Christine Wicker was a feature writer, columnist, and religion reporter for the Dallas Morning News for seventeen years. She’s also author of a New York Times bestseller Lily Dale: The True Story of the Town that Talks to the Dead.
Her new project gets right to the heart of all we’ve been told about Evangelical Christians.
The numbers we have been given are all wrong, says Wicker.
The tag line on the book’s back cover? “What Evangelicals Don’t Want You to Know.”
And if you need any further convincing to check this book out, here is what she writes in the opening pages:
“Let me stop here and define what I meant by evangelicals… I meant those people who have accepted Jesus as their personal savior and as the only way to heaven, who accept the Bible as the inerrant word of God, and who are scaring the bejesus out of the rest of America.”
Her book is called The Fall of the Evangelical Nation.
Wicker was kind enough to answer a number of questions about her book and research:
Hemant Mehta: What percent of the country is evangelical Christian, by your definition?
Christine Wicker: Seven percent. That’s opposed to the 25 percent that we’ve been lead to believe are evangelicals.
HM: Speaking of which, what is your definition of “evangelical”? (You put both Rick Warren and the National Association of Evangelicals outside that label — calling them shifters — for example.)
CW: I define evangelicals the way the public perceives them.
I’m basically talking about the most conservative evangelicals who have dominated the public discussions of morality and been seen as politically potent forces, the ones the media quotes and helps define by giving them far more coverage than any other religious group (despite the fact that other Christians outnumber them by 5 or 6 to one.)
So I’m talking about the Religious Right.
My seven percent is actually higher than the 20 percent of self-described evangelicals who say they are in the Religious Right.
I identify these evangelicals by membership in churches, attendance, behavior, and beliefs.
HM: What percent of the country regularly attends a church? How does that compare with the percentage of people who are explicitly non-religious?
CW: The best anyone can tell, 19 to 20 percent of Americans are in church on a given Sunday.
The number of people who don’t believe or don’t put themselves in an institutional religious group more than doubled from 14 million to 29 million from 1990 to 2001. As a percentage of the population, they grew from 8 percent to more than 14 percent.
They are the fastest growing “spiritual” category in the country in percentage and numbers.
HM: You noticed a discrepancy between the cited number of members of the National Association of Evangelicals and the actual number. Ditto with the Southern Baptists. How drastic were these “shifts”?
CW: The NAE has said they have 30 million members. They actually have 7.6 million, tops. That’s the number of members their churches claim. So the actual number is almost certainly half to a fourth of that.
The SBC says it has 16 million. Five to eight million of them don’t even live in the same towns their churches are in. Insiders count SBC church health by how many attend Sunday School on average. That number is about 4 million for the entire denomination.
HM: With all the money brought in each week and the power of the megachurches, why isn’t that number growing?
CW: The megachurches are growing. By last report they are increasing twice as fast anyone thought they would.
If they continue to grow, they could be the salvation, no pun intended, of the Evangelical Nation. But signs indicate the growth may be slowing.
Lots of insiders believe they’re doomed.
Here’s why: big buildings, big debt, shifting demographics, dissatisfied members, and retiring founders.
Let me unpack just one of those problems: dissatisfied members.
These churches are constructed to attract so-called seekers. That builds attendance.
But they don’t give their most dedicated, generous and hard-working core members the kind of environment where they feel that God is present and that they are growing in their faith, according to a study by Willow Creek, a huge church that has cloned itself all over the country. One evangelical thinks the most dedicated evangelicals are being so poorly served by church that they are already leaving and 20 million will eventually be out the door.
Willow Creek ministers are completely changing their approach to try to retain and satisfy these core members. But the change has many dangers. Churches that serve core members’ need for spiritual growth typically don’t serve new members and therefore fail to grow numerically.
HM: In an article from 2000, you wrote about how Christians divorce at a higher rate than non-Christians. Is that still the case?
Evangelicals also have similar rates of drug, alcohol and pornography addiction. They seem to engage in extra-marital and pre-marital sex at the same rates that others do.
Faith doesn’t appear to have impact on moral behavior.
HM: What is the biggest mistake that churches make?
CW: If you take a look at the Dallas Morning News article that I wrote and is on my website… you’ll get a taste of the attacks coming from inside and outside the church.One I don’t mention is among of the biggest: they teach members that they are the only ones saved and the only ones who have the Truth.
Those contentions seem more and more arrogant and even un-Christian to outsiders.
HM: How do cultural issues (like the recent gay marriage decision in California) impact the church?
CW: The culture has clearly changed the evangelical church more than it has changed the culture. Preachers have said that for years, and they’re right.
Opposing gay rights is a good example of how evangelicals have tried to keep a behavior from becoming normalized. But they’ve failed with premarital sex, parenthood outside of marriage, dancing, divorce, abortion and alcohol consumption.
One scholar believes gay rights with be as damaging to evangelicals as supporting slavery was to Southern Baptists after the Civil War.
