In December 2023, Michael Cassidy, a Navy veteran and devout Christian, encountered an obscene statue of Baphomet erected by the Satanic Temple inside the Iowa Statehouse. He tore it down. For this act of what he described as spontaneous “Christian civil disobedience,” he was quickly charged with committing a felony hate crime.

It’s notable that he was charged with anything at all. When a wave of mass iconoclasm swept the United States in 2020, with hundreds of monuments honoring civil and religious figures from Thomas Jefferson to St. Junípero Serra destroyed by mobs of “social justice” activists, many of whom filmed themselves in the act, few incidents were investigated, let alone prosecuted. In the rare instances in which someone has since been charged—for instance, the case of Maeve Nota, a trans-identifying man who vandalized a church with anti-Catholic graffiti, attacked a statue of the Virgin Mary, and assaulted a church employee—the Department of Justice has intervened to offer sweetheart plea agreements with no jail time. No such leniency has been granted in Cassidy’s case.

This discrepancy should not surprise us; it is a sign of the times. As John Daniel Davidson compellingly argues in Pagan America, the nature of the American state has fundamentally changed. After decades of decline and retreat, Christianity is no longer a dominant force in American society but the faith of an increasingly marginalized minority. The civilizational consequences of crossing this momentous but largely unrecognized tipping point have only just begun to materialize.

Even as adherence to orthodox Christian belief waned and a secular liberal culture became the default mode of life in the West, religious moral assumptions long continued to be considered axiomatic. Some even regarded them as universally inherent to humanity, a framework on which a progressively more atheistic culture would construct an ever more peaceful, just, and enlightened society. But this is not what happened. Instead, like Wile E. Coyote, we made it past the edge of the cliff only to witness the return of moral gravity. Instead of a humanistic atheism, Davidson argues, something different — something ancient — filled the void left by Christianity. Paganism has made a comeback.

This doesn’t mean that kids have started making sacrifices to Zeus and Thor (though interest in Wicca and other modern forms of playacting at witchcraft has surged, especially among young women). Rather, as Louise Perry has explained in [First Things] (“We Are Repaganizing,” October 2023), paganism is better thought of as mankind’s default outlook on the world. The pagan worships the immanent, including worldly gods and worldly things, and so what he ultimately comes to worship above all else is power: power in the world and over it. In Perry’s words: “To put it crudely, most cultures look at the powerful and the wealthy and assume that they must be doing something right to have attained such might. The poor are poor because of some failing of their own, whether in this life or the last.” It was Christianity’s “topsy-turvy attitude toward weakness and strength” that made it so revolutionary — and so anthropologically odd. So now, as societies revert to the pagan mean, moral beliefs we mistakenly thought were unshakably foundational, such as that every person possesses inherent human dignity, or that unwanted babies shouldn’t be abandoned to die, are being upended in favor of the old ways. Thus we end up with growing public support in the West for policies such as state-facilitated euthanasia.

Davidson’s most important contribution in Pagan America is to explain how repaganization can be expected to change the character of the American state, alongside society more broadly. Until now, America has been governed largely by the tenets of political liberalism. But as Davidson points out, liberalism always relied on “a source of vitality that does not originate from it and that it cannot replenish”: the Christian faith. And as the nation repaganizes, “we will revert to an older form of civilization, one in which power alone matters and the weak and the vulnerable count for nothing”—neither in spirit nor in law. “As Christianity fades in America,” Davidson warns, “so too will our system of government, our civil society, and all our rights and freedoms….”

From First Things

Pagan America:
The Decline of Christianity and the Dark Age to Come

by John Daniel Davidson
Regnery, 256 pages, $29.99