Boniface or Paul?

A Review of Pagan America

The state of American Christianity is troubled. A glance at the numerous books examining the ‘dechurching’ of America reveals a steady and increasingly rapid decline in church attendance since the mid-1990s. The debate centers on how critical the situation is and how Christians should respond. This trend has sparked a wave of literature offering various perspectives and strategies, such as Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option, Rosaria Butterfield’s Five Lies of Our Anti-Christian Age, and Aaron M. Renn’s Life in the Negative World. These works grapple with the same pressing questions: Is America now post-Christian or actively anti-Christian? Who or what is to blame for this downward trend? Should Christians withdraw and form their own subcultures, aiming for self-sufficiency apart from the secular world? Or should they engage in active resistance, and if so, where should they focus their efforts—electoral politics, the marketplace, or cultural initiatives?

Into this lively debate enters John Daniel Davidson’s Pagan America: The Decline of Christianity and the Dark Age to Come. While some of the other works are stark and bleak, Davidson’s is near apocalyptic, presenting a dire vision of the future and a more radical call to spiritual arms. America isn’t just post-Christian or anti-Christian according to Davidson, it is pagan.

The origins and meanings of ‘pagan’ have long been subjects of scholarly debate. Some scholars trace its roots to rural associations and the connotation of a lower cultural status, while others interpret it as a distinction between civilians and the ‘soldiers of Christ.’ It wasn’t until the fourth century that ‘pagan’ and ‘paganism’ began to be widely used to denote non-Christians. The pejorative nature of the term at that time is also debated, though it undeniably grew more derogatory as Christianity became more dominant in the Roman Empire.

Likewise, the term’s definition and implications, both historical and contemporary, remain contentious. One issue is that “paganism,” when juxtaposed with Christianity or Judaism, suggests a competing system of religious doctrines and orthodoxies. But as Robin Lane Fox describes, “Pagans performed rites but professed no creed or doctrine. They did pay detailed acts of cult, especially by offering animal victims to their gods, but they were not committed to revealed beliefs in the strong Christian sense of the term.” In other words, it is doubtful that those we now consider ancient pagans would have identified themselves as such. Consequently, some modern scholars have chosen not to use ‘pagan’ and ‘paganism’ in their works, viewing the term as arbitrary and unhelpful at best, or derogatory and historically meaningless at worst. Others, however, justify its use as a helpful means to broadly categorize ancient Mediterranean non-monotheistic religions, and others to acknowledge the phenomenon of modern neo-Pagans who freely embrace the term.

But does Davidson mean by ‘pagan’? His use of the term ‘pagan’ is quite broad and somewhat elusive, reflecting the term’s inherently ambiguous nature. His application is somewhat akin to Peter Gay’s in his epic history The Enlightenment, vol. 1: The Rise of Modern Paganism (1966), though his tone is more scornful whereas Gay’s was more admiring. Gay uses the term “paganism” metaphorically to describe the Enlightenment’s embrace of classical antiquity and its values (however real or imagined)—that is, natural virtue over original sin, the pursuit of happiness on earth over a heavenly afterlife, and the championing of reason over dogmatic superstition—combined with a critique of traditional Christian doctrines and institutions, often portrayed as fanatical and repressive. Davidson, on the other hand, uses the term more broadly to focus on the rejection of Christianity and what he perceives as pagan values, celebrating violence and the oppression of the weak by the powerful. In a sense, the term becomes more of a stand-in for anti-Christian rather than a religious framework, though Davidson does seem to think there is a quasi-religious element to these phenomena. For Davidson, ‘paganism’ is not so much a religion as it is an ethos or attitude. If one were to seek out a definition from Pagan America, it would be, “Nothing is true, everything is permitted.” 

The book is part history, part sociological study, part theological meditation, and part jeremiad (though it is probably mostly the latter). In line with Tom Holland’s provocative Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World (2019), Davidson argues that the legal advancements, cultural traditions, and societal norms we take for granted are deeply rooted in the Christian tradition rather than the pagan one championed by people like Peter Gay. He contends that injustice, violence, and indifference to human life are far more common in human history than we would like to acknowledge, despite recent attempts to rehabilitate non-Christian ancient societies—such as the Romans, Vikings, and Aztecs. Davidson emphasizes that these societies, often romanticized in contemporary discourse, lacked the moral framework provided by Christianity, which has fundamentally shaped our understanding of justice and human dignity. He warns that without this framework, we are heading towards a pagan future, if we aren’t already living in it.

