Evangelicals: Nope, Still in Denial Over Their Decline

Evangelicals: Nope, Still in Denial Over Their Decline December 19, 2018

The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) just can’t get a break lately. But they’ve only got themselves to blame for it. They’re the ones who keep allowing twits to flap their pie-holes in their name. Last week, Libby Anne pointed out Ed Stetzer’s ridiculous demands for ex-evangelicals to SHUT UP because the SBC can totally fix their own problems (spoiler: no, they really can’t). Recently, some irresponsible folks over at Newsweek let him and a pal blather at length about how they perceive the SBC’s decline. Come see these two ear-ticklers get set straight!

Remain calm!

(This ran long. I’m not apologizing.)

The Beginning Of An Era.

Today’s focus article is called “Evangelical Christians Helped Elect Donald Trump, but Their Time as a Major Political Force Is Coming to an End,” by Nina Burleigh. For the most part, it confirms stuff we already knew.

To start, Burleigh lays out how today’s Religious Reich got their start: through cynical social engineering to politicize evangelicals. The movement’s leaders deliberately instilled hatred, xenophobia, and cruelty into their gullible flocks (who, it must be said, didn’t resist those teachings very much). Armed with petulance, rage, fear, narcissism, and control-lust, those flocks happily voted in ways that enriched their leaders and advanced staggeringly-abhorrent social agendas. Even more importantly, they sought (and sometimes gained) the power to brutally punish their enemies.

A few years ago, we began hearing about how racism–not misogyny–formed the root of evangelicalismespecially in the case of the SBC. What a bombshell! Evangelical leaders created the culture-war model of evangelicalism because of their outrage over civil rights gains for African-Americans, not because they realized that baby Jesus totally hated abortion.1 These leaders literally only began pushing abortion as a culture war when they realized that their preference, white supremacy, didn’t appeal to many Christians outside of the Deep South.

And now here we are.

The End Of An Era.

Probably not many people ever expected Christianity to topple as quickly as it has. I sure didn’t, even though I’ve been covering this topic for years now. This decline feels like it’s only accelerating faster every year.

Nina Burleigh runs through the facts we know so well by now:

  • White evangelical churches grey in place, with the average age of almost all Christian groups raising year by year.
  • Young adults flee evangelical groups more and more quickly as the years go by, with only some 10% of Millennials and Gen Zs identifying as white evangelicals at this point.
  • Every year, remaining evangelicals polarize further and further to the political right.
  • Though white evangelicals now generally identify as hardcore Republicans, fewer and fewer people outside their tribe identify as such.
  • At this point, Republicans can really only count on one demographic for steady support: white, racist, misogynistic right-wing Christians–namely evangelicals.
  • On that same note, evangelicals have increasingly counted on a markedly similar demographic for support: white, racist, misogynistic people who identify as conservative voters–namely Republicans.

We’ve been talking about evangelical churn as a demographic time bomb, and this article confirms that assertion and then some.

Overlap.

Republicans and evangelicals share demographics, but the similarities go deeper than that. They rose to power together–and now they decline together.

What made Nina Burleigh’s article so important was that she linked both groups’ declines and paid particular attention to the ways in which the groups intertwined and entangled themselves together.

Robert Jones (who wrote The End of White Christian America) thinks that by 2024, white Christians in general simply won’t have the numbers to be a powerful political force in Presidential races. Evangelicals’ numbers shrink right along with Christianity’s-in-general. So they’ll find themselves up the creek even worse than they do now.

But I profoundly disagree with one of Jones’ points. He asserts that white evangelicals “are past denial.”

Stages of Grief.

Denial, of course, represents the first stage of the five stages of grief. As the model lays it out, once someone resolves denial over a loss, they’re free to progress to the rest: anger, bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance.

However, the stages of grief aren’t so cut-and-dried. Some people don’t experience this or that step at all. Others experience and resolve steps in different orders. And sometimes people who thought they’d resolved something end up coming back to it. Me personally, I’ve also noticed that sometimes people sorta-resolve something but ignore a big part of something else as they come to grips with a loss. And maybe acceptance never comes.

I’ve never yet seen an evangelical leader who fully engages with exactly why their religion is declining.2 Not once. Not ever. No exaggeration. I’ve never even seen any come close to working it out.

And the hilarious part is that Nina Burleigh herself shows us this stark truth right after her expert confidently declares that “we are past denial.”

A “Political Scientist.”

Ed Stetzer shows up right after Jones has had his say.

Any time you see Ed Stetzer, mentally brace yourself for some real humdingers of denialism, misdirected blame, and projection, as well as some surreally-dissociated out-in-left-field-like-WHOA talking points.

He does not disappoint in this article. Which is to say he totally does.

