Telegraphing the culture wars finale

800px-christian_flag_at_focus_on_the_family_by_david_shankboneThe American culture wars are over and the religious right has lost.

If you aren’t quite awake to the magnitude of the defeat yet, Van Winkles everywhere, that’s perhaps because you haven’t read an article posted last Friday on the Telegraph website and titled “US religious Right concedes defeat.” Who does the writer choose as a spokesperson for the entire movement? Dr. James Dobson, recently retired head of the conservative Christian group Focus on the Family.

Leading evangelicals have admitted that their association with George W. Bush has not only hurt the cause of social conservatives but contributed to the failure of the key objectives of their 30-year struggle.

James Dobson, 72, who resigned recently as head of Focus on the Family — one of the largest Christian groups in the country — and once denounced the Harry Potter books as witchcraft, acknowledged the dramatic reverse for the religious Right in a farewell speech to staff.

‘We tried to defend the unborn child, the dignity of the family, but it was a holding action,” he said.

“We are awash in evil and the battle is still to be waged. We are right now in the most discouraging period of that long conflict. Humanly speaking, we can say we have lost all those battles.”

While Dobson has a following — his radio show, which he is continuing after retirement, is heard by an estimated 1.5 million listeners — he is the only “leading evangelical” quoted in this article. His public opposition to then-candidate Barack Obama, and his sometime provocative rhetoric make him a rather high-profile one, but not by any means can his opinions be said to represent all “evangelicals.”

After a paragraph in which writer Alex Spillius, like Newsweek’s Jon Meacham, gives a grim picture of defeats suffered by conservative Christians in recent “culture wars,” he has these slightly histrionic paragraphs:

Though the struggle will go on, the confession of Mr Dobson, who started his ministry from scratch in 1977, came amid growing concern that church attendance in the United States is heading the way of Britain, where no more than ten per cent worship every week.

Unease is rising that a nation founded — in the view of evangelicals — purely as a Christian country will soon, like northern Europe, become “post-Christian”.

Recent surveys have suggested that the American religious landscape has shifted significantly. A study by Trinity College in Connecticut found that 11 per cent fewer Americans identify themselves as Christian than 20 years ago. Those stating no religious affiliation or declaring themselves agnostic has risen from 8.2 per cent in 1990 to 15 per cent in 2008.

Heading the way of Great Britain? We aren’t there quite yet, folks.

The Trinity College survey, which you can find analyzed and linked to to in this article by Washington Post writer Michelle Boorstein, has some very interesting results. But as Trinity College’s Mark Silk asserts, these survey results show that the evangelical ranks are growing. GetReligionistas have said again and again that there is confusion (including, if one can judge by these results, among evangelicals themselves) over what constitutes an evangelical. While the number of self-declared Christians has declined, the survey doesn’t forecast the impending death of conservative Christianity.

Later in the article Spillius refers to an article by Michael Spencer he claims has “become a touchstone for dissaffected conservatives.” Check this one out for yourself, if you haven’t seen it — Spillius doesn’t give readers any proof that it has become a cornerstone for fearful conservatives. It’s hard to see why a piece that seems more like a collage of incendiary predictions would have gone viral.

Infighting among conservative Christians is a sexy topic — and it is probably going on. There is considerable infighting going on in many segments of America’s religious populations. But what both Meacham and Spillius appear to assume that a decline in political influence equals defeat for religious conservatives. In his response to Meacham’s essay last week, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President Albert Moehler argues instead that his main concern is evangelism, not cultural influence. It’s a loss to the article that Spillius didn’t talk to Moehler and a few thoughtful analysts. By beginning with James Dobson and ending by quoting writer Michael Spencer’s “apocalypse soon” rant, he leaves readers adrift in a fiery sea of rhetoric, without any land in sight.

The “Christian flag” still flies at Colorado’s Focus on the Family — this picture is taken from Wikimedia Commons

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  • Dave

    I haven’t admitted it heretofore, but this is funny. I sit here in two faith traditions that are lost in the decimal place, Pagan and Unitarian Universalist, and listen to folks like Dobson and Moehler hang crepe over a marginal loss in adherence and a string of political reversals having nothing to do with whether their faith continues to flourish. Even funnier — alas, from the viewpoint of this board — is the ability of the media to amplify the overall effect when they should be checking with other sources.

  • Martha

    The bit that seems to have slipped under the radar is the “Humanly speaking, we can say we have lost all those battles.”

