Evangelicals relish the thought of being on what they think is the winning team. Of course, they vastly prefer that their team be actually winning. Lately, it hasn’t been winning much at all. But never fear! These believers in objective morality can always find a way to turn their frowns upside-down with a little spin doctoring. In the wake of yet another bad-news study, their best and brightest have been working overtime to figure out a way to sell their religion’s current losses to the flocks as a win. Today, I’ll show you what they’ve come up with.
Nones Climb to Prominence.
The number of religiously-unaffiliated people rose quickly over the last decade or so. Now, a new survey has found that these folks–called “Nones,” as in none of the above–finally barely-outnumber evangelicals.
The General Social Survey (GSS) captures a number of American opinions on a variety of topics. Religious sentiment constitutes only one of those topics. You can see their graphs for yourself on their site. To explore the site, pick a tab–I started you off on “Religion and Spirituality.” Then click the green triangle to explore specific questions within that tab–I think I’ve got you started off with “Religious preference” here. Then you can select dropdowns for “Question Response” and “Breakdown” to see how individual demographics responded to that question. You can also hover over individual dots on the graph to get information about specific percentages and whatnot.
You’ll likely quickly notice, as I did, that really nothing there looks like good news for Christians.
Recently, a political scientist went through the affiliation questions on that project. He realized that previous researchers had miscounted one demographic slightly.
When he corrected that problem, he discovered that Nones actually outnumbered evangelicals of all races in America: 23.1% against 22.5%. White Mainline Protestants sat at 10.8%, Catholics at 23%, and Black Protestants at less than 10%. White evangelicals, incidentally, shrank over the past 15-ish years from 21% of Americans in 2003 to 13% in 2017.
Three years ago, Pew Research had evangelicals at 25.4% and Nones at 22.8%. Now, Nones stand about equal to the numbers of Catholics and evangelicals–and barely beating both of ’em.
Bad News for the Big Russians.
I can totally understand why the coverage has been so strikingly lopsided. Christians–evangelicals in particular–have enjoyed a sense of effortless dominance for years in the United States. However, in the past few years, that sense of dominance has been threatened in a number of ways. When Christians start to sense they’re on the “losing” team, they get antsy, which is why small, struggling churches tend to die out rather than achieve a resurgence in popularity: their members leave for greener pastures, especially bigger, greener pastures featuring free childcare and cut-rate cappuccinos.
So yes, Christian leaders in that end of the religion will absolutely keep a weather eye on the needle of public opinion.
Unsurprisingly, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) flung itself at this study. Next time, we’ll be examining a study they released a couple of weeks earlier, but for now I’ll simply note this LifeWay post examining the news about Nones. It refers to the main researcher’s writeup in Christianity Today.
Third Second Prize Is You’re Fired.
That researcher, Ryan Burge, gave a very helpful guide there to his findings. He begins by reassuring evangelicals that so far, they’re holding steady in their share of the American religion-pie–albeit barely. Then he restated a reassurance about how very little in the religion world changes quickly–except for the sharp uptick in the numbers of unaffiliated Americans.
However, Burge sees no reason at all to think that that uptick in the numbers of Nones will slow down or even bottom out anytime soon. At the same time, he notes some studies that might mean that evangelicals have an easier time holding onto members than other kinds of Christians do.
That information tallies with what we already know about this group. When we looked at a Washington Post survey about vastly increased churn in Christian churches after the 2016 Presidential election, evangelical churches lost comparatively fewer members than did their competition. Further, as more mainline and progressive groups move to embrace full inclusion of LGBT Christians, bigots in those groups move to evangelical churches rather than sticking around or fully disengaging from Christianity itself.
For that matter, as I saw right after the election and as Burge mentions in his writeup, a number of formerly-disengaged liberal Christians limped back to their churches for comfort, producing a strange uptick in their numbers that nobody could have predicted–and still can’t. I suspect the effects of that election still ricochet their way through the religion.
And yet despite all of these factors, evangelicals have barely held onto their current percentage share of the religion-pie.
For years, Christians denied that they even had a decline, much less that it was already well underway. When Pew Research put out their landmark Religious Landscape Survey in 2015, quite a few of ’em leapt on it–to create rationalizations to make that decline sound a little less threatening.
Ed Stetzer captured the mood of his time by declaring that it was fine by him that Christianity’s membership was declining because he didn’t want to share his coveted label with the people leaving anyway cuz they weren’t RADICAL enough for King Him. He decided they were only cultural Christians, not convictional Christians like himself.
Like a lot of evangelicals do, he set up a metaphorical Cool Kids’ Club in his religion’s metaphorical lunchroom. Only the Cool Kids got to sit at the Cool Kids’ Table with him and his pals at lunch. To all others, he snarled in effect, You can’t sit with us! Go away!