For evidence of this, Davidson points to everything from the celebration of abortion to Artificial Intelligence development to Drag Queen Story Hour as signs of our pagan reality. While figures like Tom Holland and even Richard Dawkins lament the erosion of Christian cultural norms and ethics, they remain cautiously optimistic that some of these values will endure. In contrast, Davidson has no such confidence. Predicting things will only get worse, and that no president, Supreme Court ruling, or Bill of Rights will be able to save us, Davidson claims that America, as we know it, will come to an end: “Instead of free citizens in a republic, we will be slaves in a pagan empire.”

To resist what he perceives as impending cultural and spiritual enslavement, Davidson presents the “Boniface Option.” Not to be confused with Andrew Isker’s book by the same name (though there is significant overlap in the ideas), this approach counters Rod Dreher’s “Benedict Option” by advocating for an active defense of the faith, inspired by the missionary zeal of St. Boniface, famous for cutting down the sacred Donar Oak. Davidson emphasizes the importance of local action against pagan influences within bureaucracies that threaten Christian values. Rather than retreating into rural isolation—a strategy he notes is becoming less viable as progressives increasingly move to rural areas to escape high living costs—he urges Christians to stand firm, actively protest, and elect representatives who will protect their interests, particularly at the local level of city councils, public libraries, and school boards. Davidson calls for Christians to reject a passive or accommodating stance toward secular culture, one simple way they could do that is by truly living by the liturgical calendar and thus ordering their lives around the mystery of Christ. Furthermore, he advocates voting with their dollars and applying economic pressure on companies that do not reflect their values. In essence, he encourages a bold and proactive approach to evangelism, working actively to spread the Christian faith and confront secular ideologies.

While acknowledging that the American situation is not ideal, and decline is real, things are not quite as bad as Davidson thinks. Americans are still generally Christian, at least culturally. As Davidson cites, according to Pew Research , about nine-in-ten U.S. adults believe in God or another higher power, including 54% who say they believe in “God as described in the Bible.” Three in ten Americans report attending religious services weekly, with 44% of Protestants (including nondenominational Christians) and 33% of Catholics attending services regularly. Despite the attention given to ‘exvangelicals’ who criticize the faith they once celebrated due to political shifts or personal abuses, most people stop attending church for more mundane reasons such as relocating, starting a new job, or changing family commitments. Likewise, the Barna Group’s research show that while church engagement patterns are evolving, they are not disappearing. Given this data, it is hard to take seriously any claim that America is becoming a ‘pagan’ nation. Rather than focusing on alarmist rhetoric, we should address the real often complicated reasons behind changing church attendance and find constructive ways to engage and correct these shifts

Most glaring is Davidson’s one-sided and simplistic portrayal of medieval and early modern Christian Europe. A glance at Carlos Eire’s Reformations: The Early Modern World, 1450-1650 (2016) reveals just how bloodthirsty, cynical, and—dare I say— ‘pagan’ Christians could be. The brutality of the Wars of Religion, exemplified by the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in 1572, the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) which claimed 8 million lives, the 1492 Alhambra Decree expelling Jews from Spain, and the explosion in witch-hunting, particularly in the German lands, should dissuade such a simplistic reading of the Christian past. In other words, violence is perennial, and pagans had no monopoly on it. Western Christianity, especially in the early modern period, may have done much to mitigate against violence and suffering, but fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth century Europe was no Eden.

Davidson rightly reminds readers that America’s founders believed that republican government requires a moral citizenry and that religion is necessary for morality, but it is equally important to remember that it was the history of early modern Europe that, in part, inspired support for liberty of conscience and toleration. Americans may now bemoan pluralism but, again, there are always tradeoffs, and balance is often elusive (something the founders and their heirs readily recognized and frequently debated). We can debate the condition our current spiritual, political, and economic situation, but it’s hard to believe that a Roman Catholic would long for life in Charles V’s Holy Roman Empire, marked by constant warfare and faction. As pious as John Calvin’s Geneva and Cromwell’s Republic may have been they were far from peaceful and certainly not tolerant. Even as an Anglican, I have no desire for Queen Elizabeth I’s England.

While I share Davidson’s relief that we no longer inhabit the brutal world of The Northman, I equally have no desire to return to the world of The Witch. As American Christians seek out historical inspiration, they must keep in mind their own inescapable limitations—we are moderns, whether we like it or not. Every epoch is marked by its own challenges and discomforts. No historic moment of nirvana exists. 