    That’s “humanly”. I rather imagine Dr. Dobson is not ruling out divine intervention; that Christians should rely on the will of God and not put their trust in princes, so to speak.

    Dave – Paganism is a ‘faith tradition’? Since when? By which I mean, you can’t just lump all paganism in together (Zeus and Odin may have family resemblances, but they’re not the same thing), and if it’s neo-Paganism you mean, that’s another herd of cats altogether :-)

  • Bern

    Quoting one source is just plain poor journalism and/or professional laziness. Whether or not there is an element of wish fulfillment–well, I could go there too. Obviously the reporter feels that “humanly” is all there is–otherwise it wouldn’t be “news” now, would it?

  • Chris Bolinger

    …both Meacham and Spillius appear to assume that a decline in political influence equals defeat for religious conservatives

    That’s because Meacham, Spillius, and most other so-called mainstream writers see everything related to religion through a political lens, and a cloudy one at that.

    It’s a loss to the article that Spillius didn’t talk to Moehler and a few thoughtful analysts.

    How would that help the agenda?

  • Dave

    Martha, whether you call it a faith tradition or a family of faith traditions, its minuscule numbers make the Christian panic over ARIS risible.

  • Jerry

    Chris Bolinger wrote an important point. But it’s not always true. Tonight during my exercise, there was a substitute for Larry King on CNN. They interviewed the Duggar family who are devout Christians in a very straight fashion, allowing the family to speak for themselves. I could not find a transcript or youtube video online, but at one point one of them was talking about how they had not even kissed before marriage. Some might be shocked that the interviewer did not play any media games with that statement but took it at face value.

    The point is that there are other ways besides politics of appealing to people.

  • Wolf Paul

    Characterizing Michael Spencer’s article “The Coming Evangelical Collapse” as an “apocalypse soon” rant indicates to me that some “GetReligionistas” haven’t got it any more than the MSM folks they critique.

    • E.E. Evans

      Wolf Paul,

      How would you characterize it?
      Spencer doesn’t offer one shred of evidence for his opinion, which, in my opinion, makes it a rant.

  • Stoo

    The Torygraph wouldn’t cheer on the defeat of the American religious right. I’d put this one down more to sensationalism than wishful thinking.

  • Harris

    It’s hard to see why a piece that seems more like a collage of incendiary predictions would have gone viral.

    I would think the answer to this question is the story. Something in Spencer’s words resonates with readers, is it the waning of the political agenda and its own version of messianism (they do seem to be the segment that keeps the Obama = Messiah meme going)? Is it an implicit revelation of the linkage between a certain real estate based economy and the big box approach of evangelicals? It may also be that Spencer’s overwrought predictions are simply another form of Evangelical self-regard, the same sort found in the political hysteria of the Religious Right. I think there is evidence to support any one of those explanations; there are undoubtedly more, as well.

    My personal bet is to lean on the idea of religious expansionism as a product of the bubble economy, so that the economic distress then gets translated into social lack of confidence.

  • Chris Bolinger

    Jerry, can’t you change the channel to ESPN or something? :-) I heard good things about the Duggar family interview from folks at the office. Maybe Larry should take some more time off.

  • MDSF

    make him a rather high-profile one, but not by any means can his opinions be said to represent all “evangelicals.”

    Can you help me parse this fragment? Are you suggesting that Dobson is a poor representative of evangelicals? That he represents people who are evangelical in name only? That “evangelical” is a poor term?

    I’m at a loss to name who speaks for evangelicals nowadays; does anyone? Did anyone ever?

    I was surprised when Ted Haggard was declared the voice of American Evangelicalism several years ago, but he was after all the head of the NAE and pastor of a megachurch.

  • Elizabeth


    I simply meant that Dobson’s opinions, while influential are his own. Also, if you look at the ARIS findings and Silk’s comments in Michelle Boorstein’s piece you can see that the meaning of the word itself is becoming very “squishy” as people define themselves as evangelicals — if it ever had one definition. Would James Dobson and Jim Wallis define evangelical in the same way? Probably not!

  • H. E. Baber

    The mistake is the conflation of Christians with Evangelicals. Evangelicals (whatever description you choose) are gaining but the group that’s growing fastest are the unchurched. So Christians in toto are losing, due to the precipitous decline of more liberal “mainline” denominations–even though Evangelicals, are not.