And largely, that’s been how evangelicals have handled bad news ever since. They try to mitigate it, and if that fails, they decide that it’s actually good news. Their goal is to have evangelicals emerge from the debris shining through their imaginary-but-superior Jesus Power to rule the school.
What They Ain’t Sayin’.
That said, a lot of what evangelicals say to comfort themselves about their probable future turns out to be deeply conditional–or based on old data that no longer works quite the same.
Regarding their retention rate: Maybe, but that was then and this is now. The new normal for them is that few evangelicals under 30 stay affiliated with their groups. In fact, the generation coming into adulthood now, Gen Z, tends overwhelmingly to be non-religious. Worse, young evangelicals who do stay differ in opinion quite a bit regarding their elders’ cherished culture war topics.
Regarding racial diversity: They need to stop trying to make ‘racial diversity’ happen. It’s not going to happen. Evangelicals are, as a group, pretty danged racist. Some evangelical leaders recognize the necessity of recruiting more people of color (POC). Unfortunately, their actual success at recruitment of any kind, much less that of POC, has proven lackluster.
Regarding why evangelicals might hold onto adherents more effectively: Their hucksters do a far better job of selling their product as absolutely essential. True. See, other groups’ salespeople shudder away from using blatant fearmongering, outright lies, pseudoscience, emotional manipulation, and brute retaliatory force (including threats of violence and legal strong-arming) to force compliance. But not evangelicals! They dive right into that cesspit and smear that filth everywhere they can. However, these unsavory tactics seem far less effective on younger people than they were on my generation.
Regarding the culture wars: Research on the increasing polarization and politicization in Christianity has provided steady and reliable results on this score. The more Christian leaders dabble in politics, in either direction, the faster they alienate their adherents. And evangelicals aren’t growing less politicized over time.
What Their Second Guess Should Be.
Already I see rumblings from evangelicals themselves that make the dire mistake of thinking that they’re holding steady so far because of their superior Jesus Power. One evangelical blogger all but gloats about this point. So do his commenters. Like his pals, he thinks that evangelicals’ holding power comes from how much Jesus approves of them compared to other groups.
But the evidence tells us that Jesus doesn’t exist in the form they think he does, and that nothing supernatural inhabits or informs evangelicals’ religion at all.
Thus, whatever has them holding steady can be explained through purely natural means.
At the moment, that explanation looks a lot like a simple, universal human message of hatred, exclusion, bigotry, viciousness, violence, entitlement, and privilege that simply resonates with a whole lot of truly horrible people.
And Why That Second Guess Wins.
That’s why not a single credible survey house has Christians–much less evangelicals within Christianity–hanging onto their dominance in the long term. Nones will only continue to increase in number, drawing from all flavors of the religion. Eventually, the shake-ups in more liberal denominations will get worked out, and evangelicals will see an end to that one-time boost in numbers from bigots leaving those groups.
However, simple demographics will be their undoing. All of those factors contributing to the holding-steady are one-time or temporary. But nobody’s predicting a mass revival among Gen Z folks. In fact, even as adults walk away from their groups, driven out by their more hardcore, overzealous peers, like they did to Rachel Held Evans and others, those hardcore adults’ kids will grow up to reject the religion in greater and greater numbers with each successive generation. The few Nones evangelicals do manage to bag can’t–and won’t–balance out the mass exodus of young adults from their churches.
The balance of religious switching does not give me any reason to think that evangelicals will come out of this looking good.
A Question of Projected Bias.
As we saw recently, when people talk about Christianity’s decline, evangelicals tend to assume we suffer from a bias that obscures reality from us. The thinking goes thusly: We just want to see Christianity decline, so we invent trends where none exist to feel good.
Alas, they’re wrong. Worse, they’re projecting.
I go where the data leads me. If someone disagrees with a point I make, and they have reputable research to back themselves up, I change my mind. That’s how open-mindedness works, as opposed to how Christians use the term.
If that data indicated that Christians had hit the bottom of their decline at last, or even that the decline had ended, I would not react in the way that these self-declared TRUE CHRISTIANS™ usually do about bad news. In other words, I wouldn’t lie about my beliefs on the topic. Instead, I’d change my tune, then begin formulating strategies in response to that data.
These Christians can’t go and do likewise. Once they declare that a beloved strategy has the approval of their god, or worse that their god dictated that strategy to them, they can’t really walk it back! And right now before our very eyes they’re developing a narrative about what’s happening in their lunchroom. That narrative remains blissfully free of reality-based support.
Just like Christianity itself, really.
NEXT UP: Exactly why we should be really careful about trusting any study or survey evangelicals create. Then we dive into the pseudoscience that many Christians use to support their misogyny, and later, we’ll take a quiz together! See you soon!
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