I know that many, many good people have labored very hard in their evangelization efforts over the past few decades, sometimes with great results, and their sacrifices need to be honored.
But as a Church I think we’ve made a basic mistake in underestimating the gravitational pull of consumer culture, the power of new technologies to shape the appetites and thinking of our young people, and the corrosive effect of American materialism on our memory as a believing community, and on our ability to experience the sacred and transcendent.
At the same time, we’ve overestimated the compatibility of Catholic faith with American liberal democracy. As voices like Stanley Hauerwas and the late Avery Dulles warned us years ago, we’ve tried too hard to fit into a culture where we don’t finally fit. And the results are predictable. What can the words “Jesus Christ is Lord” or “Christ the King” mean to a young person raised in a culture committed to personal autonomy and deeply suspicious of authority and hierarchical structures? What kind of influence can biblical revelation have in a culture where only science and technology count as real knowledge?
There’s a deep vein of practical atheism coursing through American consumer life that deadens the soul to a desire for holiness and discourages the hope for anything beyond the horizons of this world. But it’s a problem we can easily miss because we imagine that the religious roots of our country still help to determine its course. In 2013 Gallup polling, 75 percent of Americans surveyed voiced their support for a greater influence of religion in national life. And that sounds wonderful. But many of the same people who responded so positively on the survey had no personal interest in religious faith.
In other words, “Americans want religion,” as one headline read, for “everyone but themselves.”