July 06, 2008

Strength of the Religious Right Oversold?

Today OnTheMedia had an interview with Christine Wicker, author of The Fall of the Evangelical Nation. As a former religious reporter for the Dallas Morning News as well as being raised as an evangelical she was seen as an ideal person to investigate what was going on with the evangelical movement. What she found was that rather than being the powerhouse movement the media and Rove say, it is actually a religious movement that was shrinking and losing clout year by year as followers fall away. Even more surprising, she found that they never could have been the force that they claimed as they never did have the numbers reported. Here's a gist of her thesis from a sermon she quoted by Pastor Davidson Loehr, pastor at the First Unitarian/Universalist Church of Austin:

Evangelical Christianity in America is dying. The idea that evangelicals are taking over America is one of the greatest publicity scams in history, a perfect coup accomplished by savvy politicos and religious leaders, who understand media weaknesses and exploit them brilliantly. (Christine Wicker, The Fall of the Evangelical Nation, p. ix)

The facts are that about a thousand evangelicals walk away from their churches every day and most donít come back (Christine Wicker, The Fall of the Evangelical Nation, p. xiii). As a whole, American Christians lose six thousand members a day Ė more than two million a year. (Christine Wicker, The Fall of the Evangelical Nation, p. 123) The real figures are that fewer than seven percent of the country are really evangelicals Ė only about one in fourteen, not one out of four. The fastest growing faith groups in the country are atheists and nonbelievers. In just the eleven years from 1990 to 2001, they more than doubled, from 14 million to 29 million, from 8% of the country to 14 percent. There are more than twice as many nonbelievers and atheists as there are evangelicals. And since itís hard to believe everyone would have the nerve to tell a pollster they were an atheist or nonbeliever, I suspect the real figures are higher. You donít read this in the media because there are no powerful groups pushing the story.

In another sermon, he notes that the reason evangelical children leave the church is because the modern world is winning the culture war:

Whoís to blame for all this? Not the bible, not God, and not the churches. Modern life, changed circumstances, the new realities that we live among are to blame (Christine Wicker, The Fall of the Evangelical Nation, p. 4). Evangelicals tried to fight the modern world and the world won.

Whatís eroding Christianity is the rise and victory of the more scientific and humane worldview weíre a part of: a worldview that incorporates almost all the basic assumptions of liberalism. It affects all religions, but in different ways.

Iíve heard for 25 years that 95% of Unitarian kids leave the church after high school. I donít think anyone has actually done a methodical study that could produce reliable numbers like that, but I suspect that itís probably in the ballpark. Why? Because evangelical youth are leaving at about the same rate. Josh McDowell, who has worked for Campus Crusade for Christ since 1964, says that 94% of high school graduates leave the faith within two years. The Southern Baptists estimate that 88% of their kids leave the church after high school. So this is not an indictment of liberal religion; itís a description of American 18-to-20-year-olds. On the surface, it looks like weíre all in the same situation.

But when you look at why evangelicals or religious liberals leave their church, it gets more interesting, and suddenly weíre not all in the same situation.

The world evangelical kids enter when they leave the control of the church isnít much like the world the church has offered them. Thereís more freedom to question, no subjects declared off-limits, less self-righteousness, more science, more independence. And nineteen out of twenty of them find the real world more appealing than the world the church had given them. Evangelicals lose their kids to the modern world. But we donít lose our kids to the modern world, because weíve worked to prepare them for it. Itís the worldview they learn in churches like this. We just want them to find more depth of fulfilling meaning and purpose within it than the soul-killing ďmarket valueĒ idols offer.

This thesis conforms with what I had found in some of the articles I had read as well.

So what's been going on? Wicker explains that the aggrandizement of the religious right has been a concerted effort which gave evangelicals an outsized platform in the news.

How did it happen? As Digby writes today, it started because the Religious Right decided to take up abortion as their cause. And as Digby says, this was not from any deep theological commitment, but it was a political decision to pick up a cudgel that could be used to gain power.

This was one of the key strategies for the Radical Right to take over our country. Don't forget that the incestuous relationship with between the Republicans and the Religious Right came out of the machinations of Norquist and Ralph Reed. Today, it is not surprising to see that making common cause with the criminal conspiracy instigated by the Rove, Norquist, et. al, has come to naught for the Evangelicals. Now we can make the media realize the truth about the religious right and that it is not the main voice for religion in America? Naw. That might be expecting too much thoughtfulness on the part of the pundits.

Posted by Mary at July 6, 2008 04:45 PM | Religion | Technorati links |

That's some beautiful synthesis there, man. Contained in this discourse is not only why I personally am disillusioned with religion, it's why I don't take it seriously any more and why it's largely polluted beyond repair, to me.

Religion, and Xtianity in particular modernly, is not a unifiying community that can bridge differences and heal people: it's simply, in America today, a way for people to get, keep, and hold power, and for use as a big stick to keep everyone else who's not part of your core group in line. It's used to bully everyone else who's "outside" and make the "insiders" the temporal rulers of all.

Posted by: Samuel John Klein at July 6, 2008 08:43 PM

Where did that 14 percent figure come from? The latest Pew poll estimates that the number of non-believers is actually about 4 percent, with another 12 percent in the "nothing in particular" category.


(enable Javascript to see the breakdown).

If the that 14 percent figure came from the same sort of poll as the preview figure (eight percent), then that's at least a sign that we're increasing in number, I think. Measuring religious affiliation has to be a tricky thing, since many people aren't that interested in discussing their beliefs with strangers.

Note, though, that according to the Pew poll we outnumber Jews by more than 2 to 1, yet have almost no influence on our government's policies. We can't even get them to take the "Under God" out of the Pledge, for crying out loud. Yet we seem willing to subordinate ourselves to Israel's wishes when it comes to Middle East policy in order to please a small part of the Jewish population.

Posted by: Cujo359 at July 7, 2008 01:44 AM

I agree with Sam; heckuva synthesis. I'd love to read each of the links today, but so much darned work to get done!

The only thing that makes me question the numbers in the "dwindling evangelicals" argument is the Rove/Norquist/Republican relationship you mention in the last paragraph. I have always seen the Republican party as a party for a very small, extremely wealth-controlling minority in this country. In terms of sheer numbers, that limited but highly elitist constituency could never hope to win elections because it's overwhelmed by the rest of us "normal joes."

As such they have always relied on getting people not members of the economic elitist class to vote against their own economic self interest (and never more apparently so than in the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections). To pump up voter numbers, they've needed to rally their purported base on singular social issues (like guns, abortion, and public religion) that polarize and motivate people to vote on that one issues and against their own economic self interest; for candidates that are actually beholden to that very small economic elitist class.

Thus, if the number of evangelicals is falling as reported in the book, and might never been as high as previously boasted (cf the Rovian an "permanent majority" of the 2004 election), then why haven't the opposition been more successful in the elections of the past decade?

Posted by: tres_arboles at July 9, 2008 08:59 AM