    That is however significant because the trend is to European style secularism, even if the US is behind the curve. Conservative Christian groups are not growing as fast as the unchurched and, moreover, the growth of these groups is slowing. Some relatively conservative denominations that were growing a few years ago, e.g. Baptists in the aggregate, are now beginning to decline.

    So what we see is secularism making its way down from the constituency of the most liberal churches to the constituencies of ever more conservative churches as religion in the US, as elsewhere in affluent, developed countries and amongst educated elites generally, peters out.

    I suppose this process approaches a limit and, within finite time, there will remain a small but shrinking group of Christians–increasingly lower class, uneducated and socially conservative, the remnants of a peasantry that the world has passed by, huddling together to maintain their way of life.

  • Elizabeth

    Dr. Baber — I thought you had an interesting argument until you got to that last paragraph. I actually think and may write about this if I get the opportunity. that so-called secularism might not be what it seems in some places, like Great Britain. But your final paragraph, which I’m leaving in with some discomfort, has a personal tone that frankly weakens the points that you are making. We generally spike derogatory comments, and I guess I’m just telling you that the last paragraph, in addition to being extremely speculative, will cross the line for a lot of our readers. I’ll let them speak for themselves, since I’m sure they are capable of doing so.

  • Dave

    Dr Baber, I don’t agree that we are heading for European style secularism, with an official established church and largely empty cathedrals, or an officially anti-clerical state regulating religious expression. What we already have is American style secularism, in which the state is beholden to no church, nor vice versa, but religion is a force in the body politic and can influence state policy as long as it does so through the secular conduits of consent of the governed. We perforce use the word “secular” to describe both situations but its meaning is different in America, Britain, France and Turkey.

    Secularists, to evoke another meaning of the word, are not about to become dominant soon. Ask the folks at Americans United for Separation of Church and State if they are ascendant, or if every case is a struggle against countervailing social pressures. Ditto for the ACLU in its free-exercise cases.

    Elizabeth, I don’t think Dr Baber’s final paragraph should be offensive. She is using words with standard meanings to describe a possible future situation (one I don’t think will actually come to pass). Some of those words might be edgy but her meaning is clear.

  • Sarah Webber

    If edgy is just another word for rude. And it’s not the meaning that Elizabeth is referencing but the attitude. Condescension is never appropriate because it always says “I’m better than you.”

  • Matt

    A couple of items worth noting:

    1) Martha (#2) is right to point to the significance of Dobson’s words “humanly speaking.” His complete quote was: “Humanly speaking, we can say that we have lost all those battles, but God is in control and we are not going to give up now, right?”

    2) It is indeed a pity that Millius did not speak to Mohler, because Mohler would have been especially relevant to the story. He is a board member of Focus on the Family and spoke at Focus just before Dobson did; in fact, his address was aired as part of the same Focus broadcast as Dobson’s.

  • H. E. Baber

    Re my last, speculative paragraph

    Please note that I didn’t say anything like “Religion is just dumb so in the future only dumb, uneducated people will be religious.” That would be insulting or, if you will, “edgy”–and is, I believe, false.

    I’m looking at the direction religious belief and practice are taking both globally and in the US. Globally affluent, developed countries are becoming increasingly secular as the center of gravity for Christianity shifts to the Global South. In the US, elites are highly secular–”Eumericans” following the European pattern. That’s why liberal churches that cater for this demographic are collapsing while churches that cater for a typically poorer, less educated, less urban, less coastal clientele are doing better.

    I am not saying that all members of these still growing churches are poor or uneducated or non-urban, or that all members of liberal churches are coastal elites. I’m talking about proportions and numbers.

    The nasty thing is that this trend is self-perpetuating. Years ago in the US liberal, mainline denominations–Episcopal, Presbyterian, etc.–were seen as the industry standard; currently conservative, evangelical Christianity is perceived by Americans as the paradigmatic (or even only) version of Christianity. As a consequence of this perception, upscale consumers who aren’t attracted by either the packaging or the substance of conservative, evangelical Christianity are increasingly reluctant to be associated with any version of Christianity, and liberal churches will inevitably continue declining.

    I doubt that it’s feasible for mainline churches to recapture that clientele. What can they do? Put up big signs saying, “We believe in evolution,” “Gays welcome–same sex unions blessed here” or “We do Bach and Mozart”? They’ve in effect tried this but their elite erstwhile constituency doesn’t notice or believe it or care because at this point Christianity has become, in the public perception, so closely associated with conservative social views and so thoroughly uncool, that they’re not coming back.