Speaking of witches, Davidson’s citation of the Malleus Maleficarum as a source on witchcraft is deeply problematic due to the text’s notorious fabrications, exaggerations, and sensationalist claims. The Malleus Maleficarum is widely discredited by scholars for its baseless and incendiary accusations against supposed witches, including the spurious claim that accused Satanist witches, who were likely ordinary Christians, practiced abortions. Moreover, Davidson seems to need reminding that the Roman Catholic Church never actually endorsed the Malleus Maleficarum and despite its widespread popularity the Inquisition at the Faculty of Cologne condemned it soon after it was published. Although this is a minor point in his book, it highlights another historical oversight on Davidson’s part, especially since he freely admits that “the vast majority of those accused of witchcraft in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries protested that they were innocent, that they had not used magic and were not, in fact, witches.”

Another historical issue is the kind of amorality or even anti-morality advanced by Davidson’s reading of ‘paganism,’ which fails to make sense of the data. His maxim “Nothing is true, everything is permitted” simply doesn’t capture the full picture. Take, for example, the sweeping moral reforms of Caesar Augustus. These reforms addressed various facets of Roman life, from marriage and family to public morality. Augustus criminalized adultery encouraged marriage among the upper classes and penalized those who remained unmarried or childless. He sought to curb luxury and extravagance, promoted simpler, more traditional lifestyles, and revived old religious customs and rituals, emphasizing piety and reverence for the gods. To modern Christian readers, such reforms might appear more Puritan than pagan.

In short, while “pagan” is a flashy term, it’s ultimately historically inaccurate and analytically unhelpful. 

Davidson’s alarmism is not entirely without merit, and he is most convincing when addressing the legal challenges Christians face. Yet, like the data on church attendance, we reach different conclusions regarding their outcomes. During the COVID-19 lockdowns, several churches and pastors faced legal action for holding services. But many of these cases resulted in victories for the churches, with courts often ruling that the restrictions violated religious freedoms. Catholic pro-life activist Mark Houck was raided and arrested by the FBI for allegedly violating the FACE Act during an altercation at a Planned Parenthood clinic, but he was ultimately acquitted of all charges. Across the pond, Isabel Vaughan-Spruce was arrested for silently praying near an abortion clinic in violation of a Public Space Protection Order, yet her charges were dropped following public outcry. Additionally, Jessica Tapia, a physical education teacher at the Jurupa Unified School District in California, was fired for refusing to comply with the district’s policies regarding LGBTQ+ students. She has since filed a lawsuit arguing that her termination violated her religious rights and received a $360,000 settlement. Despite the real legal issues Christians face, the legal system has often ruled in their favor, which should counter some of the direr claims made by Davidson. While the emergence of these legal battles is concerning and should inspire a new generation of Christian legal minds to prepare for tough challenges, Davidson’s lack of faith in our constitutional system should be tempered by these favorable outcomes, offering inspiration to aspiring legal defenders and giving doomsayers some hope. I’m not suggesting the Constitution alone will be our savior, but if John Adams was right that “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people,” we ought to embody these principles ourselves. Otherwise, we risk devolving into the ‘political pagans’ Davidson rightly fears.

But Davidson did make a few observations that gave me pause, perhaps even more than they did him in some cases. The one that really stood out to me was his brief reflections on Sam Smith’s Grammy performance of “Unholy.” Despite conservative outrage on social media over Smith’s devil-themed Grammy performance with Kim Petras, it garnered surprisingly little fanfare. Davidson notes that the performance seemed like a desperate attempt to be transgressive, which ultimately made it less impactful. The introduction by a barely recognizable Madonna, once a symbol of rebellion, underscored this sense of inauthenticity and desperation. Davidson’s critique raises broader cultural questions. If a so-called pagan ethos of “everything is permitted” prevails, does it lead to a point where nothing matters? Davidson had a prime opportunity to explore this, as the performance, instead of being seen as a bold statement, seemed to reflect a deeper malaise within contemporary American culture—a struggle to find meaning and significance amid superficial provocations. In my view, rather than being evidence of American paganism, it mirrors our cultural ennui and spiritual longing.

