Thursday, July 3, 2008

The Fall Of The Evangelical Nation

Christine Wicker's new book, The Fall Of The Evangelical Nation: The Surprising Crisis Inside The Church makes the case that, far from being a pillar of strength in American society, the religious right is only a fraction of the size it is said to be and that it is heading for a fall.

Is this true? Wicker provides some compelling arguments for her case. After a long review of the math, she makes an interesting case to argue that Evangelicals make up only seven percent of the US population. Less than a third of what is often claimed. She shows that many of their new converts are actually from other churches. And explains why the days of megachurches, which have been synonymous with Evangelical power, are numbered. She also argues that a cultural shift is happening, one in which people are moving away from authoritative institutions, and that it will spell the end of Christianity as Americans have known it for generations, unless it can put aside its dogmatism and adapt.

But this is a book that weakens as its argument unfolds. She is strongest when explaining how the factors that helped establish the megachurches are no longer there to support them. They have grown up as baby boomers settled down to start families of their own, buying cheap real estate in the same new suburbs their future members were settling in. Today's new families are following the same pattern and moving to the newer, less expensive neighbourhoods, but the churches can't follow. They're entrenched in the older neighbourhoods. Moreover, the churches rely on a large and continuous flow of volunteers and donations to keep going. The new families aren't there to provide either. Once the founding generation retires, where will these churches be?

Her cultural analysis, her attempt to put everything into some context, however, suffers due to preconceptions that seem to mirror her own experience. She comes from an Evangelical background, but left the Church, and embraced a relationship with God on her own terms. Less dogmatic, less restrictive. She writes that this is a growing trend. But when she sketches out how this trend is challenging the status quo, she doesn't appreciate that these two movements, her old life and her new one, grew up parallel to one another. For example, when she quotes at length from Robert Bellah's Habits of the Heart, but she doesn't consider that it was published in 1985 - a time when the religious right, the megachurches, and the Evangelical counter-counter culture were only beginning to get on their collective feet. That the attitudes she has come to adopt were already out there, embraced by the American people, while she was still a good Baptist.

I often hear and read this same misconception in a variety of forms. Living in a community with a large number of retirees, it often takes the form of 'kids these days'. People tend to see the move from a traditional society, with traditional values, as something that has happened over the last couple of generations. At the most. It was there when they were kids. Tell people that there was more crime, more drugs, more sexual permissiveness, forty years ago than there is today, and they won't believe you -- no matter that the facts are on your side. The 1920s, for example, saw both the highest number of single parent homes and premarital sex become the norm, but even those who restrict themselves to the 'liberal' media could be excused for thinking that today's generation was at fault. The Evangelical community is not, as many of its members believe, the last hold out of a traditional lifestyle, but a response, a reaction against, changes modern life has brought.

In doing her numbers, Wicker writes off Evangelicals who do not hold to a conservative lifestyle. She describes them as being 'Bible believers', but not real Evangelicals. This makes sense when looking at things from a political point of view. Only the hardliners can be counted on to vote the Republican-Religious Right agenda. But when looking at the group as a whole, it skews the results a great deal. Most of these Evangelicals -- 'these Evangelicals' being white American Evangelicals as a whole -- will accept gay teachers, don't believe AIDS is a punishment for sin, and do not identify with the Religious Right. Many are also accepting of homosexuality, abortion, pre-marital sex. But because they are not among the hardliners, she writes that they mean 'almost nothing in real terms.' But if she hadn't ignored them when summing up her cultural analysis, she might have come up with a very different image of Evangelicals. One that is much closer to where she believes they need to be in order to survive the coming cultural changes.

Is she correct about their need for change? Given that they aren't holdouts, that they are a part of the ongoing cultural dialogue, I doubt things are as simple as she, ultimately, paints them. Yes, many of the megachurches will be empty shells twenty five years from now, but, even as they lay claim to the role of traditionalist, Evangelicals are as much a part of the 21st century as everyone else and they will continue to reposition themselves in accordance with their environment, just as they always have.

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