Liberating Christians from Their Cultural Captivity

Editors' Note: This article is part of the Patheos Public Square on the Future of Faith in America: Evangelicalism. Read other perspectives here.

Headlines announcing the latest Pew survey on religion in America tended toward the sensational: "Christianity Faces Sharp Decline" blared The Washington Post. Examined closely, however, the findings warrant a very different headline.

Pew found that from 2007-2014, Christians fell from 78.4 percent of the population to 70.6 percent. Over the same seven-year period, the percentage of unaffiliated rose almost as sharply. But Pew's category of Christian covers a wide range of groups.

At one end are evangelicals. The term does not refer to a political movement or a voting bloc. Evangelicals are "People of the Book," accepting the Bible as God's word — a trans-historical, trans-cultural source of truth. They characteristically stress personal conversion and commitment over externals like church membership.

At the other end are nominal ("in name only") Christians, mostly in mainline denominations. These denominations often embrace liberalism in theology, which typically means treating the Bible as just another human document and putting theological icing on the cake of whatever is trending in secular society.

So when the Pew numbers are broken down, what do they really show? Short answer: Christians are becoming more evangelical. And American society is becoming more polarized.

Let's unpack that. Pew measured religions two ways: by denominations and by self-identification. Based on denominations, evangelicals' share in the U.S. population dropped by less than one percent, from 26.3 to 25.4 percent. This is a minor wobble. Other studies show that evangelicals have held steady at about 25 percent for the past hundred years (since 1910). (See Bradley Wright's Christians Are Hate-Filled Bigots and Others Lies You've Been Told.)

When asked how they self-identify, fully half of American Christians now call themselves evangelical, including many who switched from other groups. As Pew observes, evangelical Protestants are "the only major Christian group in the survey that has gained more members than it has lost through religious switching."

Where, then, did the much-publicized decline occur? Among nominal Christians. They are dropping the Christian label altogether and moving from mainline denominations to the unaffiliated.

In short, the Pew study means that those not very committed to Christianity anyway are moving out of the mushy middle. You can call this polarization or maybe clarification: People are becoming clearer about their convictions.

What are the challenges for evangelicals in this changing cultural landscape? The major weakness of Evangelicalism has been its tendency to privatize Christianity. Historically, Evangelicalism spread through the revivals of the Great Awakenings, which focused on intense, individual, emotional experience. They tended to downplay the cognitive core of Christianity — its testable historical claims and the application of biblical worldview principles to public areas such as politics, law, education, and media.

By withdrawing from the public realm, evangelicals created a vacuum that was filled by secular ideas and agendas. The result was an uneasy sacred/secular divide. But today that divide is being breached — the clearest example being the issue of same-sex "marriage," where the state has begun to dictate which moral standards Christian organizations and businesses will be "permitted" to hold.

To survive, Evangelicalism must learn to articulate a biblical worldview in terms applicable to public life. Speaking into the surrounding culture should be treated as a form of cross-cultural communication. Like ambassadors, evangelicals must learn the language and worldview of the people they are trying to reach.

What is the worldview that underlies homosexual "marriage"? The idea that marriage can be changed by choice has roots in a political philosophy called social contract theory, founded by Enlightenment thinkers like Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau. Social contract theory denies that marriage and family are natural and pre-political. Instead this secular origin myth posits a primordial "state of nature" where humans are autonomous, disconnected individuals. To preserve that original autonomy, the theory proposes to redefine every social institution as a contract — that is, an exchange of goods and services where we define the relationship, we choose the terms, we choose the conditions under which we stay or leave, and so on.