Evangelicals have been flailing for years to bump up their evangelism numbers. Really, they’ve done everything except be worthwhile groups to join! And now, they’ve got a wild new hope—a new study showing that a good number of Americans are sad about religion being on the decline in our country. Today, let’s see how evangelicals have engaged with this study—and why they are wrong yet again about it being the gimmick they need to end their decline.

(From introduction: The Medium post about ex-Christians/archive being Christianity’s biggest contribution to modern America; Grey Matter’s survey about liberal evangelicals/archive; The Monty Python postscript to Every Sperm is Sacred.)

(This post originally went live on Patreon on 3/26/2024. Its audio ‘cast lives there too and is publicly available!)

The new Pew survey highlights some big tensions around religion in America

On March 15, Pew Research Center published a survey (archive; full report PDF) about the increasing decline of religion in America. It had some interesting highlights:

  • 80% of Americans said that “religion’s role in American life is shrinking”
  • 49% of Americans thought that this decline was bad, while 57% thought it was good
  • 8% of Americans said religion’s influence is growing, which they think is great, while 6% said a growing religious influence is bad
  • 21% combined said that a change in religion’s influence doesn’t make a difference either way

The survey also picked up a lot of tension between religious and nonreligious people. Compared to 2020, religious Americans feel a little more tension (42% to 48%) between their beliefs and “mainstream American culture,” and more of them (24% to 29%) identify as “part of a minority group” because of their religious beliefs.

And we get another peek at the insulation bubble enveloping Christians in this survey. 72% of religiously-unaffiliated adults (meaning atheist, agnostic, or “nothing in particular,” or Nones) said that “conservative Christians have gone too far in trying to control religion in the government.” Meanwhile, 63% of Christians said the same thing of secular liberals. Here’s the full graph:

When you see a split that huge about anything objective, know this: One of these groups is operating in a post-truth bubble. It doesn’t matter if the split involves movie ratings or political opinions. There’s no way both views can be correct. One of them is objectively wrong.

The rest of the survey reveals that conservative Christians and Republicans (but I repeat myself) want to make America into a gauzy, evangelical-controlled Mayberry dream. Above all, they want an America that reflects them and only them. They want Christianity declared the official American religion, and they want politicians who share their beliefs. They deeply despise Joe Biden, mistakenly perceiving (archive) him as largely not religious at all (archive). But they’re not much happier with Donald Trump’s religious displays.

Segue: MEANIE SECULARISTS!

It’s worth noting that about half the country is still Christian. La Wiki, Font of All Knowledge, says that about 42% of Americans are Protestants. 21% are Catholic, with another 4% being other flavors. An article in New York Times last year agrees (archive), saying that about 63% of Americans identified as Christian. Furthermore, the article predicts that by 2030 “fewer than half of Americans may identify as Christian.”

So I got curious about how right-wing Christians felt about this new survey.

Self-important uber-Catholic Bill Donohue, writing for some site I’ve never even heard of (archive), clearly believes that Pew has highlighted the existence of his worst enemies: “MILITANT SECULARISTS”.

This helps to explain why the faithful believe there is a tension between their beliefs and the mainstream American culture. In short, it seems likely that they are feeling the pinch of militant secularists.

(Also: Obligatory mention of the classic atheist cartoon from the days of the Great Evangelical-Atheist Keyboard War of 2005-2015:)

“Militant secularists” doesn’t mean what Donohue desperately wants it to mean. A militant secularist just wants Donohue and his ilk to keep their creepy, pedo-shielding paws off of other people’s human rights and children.

Time to revitalize!

A group called Intercessors for America (IFA) briefly discuss the Pew survey (archive), saying it “reveals a deeply troubling trend”:

This erosion of faith, particularly within the Judeo-Christian tradition that has long been the bedrock of American society, should serve as a stark wake-up call.

IFA’s overall solution is to think extra-hard at the ceiling–er, I mean, pray. But they also ask their followers to do this:

Can we bridge this generational gap and revitalize our faith communities? Can we recommit ourselves to the timeless truths of Christianity and the values that have shaped our nation?

Here, I would like to gently point out that to “recommit,” they would need to have committed at some earlier point. There’s no indication that modern evangelicals have ever committed to those values. FFS, their Dear Leaders can’t even get their followers to commit to consistently being meek, humble, loving people on social media!

But let’s look to that term used: “revitalize.” That’s a trendy buzzword for evangelicals these days. It means not only to commit to living according to their own rules, but also to strengthening and growing their congregations and groups.

Revitalization has been a post-Christian cottage industry for a number of hucksters, including our own unironically-dear Thom Rainer. And to grow a congregation/group, evangelicals need to perform more evangelism.

Evangelism opportunities galore!

