus, other than in foreign nations. We never, ever sent out missionaries within the U.S.
Thus, while we might doubt or even deny the salvation of most within the U.S., we assumed that nearly everyone was a Christian of some sort, in the broad sense of the term. They may be wrong on the frequency of taking communion or how to worship or how to baptize, but we believed that America was filled almost entirely with God-fearing, Jesus-believing people.
And so for the last 100 years, we’ve assumed that the government was part of this “Christian” nation. Therefore, we thought, we could count on the government to act on behalf of Christians and churches to do good works.
The churches pushed the states to provide a free public education for all, assuming the states would teach about Jesus as well as arithmetic. We pushed the government to provide for the needy through welfare and our parents through Social Security. We treated the government as an arm of the American churches, a giant, powerful tool to do good works at the behest of Christian people.
We were therefore shocked when the government refused to lead children in prayer in the schools in the 1960’s. No longer could we count on the free public schools to be an arm of the church.
Worse yet, we found that welfare was encouraging people to have children while unmarried, actually penalizing the poor for getting married. And so we blamed the government for high illegitimacy rates.
And as more and more resources were poured into welfare and other transfer payments, crime rates soared, as did poverty–in the cruelest of ironies. And we blamed government.
You see, by the 1980’s or so, we’d entirely forgotten that Christians and the church were charged with caring for the poor, with strengthening the family, with upholding marriages, and with teaching our children about Jesus. We’d given these tasks to the government and allowed our churches to become social clubs and debating societies. Benevolence was entirely forgotten.
Worse yet, we learned that tens of millions of Americans had lost their Christianity while the churches blithely assumed they had a monopoly on American minds. And we blamed TV and the movies.
And so, in the 1980’s, the church finally came to realize that the turmoil of the 1960’s wasn’t a temporary glitch–it was the realization of a major change in values. We finally realized that things just weren’t right. And so we started looking for solutions.