Promise and Peril: A Meta-Report on Christianity’s Decline

Promise and Peril: A Meta-Report on Christianity’s Decline May 7, 2020

Hi and welcome back! A few days ago, a conservative think tank offered up a meta-report on Christianity’s continuing decline. The report, called ‘Promise and Peril,’ also seeks solutions to hopefully reverse that decline. I read it today and a bunch of stuff jumped out at me. Today, I’ll show you the report, put it into context as a product of the increasingly-desperate Religious Right in America, and offer some critical analyses of the information it provides.

just a little desecration in an abandoned church
(With thanks to Jenni Jones.) I loved this pic’s title: “Before I go to heaven, I gotta raise a lil hell.”

(Lots and lots of related posts about Christianity’s decline: Why Right-Wing Christians Are Shocked About Losing; The SBC’s Baptism Drought; And the Baptism Drought Continues; Gaming a Broken System With Baptisms; The Falling Away of the Young; Blaming Women for the Churn; A Tainted Brand; A Tidal Wave of False Reasons for Churn; The Fury of the Tribe; Accusations and Overreach; NOT Looking for Group; Awakenings, Revivals, and Other Christian Lies.)

(A pre-post note: When I talk about right-wing or conservative Christians, I don’t just mean fundagelicals. Hardline American Catholics joined their party years ago. Largely, these two groups function identically and share political goals. Their cultures are almost entirely indistinguishable, just as evangelicals fused years beforehand with the fundamentalists they once considered dangerous extremist whackos. Overall, these groups constitute what I call toxic Christians.)

Everyone, Meet AEI.

The American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, or AEI, likes to claim to be nonpartisan. However, that claim implodes on impact with even a moment’s research. It is, in fact, a generally deeply conservative group. They often conduct research aimed at influencing both evangelicals and the conservative legislators pandering to them. They’re a big group, too, with almost 200 members writing for them and governing their activities

As nonprofits go, AEI enjoys great funding. In particular, the Koch Reptilians Brothers (warning: link auto-downloads) have given them a lot of money.

As evangelicals hit the peak of their cultural power in 2006, AEI busily helped shape President Dubya’s disastrous foreign policy. In fact, many of their current staffers served under Dubya. They still boast a number of important Republican members, including John Bolton and Lynne Cheney.

The actual writer of today’s report, Lyman Stone, is a die-hard culture warrior. He fully embraces the anti-abortion culture war, as we can see in this 2017 essay he wrote. In that essay, he sneers at pro-abortion-rights “progressives” who only “see themselves” as defenders of “bodily security and self-determination.” He, as a member of the Religious Right, knows better: abortion equals “genocide,” and legalizing abortion rights has “poisoned the entire discourse” in Republican states.

In this report, however, Stone’s author byline fails to mention his deep entanglement with right-wing religion. He only hints about it by mentioning his association with the very culture-warrior-embracing Institute for Family Studies (IFS).

So this report is going to be a doozy

A Strange Title.

Lyman Stone titled his April 2020 report “Promise and Peril: The History of American Religiosity and Its Recent Decline.” (Here’s a relink.)

The report runs 60 pages. It includes graphs aplenty, as well as copious endnotes. Among his sources, we find himself as well as Ed Stetzer. In fairness, I also see a few more reliable sources, like Paul A. Djupe.

Right away, I ask myself why he chose to run with that title. What promise does he see? For that matter, what peril could he mean?

He offers no hints about his reasoning in his “Executive Summary” to the report. So as I read the report, I kept those questions uppermost in my mind.

By the end of this post, hopefully I’ll have answered those questions — because they do indeed have answers.

The Main Assertions.

Lyman Stone seeks to support two big, major points:

  • Christianity in general is in deep decline in America, in a way that nobody’s ever seen before and to an extent never before seen in our history, and that is just awful.
  • This decline directly results from the increasingly secular nature of America’s public-education system, and that is just the worst thing ever.

He spends most of the paper tackling these.

Along the way, he makes a few other corollary points that support or reinforce his main two points.

The Corollary Assertions.