  • Sarah Webber

    When you put it in terms of coolness, I feel like I’m in middle school again. Surely it’s not that superficial, intellectual and completely divorced from real life experience?

  • H. E. Baber

    Here’s a nice piece by A. N. Wilson that touches on the coolness issue:

    Of course there are both good and bad reasons for rejecting religious belief (as well as both good and bad reasons for accepting it). I suspect that most believers and unbelievers are motivated primarily by bad reasons–and coolness figures big.

  • Julia

    European style secularism

    I was going to recommend again that there needs to be some reporting on what the heck “secularism” means.

    But Dave hit the nail on the head. You see the word thrown all about, but it means different things to different groups of people.

    So, it seems to me, there needs to be some defining of the term in news reports.

    Secularism is the new Evangelical.

  • Elizabeth

    Amen, Julia. Secularism doesn’t even neccesarily mean godlessness.

    But I think that even if words like secular, progressive and evangelical (not to mention Catholic or Jewish) are defined every time someone writes about them, the boundaries are still so broad that many will disagree. Thus there will be plenty of room for both debate within communities and criticism of the press for being sloppy. Sometimes they are–and sometimes they are going for the anodyne descriptor (grin).

  • Dave

    Ther are two contradictory meanings of “secular” (or “secularism”) that need to be sorted out when the term is used. One refers to a situation in which religion plays no role in development of public policy. The other means a situation in which religion plays a public role but with no particular advantage adhering to any given policy proposal just because it’s religious. Thus one can be religious and at the same time be a secularist in the second sense.

  • Stoo

    Here’s a nice piece by A. N. Wilson that touches on the coolness issue

    It’s not a nice piece, it’s a Daily Wail piece.

  • Chris Bolinger

    …upscale consumers who aren’t attracted by either the packaging or the substance of conservative, evangelical Christianity are increasingly reluctant to be associated with any version of Christianity, and liberal churches will inevitably continue declining…

    *yawn* Spend any time in the real world lately, Doc? Feel free to do some first-hand research amongst us backwoods yokels in Flyover Country before you lecture us on what trends are happening here and, further, why they are happening.

  • Perry L. Stepp

    Dobson has just appeared on Hannity, saying a. “I’m NOT retiring,” and b. “That’s not EXACTLY what I said; they left off the last line of the quote.”

    What Dobson says he said: “We are awash in evil and the battle is still to be waged. We are right now in the most discouraging period of that long conflict. Humanly speaking, we can say we have lost all those battles. BUT GOD WILL BE VICTORIOUS IN THE END.”

    In other words: the reporter from the Telegraph drastically changed the meaning of Dobson’s statements.

  • Nick

    Apparently, the demise of secularization theory has not reached the philosophy department of the University of San Diego. In the fields of religious studies, sociology, and other areas which actually examine what is happening on the ground, secularization theory has already been largely abandoned for a more nuanced understanding of the place of religion in modern societies.

    I doubt America will actually go the way of Europe–a major rise in people checking “no religion” on the ARIS survey doesn’t assure continual growth in that area until Christianity is the backwater tradition of an outmoded peasantry. There is no reason to believe this trend will forever continue unless you have, well, faith in secularization theory. Which is a terribly problematic thing to have faith in these days:

    “To recapitulate: secularization theory was coined in the 1950s, though its core idea has much older antecedents. The idea can be simply stated: the historical development of recent centuries has brought about a progressive decline of religion, and there is every reason to believe that this decline will continue. It has by now become clear that this view of history was a grand extrapolation of the European experience, but it continues to be the starting point of many observers of the contemporary scene (though the majority of sociologists no longer share this assumption). There have been many reasons for the demise of secularization theory, notably the massive resurgence of religious movements in most of the world. But the America-Europe comparison is a big nail in the coffin of the theory: America is too big a society to fit comfortably under the maxim that the exception proves the rule. More importantly, though, the comparison impinges on a key proposition of secularization theory–namely, that it is modernity which brings about the decline of religion. It is difficult to argue that America is less modern than, say Belgium. Minimally, this suggests that modernity can come in more than one version–and if this is the case with regard to religion, it is likely to be so with regard to other features of society.” (Peter Berger, Grace Davie, Effie Fokas, Religious America, Secular Europe?, Ashgate, 2008, p 141)

    Forgive the massive quote, but like always, the current debates in academia have not reached a mass media that really needs to clue themselves in before they make apocalyptic pronouncements about the death of something 85% of Americans still hold central to their lives. (And we must also remember that 15% non-religious isn’t the same thing as atheist or agnostic; that stat remains miniscule at 1.6%.)