Right out of the gate, Burleigh describes him as “a political scientist and pastor.”

DO WHAT?

I could not locate Ed Stetzer’s full educational details. He’s got degrees, but none of them are named as having to do with political science in any way. His Ph.D is in philosophy and he’s got some advanced ministry degrees. If he’s studied PoliSci, he’s never made a big deal out of having done so.

Being a total delusional asshat, a 100% culture warrior, a mouth-breathing right-wing SBC company man, and reflexive mouthpiece doesn’t make someone a political scientist.

So this might be literally the first time anybody has ever described Ed Stetzer as a “political scientist.”

A “Pastor.”

This is also only the second time I’ve ever heard him described as a “pastor.” The first time, it was something he himself said to give himself a little borrowed authority as a Designated Adult, so he could god-bother his Uber driver recently. Maybe it’s something conferred upon him as part of his move to Wheaton College this year? (His biography at Baylor University notes he was an “interim teaching pastor” somewhere, too, but if so, he didn’t make a big deal of it–until Wheaton.)

Gee, I wonder why…

I get the feeling that Stetzer offered these descriptions of himself as a way to bolster his authority among people who don’t know who he is. Nobody’d listen to him if he accurately described himself as a fundagelical zealot who had finagled a sinecure at a fundagelical college after somehow losing his SBC job.

“Sowing of Wild Oats.”

Oh, but Ed Stetzer ain’t even worried:

. . .he sees evangelical youth attrition as a kind of demographic sowing of wild oats, in which the young are predictably disaffected—but only temporarily. He is sure they will return to the fold when they are a little older.

Stetzer even has a name for this imagined return: “generational cohort replacement.”

Gosh, nothing to see here. Move along. Young adults are leaving like whoa, yes, but they’ll be back. They always come back. Our tribe will be dominant again soon. Keep them tithes flowin’!

Sounds nice, from an evangelical standpoint. Essential, too, as I’ll show you in a minute.

Too bad for him that it’s as delusional as the idea of miracles themselves.

An Old Chestnut.

I’ve got to wonder where Stetzer obtains his information. He’s talking like church leaders used to back when I was Christian–back in the 1980s and 1990s. They consoled themselves with this idea for decades before that, even.

And this old wisdom was somewhat true at the time. Even very fervent kids and teens slacked off (“backslid,” in the Christianese) during college. But once they got married and had kids, they made their way back to church. If nothing else, new parents needed or wanted the family support churches offered–free childcare chief among those benefits, though there were others like socialization, being around other parents, maybe even having a structural worldview and ersatz morality system to indoctrinate their little ones into.

TRUST THEM WITH YOUR CHILDREN

“Generational cohort replacement” sounds really science-y, but Stetzer’s doing that cargo-cult thing fundagelicals do with science-y ideas and vocabulary. It means as much as speaking in tongues does.

Burleigh doesn’t even question anything he asserts, either.

A Testable Assertion.

Ed Stetzer comes out with a whopper:

“The 18- to 29-year-olds are really secular now,” he says. “But what we find is that people grow in their religiosity. So the 60-year-olds of today are kind of as religious as the 60-year-olds in the 1970s.”

O RLY?

Okay, let’s see.

Today’s 60-year-olds were 18-29 in the 1970s and 1980s. (I’m almost 50 so my age cohort was 18-29 in the 1980s and 1990s.) Pew Research has a bit of data from 2010 on religious affiliation in various age groups. And, uh, no. Ed Stetzer’s information can be categorically rejected.

Stetzer’s playing a very fast game with numbers here. About 40% of Boomers–the age group he’s describing–described themselves as “strong” Christians in the early 1980s. About 37% of Millennials said that of themselves in the late 2000s. That’s not too different. But look further down the page: each successive generation began at lower points of religious observances and devotion than the one before. By the time we get to “daily prayer, by generation” and “importance of religion, by generation,” we see decreases of about 10% with each new generation.

As if to thumb their noses at Ed Stetzer from the past, Boomers have been steadily losing religiosity since the early 2000s. And a lot’s changed since then. We know that Gen Z runs way lower than any of these generations’ numbers.

Gosh, Are These Backsliders Ever Coming Back?

Noooope. We’re seeing no influx at all of joyous older Millennials flooding back into any churches at all. According to Pew Research’s landmark 2015 Religious Landscape Study,

“Nones” have among the highest retention rates among Millennials [67%], significantly higher than the comparable rates for those raised in [everything but Judaism at 70%]. . . Among older generations, by contrast, far fewer people who were raised as religious “nones” remain religiously unaffiliated as adults.

Further, Pew Research specifically cites that 2010 research to affirm that:

. . .generational cohorts typically do not become more religiously affiliated as they get older. Indeed, the current study suggests that most generational cohorts are becoming less religiously affiliated as they age.