I agree with some of these; others are ridiculous. I’ll note my opinion as we go.

  • When Christian leaders enshrine their privilege into law and force people to comply with their demands through legal means, that tends to backfire dramatically in the form of decreased retention and recruitment success. (Indeed, this point echoes his 2017 essay.) (It sure seems so.)
  • Gosh y’all, Christian numbers have been super-low before and they came back from that. (Sorta. But he makes a false comparison here.)
  • There’s no way people ever lied about their feelings about Christianity centuries ago. Yes, everyone was all totes honest about that. Folks would have been honest if they’d really dissented. I guess The Crucible and The Scarlet Letter only represent silly fantasies. (Haha nooooope.)
  • Many Americans may see Christian groups as clubs that confer benefits on members. As groups’ “club goods” decline in usefulness and desirability, they bleed members. (Yes, to an extent that should worry Christian leaders.)
  • Stone decries the public social safety net as functioning as competition against Christianity. The more secure Americans feel, the less they see any need to belong to Christian groups. (Yes.)
  • Religious discrimination in law turns into increased secularization later. (He makes a decent case for this notion, but he might be making a correlation/causation error.)
  • Utah is weird. (Haha yes, 100%.)
  • He doesn’t specifically name the 4-14 window, but the concept is a running theme throughout the paper. Repeatedly, he stresses how important it is for Christians to capture the minds of vulnerable young children before they hit their high-school years(Completely true.)

Stone paints a dismal picture indeed — for evangelicals! Much of it’s good news for everyone else though.

How Stone Supports His Various Points.

I’ve often discussed the unreliability of evangelicals’ research” (I summarized these criticisms here.) This report could well stand as a flagship example of why we should not automatically trust anything evangelicals produce.

Lyman Stone reaches for a whole bunch of different reports made over the last few years, decades, and even centuries to demonstrate Christianity’s decline. Along the way, he offers up a number of eye-catching graphs that summarize his findings.

And like look, it’s not like I disagree with Stone’s main point about his religion’s decline. Every single credible study I’ve ever seen in the last ten years agrees: yes, Christianity is indeed in decline. Some of those studies even go so far as to say that this decline is unprecedented. A few even foresee no bottoming-out of this trend anytime soon. It’s not like he’s saying anything markedly different overall from what I’ve seen already.

I just think he’s making the situation look even worse than it is, and he’s probably doing it to scare the pants off his fellow evangelicals so his group can better influence Republican policy-makers.

Wonky, Wonky Graphs.

Over at Friendly Atheist, where I found this story thanks to our community, commenters there quickly noticed Lyman Stone’s very odd graph formation.

Here’s one example, and it’s probably his most eye-catching graph of all:

a big huge scary decline graph
(Source, p. 5.) Click to embiggen.

Stone begins his Y-axis at 65% instead of 0%, and by using 18-year increments for the X-axis instead of the usual 10- or 20-year ones and for no reason I can discern. By going this route, Stone makes this drop seem way more precipitous than it is.

I mean yes, it’s still a big drop, don’t get me wrong. We went from nearly 100% affiliation to like 70% in a century, most of it very recently. Those numbers paint the picture of a groundbreaking drop in Christian affiliation. And many reputable research houses agree with that assessment. But Stone’s graph makes it look like barely any Christians even exist anymore in America, while they’re still a majority (and with humongously outsized influence in government, to boot).

Most of this paper’s graphs run along similar lines. Stone’s obviously and very deliberately trying to make his religion’s decline look worse than it really is, even though the reality is bad enough for Christians as it is.

This fiddling around with axes makes me distrust his findings. He’s got an “axe” to grind and an ulterior motive, they tell me.

Downplaying Christian Coercion.

My other big criticism of Lyman Stone’s report involves his interpretation of the attitudes of people in past years. Here’s one example of what I mean:

He thinks that measures of religiosity in centuries past represent how people really felt.

