In the late 1980’s, I predicted that by the end of the century, which is also the end of the millennium, “The Soviet Union, or perhaps by that time, Russia, would be Christian, and the United States would be pagan.” The first, hesitant part of that prophecy, Russia, has already been fulfilled. And while Russia has not been transmuted into a Christian nation, Christianity, especially but not only Russian Orthodoxy, already enjoys a status in Russia that is increasingly denied it in the United States.
In the United States, the situation seems to be reversed. At the beginning of the 20th century Russian Orthodox Christianity was the established religion in Russia; in the United States, there was no “establishment of religion,” but the three major faiths, Protestantism, Roman Catholicism, and Judaism, all flourished. Then came the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, which officially proclaimed its atheism, expropriated the churches, and persecuted clergy and believers alike with varying degrees of severity. But the Russian churches survived. Orthodoxy, although weakened, persisted, and the registered and unregistered Protestant fellowships grew and flourished—if one can use that word for the situation of believers in an atheistic society. The situation of the churches in early 20th-century America was officially different, but if anything stronger in reality. No church was officially established, but all were held in reverence and enjoyed the benign attention of government and the courts, up to and including the Supreme Court.
America, unlike Russia, suffered no revolution, and the nation emerged not only victorious but triumphant, immensely strengthened and relatively undamaged, from two world wars, and perhaps fatally tempted to the sort of spiritual pride that goes before a fall. Russia was savagely wounded by World War I, revolution, and civil war, not to mention the organized oppression of a totalitarian system. World War II carried fire and sword to the very borders of Moscow and cost the Soviet Union 20 million lives.
Yet at the end of the century, Christianity in Russia is showing signs of vitality; by no means dominant, it is nonetheless far from dead. At the end of what has been called “The American Century,” Christianity in the United States, once culturally and morally dominant, is rapidly being reduced to the level of a barely tolerated eccentricity. G.K. Chesterton once called the United States a nation with the soul of a church. As the American Century reaches its end, the United States may be losing, or may already have lost, that soul.
During a visit to Russia, Professor Ed Tiryakian of Duke University commented on what he called “the occult persecution of Christianity at every level in the United States,” including the courts, the legislatures, the universities, and the media. Communist Russia, like the pagan Roman Empire, tried varying degrees of force to stamp out religion; it did not succeed. That was overt persecution. The persecution in the United States is occult—that is, not officially declared and not acknowledged as such—but it is pervasive and omnipresent. Not merely public prayers, but every vestige of Christianity (as well as of other, less numerous religious groups) is driven from public view. The public expression of Christian conviction is coming to be regarded as only slightly less obnoxious, if that, than cigarette smoking.
In America’s schools, the Ten Commandments have been pulled down from the walls, lest any student find himself “isolated.” And in the halls, students shoot classmates and teachers, and some find themselves dead. Bonne fin de siècle, America!