Oopsie. I’d really expect a guy who used to head the SBC’s research arm at LifeWay to know better.

Why Ed Stetzer’s Telling Porkie Pies.

Ed Stetzer “preaches” to a choir that desperately needs to believe it plays on the winning team. That phrasing, that idea itself, dominates evangelicalism. Their entire worldview concerns power. If they’re a total mystery to you, then just learn this one thing about them. If you do that, then you’ll understand a lot of the weird things they do.

Further, Stetzer himself sells lecture series and teaching materials to church leaders that he promises will totally “revitalize” their numbers. So he has a vested interest in presenting the situation as temporary, solvable, fixable, and even expected, unsurprising, and uneventful.

So he’s not going to tell them the truth.

He won’t tell them that really, people are wandering away from Christianity or pushing it away as hard as they can–and once they’re gone, they’re staying gone. The young people leaving all these churches are not returning after they get married and make babies.3 Instead of swelling with all these returning families and their children, churches are, instead, closing by the hundreds every year.

Now Russell Moore Wants to Tickle Christians’ Ears.

After letting Ed Stetzer calm Christians down by telling them the lies they love to hear, Nina Burleigh turns to Russell Moore next. (She misstated his position. He is not the president of the SBC; J.D. Greear is. Rather, Moore is the president of the tragically-misnamed Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission within the SBC.)

Russell Moore is another made man in the SBC. He got in lot of trouble not too long ago for openly rejecting his tribe’s new idol, Donald Trump. Though chastened after that battle, he continues to oppose Trump’s cultists–because Trump just isn’t hateful and culture-warrior-like enough for his taste.

However, he extends Stetzer’s errors by claiming that “in [his] wing of evangelicalism,” young and old members feel largely the same about sexuality and marriage.

The Truth Russell Moore Is Still Denying.

Nothing whatsoever could be further from the truth. First, let’s look at equal marriage.

The Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), a very reputable research house (and the one Robert Jones is with) discovered last year that a near-majority of white evangelicals accept equal marriage. In fact, the number opposing that right declined from 71% to 58%. That’s for all ages of evangelicals. But look what happens when we dive into age groups:

Young evangelicals differed dramatically from their elders on this issue, to the tune of 53% in favor of the right, while only 25% of evangelicals aged 65+ accepted it.

Older evangelicals in the SBC also feel despondent and worried because younger members don’t share their boner for Israel.

Young and old evangelicals still generally share the same opinion about abortion rights. Everywhere else, though, younger evangelicals generally skew a lot more liberal.

And Now for the Really Nasty Lie.

You needed a good mad today, right?

Moore fellates himself and his tribe by heaping glowing compliments upon the SBC for handling its ongoing sexual-abuse crisis. This is the money shot he said that landed this topic on our dance card:

“One of the things we have seen over the past year is an amplified voice for evangelical women and girls who have survived sexual abuse and assault, and that has been a welcome development in evangelical church life.”

He’s aiming for Aww, ain’t that nice. But he gets:

OH THAT ABSOLUTE RATBASTARD. THAT LYING, SCUMMY, SLEAZY TURDBUCKET AND RATBASTARD. HE KNOWS DAMNED WELL THAT AIN’T TRUE. HE AND HIS CRONIES GODDAMNED HELPED MAKE THE SBC A SAFE SPACE FOR ABUSERS AND PREDATORS.

Ahem.

#SorryNotSorry. I get really mad when fundagelicals lie to my face about their own total culpability about the great and ongoing harm they’re committing against those they’ve systematically stripped of power.

(But interestingly, my autocorrect more or less knew what to do with “turdbucket.”)

#ChurchToo.

Here’s the reality, in case any evangelicals wander in and need it.

The SBC’s leaders clearly absolutely hate having to deal with the predators in their midst. They created a patriarchal phallic-worship cult that granted men unilateral and almost life-and-death power over women. In turn, they encouraged men to objectify and nullify women in their system–while blaming women for anything that went wrong. And then those leaders proudly gazed upon their grotesque creation and said Yep, this is exactly what Jesus wants out of us!

If #MeToo hadn’t happened, sparking #ChurchToo and other similar movements, if the outcry against SBC predators had not become the cacophony of cries and sobbed screams that it has, the SBC would still be pretending that fundagelicals like them are soooooo much better than Catholics because gosh, lookit that child-rape scandal, ain’t nothing like that happening in our tribe, nope!

Except people have been telling them literally for years and years about this abuse. None of this is new! Evangelical leaders didn’t listen before because they didn’t have to listen. If they didn’t have to listen now, you can bet your last dollar they wouldn’t.

Flat-Footed.

