Have you ever had the experience of stumbling across an idea for the first time, then suddenly find the idea everywhere you look? This happened to me after I read Christine Wicker’s The Fall of the Evangelical Nation.
Wicker is an ex-evangelical, now a progressive Christian, who is trying to dismantle what she sees as the myth of the Religious Right. One of her most controversial conclusions is that Evangelical Christianity is dying in America. It seems there’s some broad agreement that Evangelical Christianity in this country is on the ropes. A little digging and you can find dozens of posts and articles all premised on this idea.
Pullquote: Churches are shrinking, donations are dwindling, and megachurches can’t find suitably charismatic replacements for their retiring founders.
Wicker is a former journalist on the religion beat down in Texas, and her book is heavy with anecdotes and interviews from within the evangelical community. Her thesis is that the political clout of the Religious Right is based on savvy media manipulation and not on actual numbers. To summarize, she has four basic points:
- There are far fewer evangelicals than the evangelical churches will acknowledge, thanks to inflated church rolls.
- Of the remainder, very few are “real” evangelicals. As a result, she places the actual percentage of American citizens who are evangelical at 7% or lower, rather than the 25% you sometimes hear.
- While the evangelicals are doing a fair job of converting each other, they aren’t having much luck converting the unsaved.
- Evangelicals are leaving at a steady rate and either becoming moderate Christians or outright atheists.
Wicker defines evangelicals loosely as “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.” She draws most of her numbers from sources close to the evangelical community, such as the Barna Group and interviews with evangelical pastors.
The end result is a book making a decent case that Evangelical Christianity in America has peaked and is now in decline. Churches are shrinking, donations are dwindling, and megachurches can’t find suitably charismatic replacements for their retiring founders.
While I should be ecstatic about the conclusion, I’m still dubious. In all honesty, it’s not a great book. Wicker engages in a lot of back-of-the-envelope math to reach her conclusion. Even if you accept her numbers, it’s not always easy to tell if they’re meaningful.
For example, her final tally of evangelicals is based on the number who attend Sunday school. She makes it clear that only those evangelicals who stay after to be properly educated are seriously committed. That might make a difference to other evangelicals, but not so much to me. I don’t care if they don’t know the Ephesians from the Corinthians; are they going to vote the way Pat Robertson tells them to?
There’s also a lot of fluff almost designed to irritate the non-evangelical reader. Despite having left for more moderate climes, Wicker obviously still has a soft spot for committed evangelicals. She seems to be writing for an audience that has never been cornered and witnessed to at a party. Some of the folks that she finds charming would drive me to distraction, like the bubbly young lady who witnesses to the woman behind the register at Wendy’s.
Unfortunately, there are a lot of anecdotes like this, and it’s not a long book. I think her whole case could have made a better article than a book, and this padding detracts more than it adds. Be prepared to skip large sections, or just browse her blog and get the high points there.
Pullquote: A collapse in cohesion of the most visible portion of American Christians could change the shape of American politics.
This is an important topic that I haven’t seen discussed much in the atheist blogosphere. It seems the quite a lot of American Christians think — or hope — that their communities will be wholy different within a few decades. Groups like the so-called emerging church are almost premised on the idea that there’s a coming reformation of American Christianity.
If they’re right, then it could have profound implications for American atheists. If nothing else, a collapse in cohesion of the most visible portion of American Christians could change the shape of American politics. We might never have to suffer through another prayer by Rick Warren again.
Are Wicker and the others right about the decline of American Evangelical Christianity? What will replace it? And should we atheists stay out of it? Or give ’em a swift kick to help ’em out the door?