Where I think Davidson is exactly right is in how profoundly the New Atheists miscalculated what a post-Christian America would look like (something that Richard Dawkins seems to be grappling with, and Hirsi Ali is beginning to come to terms with). Reflecting on the anti-Christian literature of the early 2000s, during a time when secular liberalism appeared triumphant, there was a widespread assumption that the future would be dominated by materialistic and rationalistic worldviews. Christian leaders at the time believed that engaging with and countering these worldviews would be the primary missional struggle of the future church. But even a brief glance at social media reveals a different reality unfolding today. While it is true that Generation Z is far more likely to identify as atheist or agnostic (9% do so), they are seeking ‘something’ akin to religion. As detailed by Tara Isabella Burton in Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World (2020), young people may not be flocking to churches each week, but religion and spirituality are still very much a part of their identities. They remain deeply interested in developing their faith, in whatever form it may take, whether through Harry Potter, Peloton and SoulCycle, DEI and social justice activism, Jordan Peterson, or Silicon Valley techno-utopianism. If there’s anything that qualifies as modern paganism, it’s the dizzying array of gods people have to choose from these days. But to this point, Davidson’s use of C. S. Lewis’ concept of the “Materialist Magician” – “the man who worships what he vaguely calls ‘Forces’ while denying the existence of ‘spirits’” – is a helpful reminder, both to reread The Screwtape Letters (1942) and recognize that Christians are competing with other ‘gods,’ not atheism.

Where Davidson and I differ is in our approach. While he might reference St. Boniface’s dramatic actions, I find St. Paul’s method in Athens (Acts 17:16-34) more inspiring. Paul engaged intellectually and respectfully, acknowledging the Athenians’ religious practices and using them as a bridge to introduce the Gospel. This is not to say there is no place for a more direct and confrontational approach in the spirit of Boniface’s felling the Donar Oak that demands urgent attention. But Paul’s approach was confrontational in its own way. By proclaiming Christ, he presented a message that was “a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles” (1 Cor 1:23), often placing him in the crosshairs of angry mobs and Roman authorities. Despite this, Paul chose to engage with the intellectual and spiritual currents of his time, using the Athenians’ altar to an unknown god as a starting point to proclaim the true God. His method exemplifies how to meet people where they are, respecting their current beliefs while gently guiding them toward Christ. As America becomes less Christian, perhaps the Lord Jesus Christ is becoming like “an unknown God” again. This shift brings new challenges, but it also opens the hope of conversion. By engaging with contemporary spiritual searching honestly and wisely, we can guide others to the truth of the Gospel with humility and wisdom. We do not always need an ax to show that “an idol has no real existence” (1 Cor 8:4). 

Image Credit: Unsplash

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Daniel Gullotta

Daniel Gullotta is a Postdoctoral Research Associate at the Declaration of Independence Center for the Study of American Freedom at the University of Mississippi. He was formerly the Archer Fellow in Residence at the Ashbrook Center at Ashland University. His first book, focusing on religious politics and the rise of Andrew Jackson, will be published by Yale University Press. In 2025, he will be an Academic Visiting Scholar at Wycliffe Hall, University of Oxford, researching magic and witch-hunting in early America. He earned his Ph.D. in Religious Studies from Stanford University. Follow him on X @DanielGullotta.

One thought on “Boniface or Paul?

  1. There are things that I really like about the above article and some things with which I disagree.

    First, the above mentioned works of Dreher and Butterfield were not in response to the dechurching of America, they were in response to the Obergfell decision. If memory serves, it was Dreher who explicitly mentioned that decision as being the final nail on the culture war coffin. And Butterfield’s work focuses on the issues, impact, and beliefs of the LGBT community. I am not familiar enough with Renn to be anything but speculative as to why he says that American Christianity lives in the negative world.

    Second, some terms, like ‘pagan,’ are individually defined by people who are trying to use their definition to make a specific point. The approach taken by Gullotta is refreshing in that it isn’t Christian-centric; it is more historical.

    Third, speaking of Christian-centric, perhaps we are too centered on ourselves that we are flirting with being corporately narcissistic. Note how we easily confuse the state of America with the state of Christianity here. The dechurching, as it has been called, reflects more on America than on American Christianity. What really reflects on American Christianity is how we respond to that dechurching.

    Overall, I very much appreciate Gullotta taking the approach of comparing Boniface with Paul and choosing the latter. We could also call this the Great Commission approach where we respond to the current state of America by evangelizing and teaching the Scriptures.

    But we have to add one other feature to that. We need to see that there are multiple kinds of negative views, to borrow Renn’s model of thought, of Christianity. Here we need to distinguish the negative view of Christianity that comes from past and present attempts by some to impose Christian values and morals on the general public from those who actively oppose our private practice of holding to and following our faith.

    From that distinction, our best course of action as Christians is not to use the political tools at our disposal to promote our interests as much as using those political tools to further equality even for those to whom we most vigorously object, Doing so could reduce the negative view of Christianity since not all who have a negative view of Christianity have that view for the same reason.

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