In Burleigh’s article, Moore implies very heavily that he (and by implication the SBC) understood the gravity of the problem they had. But he’s lying. None of them did. He said:

Many churches assumed sexual assault and sexual abuse were happening in other places but would never happen in the safe spaces of the church, and that simply is not true.

Yeah, well, the SBC’s leaders didn’t think that until very recently–if they think it now.

And we have at least one major SBC leader, Al Mohler, on record as saying that the SBC’s scandals caught him completely flat-footed. If Al Mohler claims to have had no idea in the world that the SBC even faced such a huge (and utterly self-created) problem, then we can bet none of the other big leaders did.

Denying a Serious Problem.

Worse, though, we’ve already seen as well that a huge chunk of the SBC would really rather ignore the humiliation and pain of millions of women in their ranks to maintain the fiction that they’re TRUE CHRISTIANS™ and thus better than anybody else.

I refer, of course, to the attempted re-hiring of Paige Patterson. The SBC’s Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary fired him this year over his decades-long pattern of misogynistic and abusive attitudes and teachings regarding women. And almost immediately, a bunch of Southern Baptists tried to get him re-hired. They failed, but the mere attempt tells anybody with perception that the SBC doesn’t take the abuse of women seriously.

So not only do the biggest names in the SBC not understand how serious and deep-seated the abuse and predation is, but they really don’t want to know. Nor do they even believe how serious it is when confronted with it.

As we covered earlier, J.D. Greear–the real president of the SBC at present–has made some mealy-mouthed, half-hearted, too-little-too-late impotent gestures toward fixing the SBC’s misogyny problem. But he neither can nor wants to really resolve it.

No, Evangelicals Are Not “Past Denial.”

Russell Moore likely feels constrained by the same forces that hold Ed Stetzer back from resolving all his stages of grief. But let’s be clear about something: the SBC’s leaders, like evangelicals generally, do not grieve.

To grieve, they’d have to recognize a lot of facts about their decline that they clearly don’t. Grieving–mourning–is about coming to grips with not getting that Happily Ever After, that promised life, that resolution dreamed-of.

And evangelicals largely still think they can turn this ship around, that they can still level the plane’s nose and pull it up out of its nosedive. I see no sign whatsoever that evangelicals are anywhere near understanding that their dominance has already died–they just haven’t noticed yet.

I myself grieve for the many victims of evangelical overreach that suffer because of that denial. And yet I also see this denial as a hopeful sign overall. If Ed Stetzer can still sell REMAIN CALM! ALL IS WELL! to his tribe, that means a lot of them still buy into his malarkey.

And if they still buy into his malarkey, it means they are nowhere near even trying to fix anything.

If they’re nowhere near trying to fix anything, it means that they won’t extend their religion’s death agonies too far.

And that means we’ll be free soon, my friends.

Free. Soon.

Hang in there. Keep fighting. It’s all having an impact.

NEXT UP: We’re looking at a super-tedious evangelism line that infests both progressive and evangelical Christianity. Intrigued? Good! See you soon!


Endnotes.

1 I wonder if growing public awareness about the super-racist origins of the SBC explains the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary’s sudden decision last week to publicly acknowledge and apologize for the fact that literally ALL FOUR of its founders owned slaves. (Back to the post!)

2 In recent years, Christian groups have largely lost their power to coerce people into joining or remaining members of their groups. Sure, in some areas dissenters and apostates still face considerable retaliation from their “loving” Christian communities. But in many others, it’s fairly safe to reject these groups. Without their onetime coercive and retaliatory powers, these groups have no idea in the world how to market themselves. They have no idea how to make their products–group membership and a particularly oppressive and inhumane ideology–sound appealing enough for prospective members to expend the resources necessary to join up and stay joined up. Worse, they resent the very idea that they even should make themselves appealing. (Back to the post!)

3 First of all, many younger adults simply aren’t getting married. And more people than ever are delaying or rejecting parenthood–while increasing numbers of others face fertility issues. Even worse–for Christians at least–is that Christian churches’ credibility has absolutely tumbled in the last 10 or so years. Fewer people than ever see Christians as a moral powerhouse, or churches as safe or desirable places to park the kids they do have. Ironically, a lot of young adults cite fears about financial security as a reason to delay or reject parenthood–and we have Republicans (and therefore evangelicals) to thank for a lot of that insecurity. (Back to the post!)


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About Captain Cassidy
Captain Cassidy grew up fervently Catholic, converted to the SBC in her teens, and became a Pentecostal shortly afterward. She even married an aspiring preacher! But then--record scratch!--she brought everything to a screeching halt when she deconverted in her mid-20s. That was 25 years ago. Now a comfortable None, she blogs on Roll to Disbelieve about psychology, pop culture, politics, relationships, cats, gaming, and more--and where they all intersect with religion. You can read more about the author here.
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