  • Nick

    Also, I’m still confused as to why all these stories in the wake of ARIS don’t realize that–

    “The percentage of Americans claiming no religion, which jumped from 8.2 in 1990 to 14.2 in 2001, has now increased to 15 percent”

    –means that after an increase of 6 percent from 1990 to 2001 (11 years), the increase from 2001 to 2008 (7 years) was only .8 percent. This seems to suggest slowing down, not speeding up.

  • Stoo

    Snarking at academics aside (average joe trumps elitist intellectual, am i right???), the differences between europe and america do interest me.

    My first (uneducated) guess would be that the wealthier and more comfortable people are, the less need they have for promises of an afterlife and a god to look after them. Which sounds sort-of like the aforementioned secularization theory. Of course, the US doesn’t fit that.

    But I find it hard to believe the bit about established churches being the key difference either. If the CofE here in the UK had been detached from the state, would the pews here be any less empty? Hard to believe.

    ok ok this is probably coffee-house material, although it feels like only a handful of us are making any effort there.

  • Elizabeth

    Nick, thanks for the wonderful Berger quote, and everyone for the fascinating conversation about secularization and religiosity in Europe and America. Perry, I was sleeping on an elliptical at the Y last night and suddenly realized I was staring at Dr. Dobson, but missed part of conversation. Apparently the Telegraph guy shortened the quote to suit his argument. Did many Americans read it? Perhaps not, but in our global culture, it matters

  • Dave

    Perry, the strongest thing we can say with certainty is that Dobbs and the reporter disagree over whether the reporter truncated Dobbs’s comment.

  • Larry the Grump Rasczak

    Two points.

    1) Bern says “poor journalism and/or professional laziness….and an element of wish fulfillment”. That’s very true here, but isn’t that also pretty much the industry standard these days? Isn’t that what the last election was all about, tingleing legs and all?

    2) The most important point here, that I think EVERYBODY missed, is that Christians and Conservatives don’t believe what they do because it is “cool” or “politically correct” but because it is TRUE! Haven’t ANY of you read Kipling’s “Gods of the Copybook Headings”?

    Do you even remember the story of the Emperor’s New Clothes?

    Political Science and History and Economics are complex systems, and they are imperfectly understood, but there are undeniable cause and effect relationships in there. These have been learned through generations of hard experience. The lessons are not normally popular, but they have the advantage of being TRUE. That is the point that Dobson is making.

    Look, even if the media all agree that Black is White, Ignorance is Truth, Love is Hate, Freedom is Slavery, and the world is getting warmer all the time…that won’t make any of it true. Perception is NOT reality… REALITY IS REALITY. Truth and falsehood are NOT interchangable or equal.

    Chrisitanity and Conservatisim are to politics as diet and exercise are to weight loss. They aren’t easy, they aren’t popular, we are continually trying to find ways to get around them… but they are the ONLY things that actually work in the REAL world.

    So Christianity and Conservatisim aren’t going away any more than the Gods of the Copybook Headings are. Rather they are waiting till after “The One” creates his brave new world where “..all men are paid for existing and no man must pay for his sins…” and it all comes crashing down the way the Workers Paradise and the Thousand Year Reich and the Great Society, The First French Republic, the Paris Commune, the 19th Century American Utopian Communities, the Welfare State, and the 1960s communes did. And WHEN (not if) that happens, the Conservatives and the Christians will “limp up to explain it once more.”

  • Stoo

    I think you’re struggling with that opinionfact thing a bit.

    And not it’s not wish fulfillment because the Telegraph is a conservative paper.

  • Zoomie

    What strikes me as interesting in this is the USA-centric aspect of the discussion. The 200-odd years of the American “evangelical” experience – if indeed those of a couple of centuries ago could be lumped with “Evangelicals” – are hardly a blip on the 2000-year continuum of the church. Judging by the encouraging growth of the church in places like China and Africa and India, it hardly seems like God is losing the battle. He may just be leaving us in the West to our own devices for a time.