John S. Dickerson, an evangelical pastor and author of the forthcoming The Great Evangelical Recession, wrote in the New York Times this weekend about the decline of evangelicalism in America. He details the waning influence of evangelical churches and notes stereotypes of evangelicals, writing that “evangelicals are increasingly typecast as angry and repressed bigots.”
Hemant Mehta weighed in on the decline, writing:
Dickerson (at least in this article) entirely ignores the fact that people are pushing back against evangelical Christianity because we’ve found a better alternative: Reality.
Of course, reality is never quite so self serving as it might seem, and the statistics are much less flattering. Most of the “nones” celebrated in recent polls are actually religious–68 percent of them say they believe in God or a “universal spirit.” The number of creationists in America has remained basically constant over the last twenty years, and the only denomination to see a noticeable dip over the last five years is protestant evangelicalism. Religious numbers are dropping, but it doesn’t seem to be for the reason many atheists would like to think—rather, as Dickerson and David Niose in the fantastic Nonbeliever Nation suggest, the mixing of religion and politics is what’s driving most of the exodus from the church.
Dickerson doesn’t think that evangelicals can reclaim their influence from when they won George Bush the 2004 election, and I find this as welcome news. The mix of far-right politics and religion was a particularly toxic one, and I’m happy to see it on the way out. Dickerson doesn’t seem interested in bringing it back, though. Rather, he wants to update modern evangelical Christianity. He writes:
For me, the deterioration and disarray of the movement is a source of hope: hope that churches will stop angling for human power and start proclaiming the power of Christ.
This actually doesn’t sound so bad to me, particularly since Dickerson calls for evangelicals to “refashion themselves into a more sensitive, spiritual and humble movement.” So if I may be so self-indulgent as to offer some unsolicited suggestions for the forward-thinking evangelical Christian, I’d like to make a few changes both that I’d like to see and that would help shape the church in a direction I think that Dickerson would want.
1. Support marriage equality
Seriously, this one’s pretty important. We live in a secular democracy, and one group shouldn’t be able to force their conception of marriage on everyone else. This doesn’t need to conflict with religious liberty at all—churches who object shouldn’t be forced to carry them out, and evangelicals don’t necessarily need to update their theology.
Sin shouldn’t translate into secular institutions, though. I’m sure there are many Catholics who think that divorce and remarriage are sinful, but it would be absurd for them to turn that belief into law in a secular state.
2. Focus more effort on humanitarian causes.
Christians already tend to be pretty good about this—they’re more civically engaged and donate more money and time than atheists to religious and secular causes, alike—but there’s definitely room for improvement. Particularly with megachurches and heavy political involvement, it’s hard not to see a lot of modern evangelical Christianity as “angling for human power,” as Dickerson puts it.
Fighting gay marriage rather than poverty, just like institutional focus on condoms rather than AIDS in the Catholic Church, reads hypocritically and likely disillusions many young evangelicals.
3. Embrace science.
Science obviously doesn’t have all of the answers, but the conspiracy-like thinking that surrounds modern evangelical science denialism on both theologically relevant—like evolution—and irrelevant—like, bizarrely enough, global warming—is both frustrating and off-putting. I know a lot more atheists would be happier with evangelicals if they left intelligent design creationism out of classrooms, and I’m sure it’d spare some young evangelicals the embarrassment of being associated with people who think the earth is 6,000 years old.
And if any evangelicals have a hard time reconciling their faith with evolution, I’m sure they could look to the Catholic church for guidance. They’ve been accepting modern science for a while, now.
So those are my immediate suggestions: be more mindful of the secular state, focus more on charity, and embrace modern scientific findings. Anything I might have missed?
Vlad Chituc is a lab manager and research assistant in a social neuroscience lab at Duke University. As an undergraduate at Yale, he was the president of the campus branch of the Secular Student Alliance, where he tried to be smarter about religion and drink PBR, only occasionally at the same time. He cares about morality and thinks philosophy is important. He is also someone that you can follow on twitter.