Over at an evangelical site called The Washington Stand (archive), writer Sarah Holliday declares that Pew’s survey reveals a “great opportunity for Christians to be salt and light.”

“Salt and light” is Christianese. In Matthew 5:13-16, Jesus describes how he wants his followers to attract new people to their fledgling religion:

You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its savor, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men.

You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a basket. Instead, they set it on a stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.

Whatever Jesus might have meant here, in modern practice “being salt and light” means acting extra-pompous and disapproving at heathens. To sell this idea, Holliday extensively quotes David Closson, a guy at the ultra-right-wing fundagelical group Family Research Council. And Closson offers us this howler of an observation:

As Closson detailed, part of how we do that is “when people are confused, worried, or fearful about any given issue, we as Christians can remind people that God’s Word speaks to that issue. That’s what previous generations of Christians have done.”

Yes, that must be how Christianity came to be in a state of perpetual decline for decades. Nonetheless, he and Holliday both feel that since Americans generally seem to like the best-case Christian values of “grace, faith, mercy, reconciliation, and restoration,” that must mean that evangelicals still have a shot at reversing their decline.

Alas for them both, none of that sounds like today’s evangelicals. Then again, if Christians had ever consistently embodied those values, they’d never have entered decline at all.

A dissenting view that evangelicals will never, ever adopt

BTW, the far-less-fundagelical Sojourners (archive) disagreed heartily with Closson and Holliday. Instead, it offered a far different suggestion:

Rebecca Russo, vice president of higher education strategy at the nonprofit Interfaith America, said that for religion to again have an increased influence, Christians will have to embrace a holistic and hospitable plurality and look back at the country’s origins.

Sounds nice, doesn’t it? I’m sure a lot of progressive and mainline churches are doing exactly this. (In 2015, a former evangelical even described something similar.)

But evangelicals could never. They think they own America—that Jesus himself gave it to them. They’re Jews version 2.0, and America is Israel version 2.0. America is their Holy Land. Their land of milk and honey. Theirs to rule as they see fit.

(See also: Evangelicals’ Israel obsession is falling apart lately)

Nothing but absolute dominance can ever content evangelicals. They’re not only authoritarians but dysfunctional ones. That means that they’re so focused on power that they don’t care what the Bible commands. And when dysfunctional authoritarians start feeling like their power is being challenged, nobody can reason with them anymore.

All too many religious leaders teach that America needs religion

That may explain the explosion in blog posts and articles online about why it’s so important that America be dominated by hardline evangelicalism/Catholicism:

As that third link, written by a forced-birther, puts it:

Our goal is to offer a better way to live in community through grace, mercy, and a foundation built on inclusive values inspired by Christ. That benefits everyone, even those who hate us.

See? Forced-birthers’ nonstop attempts to negate women’s human rights are actually good! EVERYONE should want to live without human rights! We all need to shut up and let Daddy drive! As the forced-birther who wrote that post puts it, “we are all going to want to live in a society where every human being is understood to have intrinsic worth.” (He left off the last part, though: ” —except for women.”)

And again, if hardline Christians had ever created a society that really considered “every human being” to have “intrinsic worth,” nobody would ever have had a problem with them. But they never have. Every time hardline Christians start up groups and churches, they all erupt into scandals. That’s a big part of why modern Americans are rejecting Christianity in greater and greater numbers.

It’s also why the government (at both federal and state/local levels) handles so much welfare and social-safety net stuff. Christians either couldn’t handle it—or didn’t want to. Even now, I’ve personally talked to people who tried to get food for their kids from Christian charities, only to learn they had to sit through an hour-long sermon just to get a single cheap sandwich.

(Speaking of: Check out what one Crisis Pregnancy Center demands of women seeking help with childcare expenses. These scans were made straight from that fake clinic’s volunteer handbook. I’m sure the women working so hard to earn a few diapers feel super-duper valued. Yep yep.)

This attempt to push the flocks into more evangelism isn’t new, of course

Every time evangelicals reckon with their decline, they call for more evangelism—and insist that there’s never been a better time to get into evangelism.

In 2015, Pew Research published its landmark Religious Landscape Study. This study finally confirmed what a few of us had known for years: Christianity was in serious decline. Worse, they and other researchers found no indication that Christianity would ever regain its former numbers and dominance. Nobody could even foresee when that decline would bottom out. (And nobody still can.)

And that time, as with this time, evangelicals called for more evangelism. Well, most of them. Some belligerently thumped their chests and declared they were actually really glad to see the fakey-fake fake “cultural Christians” leaving. Many hucksters even sold apologetics arguments as the surefire way to keep teens and young adults in the sheepfold (archive).

