I keep hearing that religion and, more pointedly, Christianity, are losing influence in the United States.
I might be the only pastor in the land who thinks this is good.
The portion of Americans who are "nones" — those with no religious affiliation — keeps rising, especially among millennials.
In 1972, two percent of us were nones; 40 years later, it was almost 20 percent, a 10-fold increase, the Pew Research Center reported in 2012.
Nearly one in three of Americans ages 18 to 29 said they had no religious affiliation, Pew found. Over all, a whopping 46 million adults answered "none" when asked about their religious affiliation.
As I wrote a few weeks ago, David Kinnaman, president of The Barna Group, a polling organization, claims that 59 percent of people raised as Christians now either become actively "ex-Christians" or simply drift away from the church.
And when socially or theologically conservative Christians, especially, venture into the public arena to voice their beliefs or seek the government's support, they're routinely mocked and hooted down by a chorus of critics.
The great spiritual worm has turned in this country.
I can't speak knowledgeably about other religions, so I'm confining my remarks here to Christianity: This is probably a healthy development for the church.
If you look at Christianity during the first three centuries it existed, it mainly was a sect of outcasts, a refuge of the lowly and dispossessed. This was particularly true in its very earliest decades. Becoming a Christian wasn't a popular or profitable decision.
And yet this seems to also have been when the faith functioned at its purest.
Don't misunderstand. I've read enough to know that, even in Christianity's infancy, the faithful wrangled over doctrine, split into factions, veered into heresy. Human nature was no different then than now.
Still, you also find in ancient documents, including the New Testament, a sense of radical joy, of mercy, of detachment from temporal power, of concern for the poor.
Joining the church wouldn't help you appear trustworthy to your neighbors. Just the opposite: It might get you killed; certainly it could make you an outcast. I imagine that this tended to cut down on superficial, fair-weather Christians. It minimized the ranks of those who attended services to network for their business or to gain political advantage.
It was primarily after Constantine in the 300s, after Christianity went mainstream, after subsequent emperors also promoted it, after it became the official faith, that it descended into profound corruption and venality.
For lack of space, I'm grossly oversimplifying. But my point itself is simple.
Throughout both its distant and recent history, across its various sects and incarnations, Christianity has tended to become fat, indolent and dishonest to the extent that it has become accepted by, and powerful within, the prevailing culture.
As someone observed, faith grows in caves and dies in cathedrals.
Popularity produces pomposity, among other things.
I tend to hold much the same view as one of our nation's founders: James Madison. Again, I draw from a previous column, this one from 2010.
In his early days as a colonial lawyer, Madison butted heads with Virginia's official religion, the Church of England. He was educated at an evangelical college. In court, he represented Baptist evangelicals who were prosecuted for their beliefs.
After the Revolutionary War, as our new country struggled to decide how to deal with religion, Madison insisted on the strictest separation of church and state. He opposed national days of prayer and support for military chaplains.
His original version of the First Amendment prohibited all expressions of religion by federal and state governments alike. He was overruled.
Madison wanted Christianity to flourish. He said official endorsements only propped up corrupt denominations and enabled lazy preachers — that God alone sustained the churches he had ordained, and needed no help from the powers of this world.
I don't think it's unfair to say he believed that Christianity functioned best when it wasn't too widely embraced.
If that's what he meant, I'd agree. Christianity began as a scandalous religion, lampooned by philosophers, despised by the elite, slandered by the masses.
I certainly don't have a persecution wish. I'm not eager to be fed to lions, and I hope we never come to that here. I trust we won't.
Still, we Christians could do worse than to lose our governmental influence, our respectability, our social sway. That might improve our faith considerably. It might make Jesus and St. Paul proud.