Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Losing Their Religion

According to a recent poll published in the Washington Post, the number of Americans who identify themselves as Christians has fallen in recent years. And in an opinion piece in the Christian Science Monitor, Michael Spencer, who describes himself as “a postevangelical reformation Christian in search of a Jesus-shaped spirituality,” predicts that evangelical Christianity is going the way of the passenger pigeon: once overwhelmingly plentiful but now bound for extinction.

We are on the verge – within 10 years – of a major collapse of evangelical Christianity. This breakdown will follow the deterioration of the mainline Protestant world and it will fundamentally alter the religious and cultural environment in the West.

Within two generations, evangelicalism will be a house deserted of half its occupants. (Between 25 and 35 percent of Americans today are Evangelicals.) In the “Protestant” 20th century, Evangelicals flourished. But they will soon be living in a very secular and religiously antagonistic 21st century.

This collapse will herald the arrival of an anti-Christian chapter of the post-Christian West. Intolerance of Christianity will rise to levels many of us have not believed possible in our lifetimes, and public policy will become hostile toward evangelical Christianity, seeing it as the opponent of the common good.

Millions of Evangelicals will quit. Thousands of ministries will end. Christian media will be reduced, if not eliminated. Many Christian schools will go into rapid decline. I’m convinced the grace and mission of God will reach to the ends of the earth. But the end of evangelicalism as we know it is close.

The number one reason for this, Mr. Spencer explains, is because evangelicals aligned themselves with politics rather than faith.

This will prove to be a very costly mistake. Evangelicals will increasingly be seen as a threat to cultural progress. Public leaders will consider us bad for America, bad for education, bad for children, and bad for society.

The evangelical investment in moral, social, and political issues has depleted our resources and exposed our weaknesses. Being against gay marriage and being rhetorically pro-life will not make up for the fact that massive majorities of Evangelicals can’t articulate the Gospel with any coherence. We fell for the trap of believing in a cause more than a faith. [Emphasis in original.]

Mr. Spencer lists other causes, including the failure to pass on to succeeding generations the core of their faith and an understanding of why they should believe what they do an inward turn in education, and the failure to make the case for their faith in a secular world. In other words, they haven’t closed the sale. There are other reasons, including the fact that, as Mr. Spencer says, “the money will dry up,” but it is the first one — the branding of evangelical Christianity as a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Republican Party (or vice versa) that has probably been the root cause of this oncoming demise.

While I personally oppose nearly everything evangelical Christianity stands for on both a spiritual and practical level — Quakers are not big on evangelism; you might say we are “silent” on the issue — and I especially dislike the homophobic and misogynistic threads woven into some of the hard-core evangelical denominations, I do not wish for the demise of this or any spiritual community. Organized religion, like any human endeavor, has its flaws and its monsters, but there is also no denying that it provides a stable and comforting foundation for many people and communities. Far be it from me to disparage anyone or any group because I don’t happen to believe in their creeds or mythology. But when you have joined it at the hip to a political party and made it so that candidates for office must be defenders of the faith to the point that, as Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee wrote in Inherit the Wind, “every act … must be measured against an arbitrary latitude of right and longitude of wrong — in exact minutes, seconds, and degrees”, then you have a problem.

Mixing politics and religion is a dangerous brew. The history of the world is strewn with the bloody corpses of civilizations that have given governance to dogmatism and made faith the tool of the powerful to use as a control mechanism, and it still shatters parts of our world today from Southeast Asia to Northern Ireland. And despite the best efforts of the writers of the Constitution to make it plain that religion or its practice should have no formal role in the operation of the federal government, they also made it plain that there were to be no restrictions on its faith and practice. This cuts both ways for both the believer and the non-believer; freedom of religion balanced with freedom from it. It is, at best, a compromise between our human instinct to have hope in the unseen and a practical need to provide a workable secular society.

This philosophy is apparently counterintuitive to the evangelical Christian movement. My experience with them — and I’ve had quite a bit — is that they see their faith infusing every aspect of their life and they must share it with others. That is what evangelism is all about; to be a witness of their faith to the world, and they have no qualms about making it abundantly clear that they think they have all the answers, in spite of their often self-deprecating denials that they don’t … however, they do know that the Bible does. The next step, logically, is that if it’s so great for them, everybody must share in it. It didn’t require a very big leap of faith to look for a political party that not only shared their conservative values but also gave them the entry into the halls of power where they could put their faith and morality into legislation and on the ballot. And the Republican Party, long identified with the mainline Protestant denominations but also aware of the demographics, had few qualms in embracing both a powerful messenger of their platform of “traditional family values” and the practical fact that the most well-known televangelists had volumes of mailing lists of devoted followers…and donors.

But it was all destined to come to a crash. Just as political parties dry up when they run out of ideas, the evangelicals, as Mr. Spencer noted, found themselves becoming irrelevant or worse, a hostile force within families as the reality of our human existence made keeping to the faith a challenge. The world is not flat and it wasn’t created in six days. Good little boys and girls who love Jesus and believe in him grow up to be gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered or simply not what the bible says they should be. Faith has to coexist with Truth, and not everyone wants to be told that God has a plan for you. And when the political party that rode with you to giddy heights of being within an arm’s length of being a permanent majority is swept from power to the point that they can’t decide who is really in charge, the last thing they’re going to think about is you needy and insistent Jesus-shouters who can’t seem to grasp the idea that the only reason they went along with you in the first place was because you paid for it. Republicans are, by nature, a cheap date.

Mr. Spencer sees the future of evangelical Christianity as rising from the ruins and reshaping itself.

We need new evangelicalism that learns from the past and listens more carefully to what God says about being His people in the midst of a powerful, idolatrous culture.

I’m not a prophet. My view of evangelicalism is not authoritative or infallible. I am certainly wrong in some of these predictions. But is there anyone who is observing evangelicalism in these times who does not sense that the future of our movement holds many dangers and much potential?

May I be so bold as to suggest that the evangelicals take a leading from the un-evangelicals — the Quakers. Let your silence and your love be your ministry.

HT to Melissa for sending me the CSM link.