From page 6 of the report, we find this astonishing assertion:

But there is no reason to suppose, either, that there was a large population of quiet atheists coerced into expressing religious affiliation during the 18th or 19th centuries. In numerous church inquiries conducted in England and Wales in the 17th and 18th centuries, clergy were given ample opportunity to describe the spiritual conditions of the people residing in their parishes. [. . .]

The yawning chasm between attendance and affiliation was usually explained by inconvenience, distraction, or the sinfulness and vice of the people—but rarely by a principled rejection of religion.

That blew my mind.

Picking Apart THIS ONE Claim.

Even right now in some deeply evangelical-dominated local communities, eschewing church attendance (much less membership) can bring the retaliatory wrath of the entire tribe down upon a dissenter. I’ve heard countless stories from victims of that retaliation. Enraged Christians deny dissenters the ability to earn livelihoods or get them fired, break up their marriages and families, tear apart their children’s futures, and destroy their property. The brutality they inflict on those who reject their overreach is shocking — and unfortunately, it’s a consistent theme in modern evangelical history.

How much worse was it in centuries past, when Christianity was all but the law of the land and religious leaders held uncontested sway over congregants’ lives? Does Lyman Stone even know what happened to people back then who outright rejected Christianity? He never says.

Instead, he asserts that churches were just “too full” to hold all their congregants, so people didn’t wanna fight over seating. Everyone wanted to attend, see, see, they just couldn’t!

No no, Stone tells us, poor attendance can’t possibly be explained away as “a principled rejection of religion.” Nobody’d lie to their local clergyman, ever ever ever!

What “Promise and Peril” Means.

At the top of the post, I promised you answers about what Lyman Stone meant when he titled his paper “Promise and Peril.”

First, let’s start with what I think he means by “Promise.”

Repeatedly in the paper, Stone makes the point that America’s gone through lots of declines before, and the old girl always bounced back again. Therefore, this decline also represents a trend American Christians can recover from. He doesn’t necessarily see this current decline as one that inevitably ends with his religion becoming flatly-irrelevant to the majority of Americans.

(We’re ignoring the aforementioned outsized political influence the Religious Right exerts on the American legislative, judicial, and executive branches of government. That’ll probably continue for a while, thanks to very deep-pocketed Republican party lizards funding the party’s ongoing pandering to that end of Christianity. Here, we’re only looking at Christians’ influence and control over American culture and society.)

More than that, even, Stone perceives a potential solution that will not only arrest the trend of decline for his tribe but even perhaps reverse it. He sees great promise in the situation Christians find themselves in these days.

(But we’ll have to wait for tomorrow to dive into what that promise involves and how Stone thinks Christians must put it into action.)

And Peril (Not the Fun Kind).

Now let’s turn our attention to the “Peril” end of the title.

I think Lyman Stone sees great peril regarding his religion’s future cultural and social clout if American public policy continues to slap down the grabby hands of the Religious Right — especially as regards public education. Consequently, Lyman Stone positions public education, as it exists right now, as a danger to his tribe’s future.

To put it plainly: if Christians can’t get public funding to operate religious schools that have the legal freedom to heavily emphasize indoctrination, then American children will continue to grow up in a largely-secular educational system. By the time they reach high school (which means age 14 or 15), they’ll largely be completely secularized (p. 44).

It is shocking to see an academic-looking paper acting this hostile toward education. (In fact, Stone sees laws requiring a high-school education for children over their parents’ religious objections to be religious persecution (p. 32); he’s not even remotely interested in the quality of education such schools provide).

But the real shock is still to come.

See, Lyman Stone is not just here to moan about doom and gloom. He’s got solutions to this peril he sees, and envisions a path to achieve the promise he perceives.

This report exists for a reason. 

And that reason is something people need to know about.

NEXT UP: Why evangelicals keep writing these sorts of papers and making these sorts of predictions. Because yes, there’s absolutely a reason for Stone’s odd, sketchy creative decisions. See you tomorrow!


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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 volunteered in church (choir, Sunday School) and 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. She lives with an adored and adoring husband named Mr. Captain and a sweet, squawky orange tabby cat named Princess Bother Pretty Toes. At any given time, she's running out of bookcase space. You can read more about the author here.

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