Last time we talked, we were going over that new PRRI religion survey, “Exodus: Why Americans are Leaving Religion—and Why They’re Unlikely to Come Back.” (Full PDF here.) This survey dovetails nicely with another topic we’ve been discussing of late: how dismal the dating game is starting to become in fundagelical* churches. Christian leaders themselves can spin-doctor the latest bad news as much as they like (and oh, they have been!), but reality is unfolding in their ranks whether they like it or not.
Their flocks don’t have the luxury of denial. They’ve had to come up with strategies for dealing with the new reality of Christianity’s demographic shift, most of it in direct defiance of their leaders’ demands.
The PRRI survey tells us that one in four Americans consider themselves Nones nowadays–up from one in five just four years ago! That’s a breathtaking leap, and most of it’s happening with younger folks. Indeed, the younger the person, the more likely they are to be Nones: 39% of people ages 18-29, versus 29% of people 30-49.
Now, obviously Nones aren’t always atheists or even non-Christian. Some of them are simply disengaged Christians, meaning that they still consider themselves Christian to some extent but aren’t doing anything particularly observant (like praying, attending church, evangelizing, etc.). The study calls them “Unattached Believers” and tells us that 18% of their survey respondents fell into that category. I was surprised to see that the number was that low–previously I’d have thought more Nones were still thinking of themselves as Christians. Another 22% of believers were “Apatheists,” who didn’t consider themselves part of any religions but didn’t have a problem with religion generally. 58% of the Nones were flat-out “Rejectionists” who had completely rejected Christianity and viewed it very negatively.
And I see from the study’s appendix that age made a big difference in where a None fell on that scale. Younger Nones tended to be more inclined toward being Rejectionists or Apatheists, which was a stark difference from their older peers, who tended to be more evenly mixed.
Now consider these statistics from the point of view of a young Christian who is looking for a marriage partner. Over 1/3 of their fellow young people aren’t even Christian at all!
Christianity lays a huge importance on getting married and teaches adherents that their spouses must not only be Christian but also fervent. You’d be hard-pressed to find a single Christian leader who’d say anything else. Christian groups police each other’s dating and marriage choices and sometimes get downright authoritarian and retaliatory when someone steps out of line on that point, as one young Mars Hill congregant discovered to his dismay.
There was a time when these beliefs and practices were inexpensive on a personal scale, relatively speaking. Christianity was ubiquitous in American culture; those who dissented kept that fact very private (if they knew what was good for them). Finding a mate who professed fervent belief wasn’t that hard back in my day, or at least didn’t seem like it was. There were just so many other people available that nobody even wondered if the religion’s artificial constraints might ever become a problem.
But things have changed quite a bit over the last few decades. Those constraints are now proving to be a huge problem. The belief that marital partners must be “equally yoked” to someone of equal or greater fervor is suddenly a lot more expensive than it used to be.
This isn’t the first modern fundagelical marker belief that’s been challenged by reality. (I’d put Creationism in that position.) It’s not even the most unexpectedly-expensive marker belief they hold. (I’d put their anti-gay bigotry there.) It’s simply the most unexpectedly-expensive challenged belief they’ve got that is actually relevant to their own lives.
There really aren’t a lot of options when a marker belief turns out to be totally untenable. Those who hold the belief can either modify it to fit reality (which here would mean deciding as a group that maybe it’s okay to date outside the group), drill down harder on it, or abandon it. Fundagelicals aren’t really good at modifying their beliefs, so mostly we’re seeing the other two responses.
The Dating Game, on Hard Mode.
As I pointed out in a recent post, churchgoing people are skewing far more female, overweight, older, and less-educated than the non-churchgoing population. I’m not saying any of those are bad, only that possessing any one of those traits can be a problem for someone seeking marriage. Religious fervor itself can often chase off prospective partners, but add in any of those other demographics and dating starts to look downright impossible. So a lot of Christian churches are starting to look very, very inhospitable to those seeking marriage–especially to women.
Young, halfway-decent-looking, fervent men in the religion are becoming rarer than hen’s teeth, and from what I’m seeing they definitely know that they are in demand. I genuinely don’t remember the last time I saw a wedding picture depicting a fellow like that with a woman who wasn’t slender, pretty, properly meek-yet-quirky, and young. It’s been like that since I was a Christian myself. Moreover, the more interested the man is in ministry of some kind, the more likely he is to have a wife who embodies what is very clearly the fundagelical ideal (anecdotally, I’ve also heard ministers’ wives confess to feeling like they’re judged extra-hard by female congregants for their body shapes and fashion/styling choices). Bragging about the attractiveness of their wives is a popular pastime among younger Christian leaders to the point where one almost expects one of them to demand that his wife exhibit herself for the pleasure of his friends, like Xerxes tried to demand of Vashti. Married women are reminded at every turn that their god “made” men to be visual creatures, and thus that they must keep themselves in good shape to keep their husbands’ attention at home.
In such a looks-focused environment, such hotly-contested bachelors are very unlikely to consider a mate who is anything less than that ideal, a fact that is only just now starting to swim into focus for the women who bought into their religion’s various teachings about relationships. Bachelors who aren’t anywhere close to the ideal themselves get left by the wayside, left to contemplate partners who aren’t their ideal either in an environment that seems singularly unconducive to dating at all. As the religion polarizes further and loses more and more young people, this situation only promises to deteriorate further.
