Christian decline

November 6, 2019

Blaming Religious Right for Christian Decline

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristoff has written the umpteenth claim that declining churches and Christian influence in America owe to conservative “religious blowhards” who “have entangled faith with bigotry, sexism, homophobia and xenophobia.” And “for some young people, Christianity is associated less with love than with hate.”

Every branch of Christianity, and every religion, has its share of blowhards and hypocrites. Conservative Christian blowhards get more attention because they have political influence and peeve liberal cultural elites. But do they deserve exclusive credit for overall Christian decline?

Religious Right fixtures get the spotlight because of their politics, but there’s little evidence that churches grow or decline based on political stances or national media attention that’s negative or positive. Evangelicalism, especially Pentecostalism, should have declined after the widely broadcast televangelist scandals of the late 1980s. Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker (both of whom remain on television today, though with much diminished influence) suffered interlocking sexual and financial imbroglios, but the Pentecostal denominations to which they belonged remained fast growing. Evangelicalism also continued its growth, as did Evangelical political influence.

Today white evangelicalism is in slow decline while non-white evangelicalism is growing. Liberal churches, which are nearly all white, are shrinking much faster and have been shrinking continuously for 55 years. They have not, from the view of columnist Kristoff, “entangled faith with bigotry, sexism, homophobia and xenophobia.” They are firmly in political and cultural sync with secular culture. So why aren’t they growing?

Liberal churches and liberal Christian political activists barely register in national media or conversation. They don’t have the influence in Democratic Party politics that conservative Evangelicals enjoy among Republicans. Forty and 50 years ago liberal Protestant chieftains occupied a bigger political space. Mainline Protestant agencies and prelates got media attention opposing the Vietnam War and urging Nixon’s resignation. The National Council of Churches was often referenced.

The early 1980s media exposés of Mainline Protestant support for Marxist causes marked the beginning of the end for their public influence. It was obvious that far left church prelates didn’t politically represent average Mainline church goers who were and remain politically right of center.

And yet it’s wrong to think that far-left political stances by Mainline prelates caused liberal church decline, which began years before these church agencies politically radicalized. No doubt some church goers quit their denominations in protest or disgust over national church public positions. But I think few did for that reason. They mostly quit from indifference and apathy in reaction to vapid theology.

Churches are primarily relational and personal. Congregations grow or decline based on their theological agenda, spirit, outreach and people skills. National denominational policies or national political impressions conveyed through media do not typically play major roles in the fate of local churches. The scandal or politics or favorable publicity of a national religious figure is unlikely to affect local congregations.

Are the controversies of Jerry Falwell Jr affecting attendance at local evangelical churches? Probably no more so than did the lavishly favorable media attention on Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Michael Curry’s globally broadcast royal wedding sermon last year on still ongoing Episcopal Church decline.

Journalists and pundits are understandably focused on religion’s perceived macro political influence, not on its harder to define spiritual impact on individuals. Growing Hispanic Pentecostal congregations lack a cohesive national voice, aren’t socially prominent, and don’t seek or receive much media attention. They grow irrespective of national media impressions about Evangelicals.

Last week I talked to a national evangelical campus ministry leader, who said their work continues to thrive, just as many local evangelical congregations thrive, irrespective of national media caricatures. Their effectiveness depends on their personal impact on individuals, not media narratives, positive or negative.

17 Responses to Blaming Religious Right for Christian Decline

  1. RichmondGiant says:

    This is hardly a surprise. When theology is no more than Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, the church offers it’s members nothing they can’t get from any other gathering. Better to sleep in on Sunday, save the money and go to some other social gathering with better music and more comfortable seating.

    Liberal theologians have severed their root by ditching the authority of Scripture. Most still acknowledge there is a God but he’s not the god of the Bible. He’s the doting Morgan Freeman god that just wants everyone to be nice to each other and do whatever makes them happy. Don’t need church for that.

  2. Rev. Dr. Lee D Cary (ret. UM clergy) says:

    For me, here’s the key line in this insightful and (IMHO) accurate article: “They mostly quit from indifference and apathy in reaction to vapid theology.” Yeppers.

    “Vapid” – a wonderful word, meaning (according to the on-line Merriam-Webster Dictionary) “lacking flavor, zest, interest, animation, or spirit, flat, dull” – in the unlikely case that any readers here need reminding.