HM: How politically entrenched are the megachurches with the Republican Party?
CW: It’s rare to find anyone in evangelical megachurches who will admit to being a Democrat. Megachurch preachers are unlikely to push particular candidates from the pulpit but they tie Republican policies to Biblical truth regularly.
And these churches give out Christian voter guides that elide the boundary between Republican issues and Christian issues by putting lower taxes and support of the war, for instance, right next to issues like abortion and gay rights.
HM: Are churches hurting or helping themselves by taking a more literal view of Scripture?
CW: For 20 years they were able to say that literalism built great faith and drew crowds, but that worm is beginning to turn.
Princeton scholar Robert Wuthnow recently published a book that challenges whether biblical literalism has been helped churches grow. He thinks rising income and education, which usually mean lower birthrates, have hurt mainline Protestant churches more than lapses in doctrine, as evangelicals claimed.
Now evangelicals are beginning to feel the impact lower birthrates that come along with their own rising income and education. It’s no accident that they are starting to tell women that having lots of children is what God wants them to do.
HM: When people leave (evangelical) Christianity, where are they going? What are they becoming?
CW: Perhaps a thousand evangelicals leave their churches every day and most are thought to leave faith altogether. Others drift into more mainstream Christian churches.
HM: How big of a role will evangelical Christians play in the upcoming presidential elections?
CW: The 18 percent of self-identified evangelicals who aren’t Religious Right supporters are a swing vote. They seem likely to go with the Democrats this year. The 7 percent who are dedicated and likely to be Religious Right members won’t. But they may not go with McCain either. That’s why he’s been courting such right wing preachers.
But he made the right choice to distance himself from them. Even the core 7 percent doesn’t go as far as Hagee does, and even some die-hard, nonevangelical Republicans might pull back from him if he and Hagee were too closely aligned.
I’d say the Republicans will do a bit of race baiting this year to keep those RR folks and others awake and afraid and running to the polls.
Democrats have to capture the swing vote, but I’d say it’s pretty much theirs. Check out my piece on Huffington Post for more analysis.
HM: How much influence do the non-religious have on national affairs?
CW: Hard to say.
Quietly? Probably a lot through individual efforts that don’t focus on faith specifically. But in a democracy the organized tend to be heard and have power in the media and at the polls. And the rich tend to get what they want through donations and lobbying. Nobody cares about their faith.
HM: (I ask this for the atheist audience:) If you were an atheist, how would you capitalize on the failings of the church?
CW: This is a great time for people with other ideas about moral and ethic behavior to assert themselves. I hope they will flood into the public square and begin a national discussion about who Americans are and want to be morally, spiritually and ethically.
As ideas about spirituality have changed, an atheist might be seen as a spiritual person even without belief in God. Merely being seen as “spiritual but not religious” is a good thing in this country and will open a lot of doors that being an out-of-the-closet atheist wouldn’t.
As the new atheism has struck chords with people who claim no religious title at all, we’ve realized that non-God-based ideas have a constituency.
But atheists have the same problem I’m having with publicity on my book. Mass media are afraid of the Religious Right audience. They don’t want to offend anyone.
Alternative media and the Internet are the best opportunity for the spread of new ideas.
HM: How should the church respond in return?
CW: I hope mainliners (Presbyterians, Lutherans, Methodists and Episcopalians) will be more aggressive about their ideas. They’ve been doing the hard work of trying to serve a changing country’s real needs. So they are in a great position.
Evangelicals are already changing. Some are giving up the idea that only they are saved and going to heaven. Others are focusing on environmentalism and poverty. Others are going the other direction and becoming even more conservative.
HM: What are your thoughts on the recent Evangelical Manifesto that criticized the politicization of the faith?
CW: It’s one of the clear signs that evangelicals are in trouble. Their politics have hurt them tremendously. So much so that even the word evangelical is now in bad odor and many don’t want to claim it.
HM: What has been the Christian response to your book?
CW: Christianity Today tried to demean it by making it sound as though it was nothing new. But of course they would. Image is everything and if the word gets out that evangelicals aren’t so powerful, Christianity Today won’t be either.
Many evangelicals know that I’m right. Of course, they would. I got most of my information from evangelical churches.
Some of them even think the truth of the book could help the cause of Christ.
Others tell me I’m wrong. But new evidence comes in every day. Those people just aren’t plugged in enough to know what’s happening.
Some send me Bible verses. When I was a kid in the Baptist church we had “sword drills,” which were our name for Bible verse recitation. Those who send me Bible verses are generally stabbing me with their swords.
HM: As a former religion reporter, what do you like and dislike about religion or “Faith & Values” pages across the country?
CW: They cover groups – denominations, organizations, theological schools. Media are good at that.
But the real action in American spirituality is not organized. So reporters have a hard time getting a handle on the most important stories.
You can read another interview with the author at Conversation at the Edge.
The Fall of the Evangelical Nation is in bookstores now.