The Fall of the Evangelical Nation

Politically aware American nonbelievers worry a lot about religious right politics. And this worry centers on evangelicals, though conservative Catholics also have a very important part in the Religious Right.

In The Fall of the Evangelical Nation: The Surprising Crisis Inside the Church, journalist Christine Wicker suggests that we need not worry so much. Looking at US evangelicals, she sees not a religious powerhouse and political juggernaut but a subculture showing serious signs of decline.

Wicker says that the perception of evangelical power is partly a product of media manipulation. In reality, only about 7% of Americans belong to the very observant, hard-core, Religious Right faction of evangelicals. Most churches and denominations, including megachurches, are either in decline or have already reached limits to their growth. And in the background, modern American individualism and consumer culture continues to eat away at the cultural plausibility of Biblical literalism and the notion that a personal relationship with Jesus is the only way to avoid hell.

Much of what Wicker says is plausible, and fits well with what I know from writings by sociologists of religion. The evangelical subculture may well be losing ground. In the long run, the United States might not be able to avoid European-style secularization. This is not necessarily because of increased awareness of science (though Wicker does give this a role), but mainly because of religious individualism, cultural pluralism, and outright relativism. Old-fashioned, rule-bound, demanding religion will have less opportunity to reproduce itself. But Americans will not turn into scientific naturalists any more than Europeans. Wicker livens up the picture by avoiding long discussions of data and providing journalist-style stories of representative people who remain evangelicals or who have dropped out.

Not all the evidence she presents is equally persuasive. For example, she makes a lot of the fact that the more rigorous evangelicals are a minority among born-again Protestants as a whole, never mind the whole US population. But that need not be too significant. Many religions show a similar pattern of a small minority being the most observant followers, while a larger population of more worldly believers do not follow all the rules or show the same devotion. Most Muslim populations I know about are similar: only a relatively small population is rigorously observant. The rest typically acknowledge that the observant ones are the better Muslims, like the fact that at least some in the community are holding up the more rigorous ideals, but are generally happy to go through life as sinners. A similar relationship is true for many Jewish populations, where the Orthodox are acknowledged as the more authentic representation of the faith but do not get too many converts from among more worldly Jews. This pattern seems to be stable, and could remain so for American evangelicals.

The political significance of this pattern of religious overachievers and more lukewarm masses of less committed believers is less clear. I think it depends a lot on the context. Every now and then, the lukewarm masses get caught in a moral panic, and look favorably on the more morally pure taking charge. For example, many Muslims support hardline Islamists in an election even if they don’t like the full package—they’re just sick of all the corruption and think a more religious leadership will be less interested in lining their own pockets. In the US, however, a similar consideration may work against the Religious Right. After all, they are hypercapitalists as well as Jesus people, and their political ascendance with the Republican party has coincided with one of the most disastrous periods of institutionalized corruption in American history. Indeed, Wicker points out many in the evangelical religious orbit who have become disillusioned with politics and carry their disaffection in a religious direction as well.

Read the book. I can’t say I’m entirely convinced evangelical religion is in trouble, since it historically seems very good at reviving itself through new institutions. And even if the churches decline, evangelical Protestantism is too deeply ingrained in American culture for its influence to fall too deep below the surface. But Wicker does show that not all is well with evangelical religion. Those of us who prefer a more secular politics would do well to think about what opportunities this may present.

About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05868095335395368227 vjack

    If there is one thing we should have learned by now about evangelism it is that it will rise and fall in cycles. We are now seeing a period of decline, but there will be a resurgence. Unless there are fundamental changes in the culture where people finally outgrow the need for religion, it will be back.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11815695119406091177 Interested

    Vjack, you may be right but we can hope that as it rises again it will be lowere than the previous rise.

    I personally do not see how religion can survive at all with so much diversity; when even the evangelicals disagree within their own circles.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    40% of Americans classify themselves as “Evangelical” Christians. However, if you define “Evangelical Christian” in terms of belief in traditional/conservative Christian doctrines, then the % drops considerably (to 8% based on the definition used by The Barna Group).

    The characterization of the political views of Evangelicals depends crucially on whether you define this category by self-classification or by doctrinal orthodoxy:

    “One of the most frequently reported on groups of voters is evangelicals. Most media polls use a simplistic approach to defining evangelicals, asking survey respondents if they consider themselves to be evangelical. Barna Group surveys, on the other hand, ask a series of nine questions about a person’s religious beliefs in order to determine if they are an evangelical. The differences between the two approaches are staggering.

    Using the common approach of allowing people to self-identify as evangelicals, 40% of adults classify themselves as such. Among them, 83% are likely to vote in November. Among the self-reported evangelicals who are likely to vote, John McCain holds a narrow 39% to 37% lead over Sen. Obama. Nearly one-quarter of this segment (23%) is still undecided about who they will vote for.

    Using the Barna approach of studying people’s core religious beliefs produces a very different outcome. Just 8% of the adult population qualifies as evangelical based on their answers to the nine belief questions. Among that segment, a significantly higher proportion (90%) is likely to vote in November, and Sen. McCain holds a huge lead (61%-17%) over the Democratic nominee. Overall, just 14% of this group remains undecided regarding their candidate of choice.

    From: “Presidential Race Tightens
    as Faith Voters Rethink
    Their Preference” by The Barna Group, August 11, 2008.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16641266062186767500 Keith Parsons

    Having followed the fortunes of the religious right since their modern ascendancy with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, I have seen many predictions of their decline or demise. Each of these proved premature. The religious right is amazingly resilient and has reinvented and repackaged itself on numerous occasions. Look how Biblical creationism morphed into “scientific” creationism, and that evolved into “intelligent design theory.” Lately, creationists, stymied on other fronts, have been reduced to arguing that biology classes should teach the “weaknesses” of evolutionary theory and that the “academic freedom” of creationist teachers should be defended. They are tireless, well-funded, and buoyed by a sense of absolute conviction. Will they ever succeed in turning the United States into a theocracy? I certainly do not think so (though nothing fosters ideological extremism like economic crisis), but they will certainly always be capable of causing trouble at the state or local level.

    Here in Texas our state school board is chaired by a fundamentalist dentist whose scientific aptitude falls short of the ability to distinguish his ass from a hole in the ground. He and other members of the board are willing tools of the creationist Discovery Institute. They also approved a curriculum of Bible study for Texas school districts. This curriculum contains almost no oversight or direction for local school boards. Clearly, the state board hopes, realistically, that the Bible curriculum adopted by local school boards will consist of fundamentalist indoctrination. The religious right almost certainly retains an ability to do mischief at a national level as well. Look at the number of members of Congress that either are religious fundamentalists or are willing water carriers for the likes of James Dobson and Pat Robertson. The Senate alone contains such individuals as Tom Coburn, Sam Brownback, James Inhofe, James DeMent, John Cornyn, and Larry (“wide stance”) Craig. The House is even worse. Should McCain be elected, the religious right will campaign furiously for the appointment of Supreme Court justices of the Scalia/Alito/Thomas ilk. So, no, I don’t think we should all relax about the religious right just yet.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16241851773339800938 Charlie

    The religious right is no different in practice than dogmatic atheist groups (e.g. Center for Inquiry, the Brights, etc.).

    Both sides are a hindrance to intellectual freedom and a danger to progressive liberties.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    Questions for Charlie…

    Do you have any REASONS for saying that the Center for Inquiry is a dogmatic group? Do you have any REASONS for saying that the Center for Inquiry is a hindrance to intellecutal freedom?

    If you do have reasons, you should provide them (e.g. provide some examples). If you don’t have reasons, then don’t expect anyone here to take your opinion seriously.


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