    More than a few of the “Seven Sisters” amped-up their worship services with praise bands/singers to mirror many of the TV and independent non-denominational churches. Plus, there was an increase use AV technology, rare in UMC’s, say, 20 years ago.

    But the independents got there first with the most and the best.

    There was still time to improve the Sisters’ preaching until the seminaries shifted to training Social Justice Warriors rather than Biblical scholars. When that happened, perhaps in the early 1960’s, the vapidity moved toward viral.

    Music alone – inspiring or not so – isn’t enough to fill a sanctuary. Good music plus vapid preaching is…Snores Ville.

    Good article. Thank you IRD.

  3. David says:

    If all the children of liberal Methodists had continued in the faith, the numbers would still be going down simply because birthrates have been below replacement level for decades. The median UMC age is 57, the same as the Episcopal Church.

    • Mike says:

      “If all the children of liberal Methodists had continued in the faith, the numbers would still be going down”. Maybe if they had simply continued in the faith, there would have been enough converts following them to keep the numbers up.

    • Lee D. Cary says:

      Thank you, David, for drawing attention to the Pew survey.

      Assuming that the bottom range (ages 18-29) are the prime procreation category, the UMC ranks at 9% of membership, just above the lowest, 8%, in the Anglican Church. (The highest percentage of the 18-29 group is 23 in the Church of God in Christ.)

      But where is the number for the 18-29 in the total for the independent non-denominational churches which, if they combined into one “denomination,” would rank in the top tier identified denominations?

      By failing to attract/evangelize the 18-29’s the UMC has, unwittingly, patterned its future after the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing (AKA: Shakers).

    • Steve says:

      Birthrates are not the only possible reasons for the median age, as others have pointed out. You don’t have statistics for Methodist birthrates. You also don’t cite statistics for the decline in numbers of “liberal Methodists”. Correlation is not causation, but you haven’t shown a correlation: relative scale matters, a molehill is not a mountain.

      • David says:

        As the Pew article mentions:

        “Of course, age is not the only factor in future growth patterns of religious groups, meaning that younger groups may not necessarily grow (and older groups may not shrink) as a share of the population. Fertility rates, religious switching, immigration and other factors also come into play. ”

        Differences in fertility rates have long been noted between Mainstream and Evangelical members. Specific data for within the UMC has probably not been collected, but the high age is an indication. Here is another Pew article. Way down is “Fertility and Child Rearing.” General Mainstream was 1.9 children, which is below replacement. The many UMC churches one sees that have rented their Sunday school buildings to pre-schools also gives a hint.

        • Steve says:

          That is not specific to Methodists, and it is not way below replacement levels. Moreover, it is only at a point at time for a particular age group; prior year birthrates were higher. The declines in Methodist membership vastly exceed the declines in Mainline birthrates.

          Region 2010 Church Membership 2014 Church Membership 2018 Church Membership % Change 2010-2018 2010 Population 2014 Population 2018 Population % Change 2010-2018 Membership vs. Population
          North Central Jurisdiction 1,346,180 1,270,124 1,189,259 -11.66% 56,291,024 56,942,246 57,341,519 1.87% -13.52%
          Northeastern Jurisdiction 1,329,181 1,257,546 1,168,609 -12.08% 64,525,181 65,418,605 65,629,255 1.71% -13.79%
          South Central Jurisdiction 1,739,946 1,707,526 1,652,134 -5.05% 49,217,134 51,394,492 53,381,380 8.46% -13.51%
          Southeastern Jurisdiction 2,894,485 2,815,145 2,752,106 -4.92% 69,250,709 71,787,557 74,917,045 8.18% -13.10%
          Western Jurisdiction 365,793 340,350 312,230 -14.64% 70,039,037 72,870,240 75,898,235 8.37% -23.01%

          • Steve says:

            The replacement fertility level in developed counties, including the United States, is only 2.1.
            So there’s roughly a 10% difference between replacement levels and the levels you have suggested for mainline denominations, and only in recent years. Even if we pretend there’s no margin of error, the reductions in UMC membership are substantially worse, especially in liberal jurisdictions.
            You also have a causation issue. You seem to assume that fertility decline would have been the same regardless of church doctrine. I disagree. When I was young, as far as my (admittedly not Methodist) mainline church was concerned, sex was for procreation. In the seventies, the wedding service was changed so that is no longer said that marriage was for the purpose of having children, to saying that, god willing, it was for the purpose of having children. Birth control became mainstream in the 60s, abortion in the 70s, and the long slow slog towards the normalization of homosexuality apparently began in the 70s as well. Seems to me when a church liberalizes, decouples sex from procreation and embraces birth control, abortion and homosexuality, its to be expected that its fertility rate will go down. I don’t agree with your apparent assessment that unlimited numbers of people may avoid parenthood and there’s no societal consequence. To me parenthood is similar to military service; when enough people start avoiding either or both, the continued existence of a country (or denomination) becomes questionable.

  4. Andrew Hughes says:

    Good article Brother Mark. Thanks!

  5. Al Edwards says:

    We became comfortable…in the great white USA….as long as we were able to see pretty Christmas decorations, and Easter lilies…we could wear our Sunday best, shake hands, and upon leaving the church, tell the pastor the sermons was wonderful–while then forgetting everything—having ‘done our duty’ for the week.

    And now….it’s so apparent to church members, that all the worry and fret about the church splitting….—-the real fear is what happens to our episcopacy, and those receiving the big $$…

    UMC past the realms of world impact decades ago—

  6. Richard says:

    FWIW, my wife and I are part of an Episcopal congregation in a large metropolitan area where the Gospel is preached, where Jesus’ saving acts are the center of worship and of teaching, where we’re extending our hand in outreach (with much room to grow in that area, though), where new believers are discipled, and where somewhere over 25 different bible and prayer groups meet regularly. We don’t worship numbers, but our numbers in congregants and in giving have roughly doubled over seven years. The point being, we’re Episcopalian, and these things are still occurring. We don’t indulge in politics, although the demographics in our area would indicate we lean strongly D over R. The church communities that honor the Lord and follow the Gospel will endure, whatever their label. It’s not the style; it’s the substance.

  7. Thomas says:

    I am genuinely concerned about the direction of the UMC, to the point where I could not sleep last night. There has been a notable veer into the political sphere over the last several years. Some of the antics are outright duplicitous – such as last year’s “Women’s Equality” Amendment, which actually contained language about redefining God as gender-neutral (!). This sort of language would have been considered blasphemous a generation ago. Predictably, when it failed, the leadership expressed dismay over how anyone could oppose “Women’s Equality” in this day and age. The implication, as it appeared to me, was that sexism was to blame. No mention of the sneaky “rider” that sought to redefine our immutable God. The old adage rings true – “believe none of what you hear, and only half of what you see.” It is tragic that anyone should feel that way about their own church institution, but politics is a dirty game.

  8. John Smith says:

    The decline of Christianity is the fault of Christians and much because they got into politics and desire power, wealth and acclaim. Thank you Constantine. This is not a new discussion; lamenting (or rejoicing at) the decline and fall of Christianity has a long and storied history. Within the context of America much can be traced to Christians more worried about fixing others and society than fixing themselves and their churches. OTOH Christians can’t just check out of politics and society. In a government “… of the people, for the people and by the people….” how much of the sin from government action and inaction is mine?

    • State sponsorship of the Church, such as happened from the time of Constantine onward, has been a mixed blessing.  Yes, there has been the problem of the state wanting to exercise authority over the Church, and there has been the tendency of some Christians to want the state to function as the enforcer of Christian morality.  However, the reverse of this has been a state wanting to enforce a worldly morality on the Church, and state-sanctioned persecution of the Church, including the state sanctioning putting Christians to death and the preclusion of Christians from public office; remember that prior to Constantine, such was the attitude of the Roman government toward the Church and Christians.  So don’t lay the blame for the existence of ill-considered Church/state relationships on Constantine.

      • John Smith says:

        I simply pick Constantine as the marking point and great shift. Woe to the Christian Church when it will have been victorious in this world, for then it is not the Church that has been victorious but the world. Then the heterogeneity between Christianity and the world has vanished, the world has won, and Christianity has lost.
        Søren Kierkegaard, Practice in Christianity (1850), as translated by H. and E. Hong (1991), p. 223

  9. Donald says:

    Revelation 3:14-22 pretty well describes the orthodoxy and orthopraxis of the Seven Sisters, although with some theologians 2:20-23 has a fairly apt description as well.

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