The architects of this broken system have inadvertently painted themselves into a very thorny corner.
Sometimes people just have trouble intersecting and finding each other. Often, it’s not really anybody’s fault. That goes double for the dating situation in churches these days. But in the fundagelical world, nothing happens by chance. Jesus controls everything like a puppet-master. So if someone isn’t finding love, something’s obviously going wrong somewhere. The teachings themselves cannot be wrong; they are perfect. Jesus can’t be doing something wrong; he’s equally off the hook. That means that the singleton is the problem here. That’s the only thing it can mean.
So one common response I am seeing to the demographic shift is for the singletons in question to double down on imaginary solutions: more prayer, more faithfulness, and more fervor. Those are the Christians who are joining religious dating sites like Christian Mingle, and they’re the ones writing impassioned blog posts about how wonderful it is to “trust Jesus” to know who to send their way, and when. (All one can imagine is that “Jesus” clearly wants to see fewer and fewer equally-yoked Christians.)
Christian leaders, particularly, are drilling down on the idea of their single flock members dating only other fervent Christians.
You’ve probably noticed the subtle blame being heaped on Christian men–not only from their disgruntled female counterparts but from pastors and other leaders. Even while women lament how focused Christian men seem to be on seeking only conventionally-attractive women, the men themselves are struggling to reconcile their desire for conventionally-attractive women with their obligation to adhere to the party line about not being all superficial like those worldly people are. But the struggling men are a rarity; most of their peers don’t ever get as far as questioning the ideal itself. Other Christians might question it, but they’re more peeved about men’s refusal to look past the ideal or women’s refusal to lower their standards than anything else. Nobody’s actually suggesting any concrete way to change the standard itself.
As a result of this total mess, many Christian men and women have a better idea than trying to force themselves to play that reindeer game.
Leaving the Ring.
Increasingly, Christians are walking away from the entire fundagelical rat race of dating. They’re starting to seek mates from outside the church walls. One can hardly blame them. For all the finger-wagging and chiding both men and women in Christianity endure, most people know that real life trumps fantasies. I truly think that when they are presented with a fantasy that simply doesn’t work, many Christians will do the sensible thing–even if that thing is officially totally off-limits.
Oh, they’ll repent afterwards. They’ll cry about how weak they are. They’ll resolve to do better next time. But they will do what they think they need to do regardless.
As horrifying as the idea might be to their leaders, Christians are increasingly finding themselves in mixed-faith marriages. Many of them may well have entered the marriage as believers, but stayed through deconversion; others are clearly marrying people who believe differently from the get-go.
And I can totally see why this situation might be deeply alarming to Christian leaders.
One needs only to survey the vast number of increasingly-panicky-sounding lectures and sermons from those leaders about the ultimate importance of marrying only someone who is very fervent to know that this is quickly becoming one of their big culture-war issues.
And one must ask, very sincerely, why all these lectures and sermons even need to exist if TRUE CHRISTIANS™ are really so infused with Jesus Power. If nothing less than a real live god is living inside them and informing their thoughts and behaviors, then surely if such a marriage is truly that important to him he’d sorta make that clear to his loving children. After all, he wants only for them to serve him and to escape his Hell, and they in turn only want only to serve him and to escape his Hell.
But when such a believer ends up with a non-Christian, that puts the lie to a number of the myths within Christianity: that non-believers can’t meet a believers’ needs, that mixed-faith and mixed-fervor marriages are never commanded by their god, and that their god has set aside a very special person for each Christian that he picked out from the beginning of time itself. Their trouble finding a relationship in the first place reveals the problem, and going outside the faith to find marriage partners solves it–while creating another set of problems entirely!
Since all those Christians aren’t genuinely convinced that a mixed-fervor relationship is so harmful to themselves, Christian leaders must constantly rail on that point and lecture about it. But the one thing they can’t do is make a convincing case for their point.
For what it’s worth, I do agree that such a marriage is dangerous for a TRUE CHRISTIAN™, but not for the reason that they think it is. We’ll talk about why next time because this is long enough as it is, but for now I’ll just say that their fears aren’t totally unfounded.
The PRRI survey shows us the continuing crest of a wave that is only going to accelerate with time. I really look forward to seeing what future surveys reveal, especially about how fundagelicals interact with other folks, because I strongly suspect that the religion’s going to polarize even further and that it’s going to become even more difficult for Christians to find relationships within their churches. And as more of them find relationships outside of their sects, their sects will dilute further and disintegrate all the more quickly. (So, basically a win, I suppose?)
Increasingly, Christian leaders are going to be wondering which way their flocks went–and blame those flocks even harder and more vociferously for leaving the ring.
* Fundagelical: evangelical or fundamentalist; they were once very distinct but now are largely completely impossible to tell apart.
** Note for non-ex-Christians: “worldly” means secular, or “not Jesus-ified.” Anything that is not specifically geared toward Jesus is worldly, and therefore is bad. Dancing, rock music, profanity, video games, college, makeup, etc. are worldly. A Christian’s goal should be to eradicate all worldliness from themselves, which will make them as much like Jesus (“Christlike”) as possible.