Most, though, called for evangelism. They rarely agreed about exactly what that evangelism ought to look like, as we can see here (archive). But they all thought this was a great time to evangelize. Back in 2015, Charisma interviewed a number of evangelical leaders who all said so (archive):

[Kevin] DeYoung [a Calvinist pastor] says God is impressing on him to pray for open doors to share his faith with people who don’t know Jesus. “The Lord is eager to hear and answer those prayers,” he said. “Instead of this research leading us to fear and panic, it should lead us to pray, ‘Lord, send people into the fields that are white unto harvest. Send me.'”

Russell Moore, at the time a big-name leader in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), told evangelicals that they needed to “reclaim our mission, and reframe our perspective” (archive). Their “mission,” of course, is evangelism.

At the time, other evangelism-minded evangelicals turned their gaze to China and other non-Christian countries (archive). They counted on a Chinese Great Awakening to save their bacon.

Overall, evangelicals expressed hope that in the wake of the devastating Religious Landscape Study, they could push a giant RESTART button to remake themselves and their groups. But it didn’t happen.

Almost ten years later, evangelicals find themselves in an even bigger decline. Their entire brand is more tainted than ever. And instead of making serious reforms to at least ensure the safety of their flocks, they’re trying to add more people to their utterly dysfunctional groups.

They must. Americans need them, even if they constantly say the opposite.

No no, those poor widdle heathens are just wrong.

America itself needs evangelicals.

Entwining religion and nationalism is always a bad idea

During the Red Scare (post-WWII to the 1950s and beyond), evangelical leaders worked with Republican politicians to entwine their flavor of Christianity with American patriotism. Longtime evangelist Billy Graham (archive) probably did more to fuse those ideas than any other religious leader.

For a long time after WWII, anybody who rejected Christianity—in particular Graham’s flavor of it—risked everything if their neighbors found out. Such people risked losing their job, their spouse and family, their entire standing in the community, and of course their friends. But their problems didn’t end there. Thanks to this moral panic, others perceived them as not only un-American but also anti-American. Heathens were perceived as a danger to everything a loyal AmeriChristian held dear, and those AmeriChristians were quick to retaliate if they discovered one.

(Similarly, childfree women used to get accused of “hating” children back in the 1990s and 2000s. Feminist women still get accused of “hating” men. Some folks are just really polarized.)

Evangelicals often describe the general timeframe of the Red Scare as a golden age. They ache for America to re-adopt the gender roles espoused by that era’s white, able-bodied, straight, cis, middle-class-and-up Christians. For that very narrow segment of Americans, these were indeed “the good ol’ days.”

But they weren’t so good for the many people who couldn’t fit into those categories—or even fake it convincingly. Anyone who marched to a different tune faced serious penalties and punishments—all aimed at getting them into lockstep again.

That’s the America that evangelicals want back. They have no interest in pluralism or diversity—in fact, they view both as suspicious and anti-American as well as anti-Christian.

Then again, at no point in America’s history has religious overreach ever worked in the favor of anyone but a very few of its people. That forced-birther we encountered earlier is wrong. Nobody really wants to live in an America that does not robustly protect the rights and liberties of its people, nor to live in the Republic of Gilead—except for the people who ache to rule it.

Evangelism only works if customers want to buy evangelists’ product

Evangelicals can evangelize all they like. They can evangelize all the way to China. They can even have a big week-long evangelism cakewalk right on the streets of New York City.

None of it will matter if their marks don’t want to buy the evangelists’ only product: Lifelong, active membership in a particular religious group.

Unfortunately for evangelicals, fewer and fewer people find their product worth its asking price. Its overall message is irrelevant. Its groups tend to be hotbeds of gossip, cliquishness, and middle-school levels of cruelty. Nobody can trust an evangelical leader farther than they can throw ’em—or even be completely sure that a church’s kids’ programs are really safe.

Even barring all the false beliefs that evangelicals insist are completely objectively true, evangelicalism as a whole just doesn’t appeal to many people on a social or cultural level.

I’m thankful today that surveys keep painting a picture of diminishing evangelical power. Evangelicals still have all too much political power, but their cultural dominance is all but gone. In fact, evangelicals constantly reveal through their own behavior that not only do they deserve this decline, but that it’s been a long time coming.

They may think that Americans totally need them and their product, but they clearly haven’t reckoned with their hosts on those scores!

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Captain Cassidy

Captain Cassidy is a Gen-X ex-Christian and writer. She writes about how people engage with science, religion, art, and each other. She lives in Idaho with her husband, Mr. Captain, and their squawky orange tabby cat, Princess Bother Pretty Toes. And at any given time, she is running out of bookcase space.

1 Comment

PRRI study reveals Christian decline, unaffiliated growth - Roll to Disbelieve · 04/05/2024 at 4:00 AM

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