Wednesday, May 06, 2009

The costs of politics for Evangelical Christians

This is second reaction to Michael Spencer's article: "The Coming Evangelical Collapse"

Mr. Spencer claims that the downfall of the Evangelical church in America will result from its alignment with conservative culture and politics. He write: "Evangelicals have identified their movement with the culture war and with political conservatism. 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."

I agree with the core premise here, that it is a bad idea for the Evangelical church to cozy up with a particular political party, as it did in the 1980s and 1990s. By associating Christianity with a given political position, we risk losing people who agree with the faith but not the party. (Come to think of it, this is a nice example of balance theory.)

Spencer's statement, however, would benefit from two refinements.

1) Evangelicals are playing politics much less now then they did in the 1980s and 1990s--the heyday of the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition. We've traded Jerry Falwell's support for Republicans for Rick Warren's bipartisan engagement in politics.

2) Christians did leave the church in reaction to this, but they were predominately from more liberal mainline churches. Christians' conservative political affiliation probably didn't affect the numbers of Evangelicals nearly as much.

One of the notable religious trends in recent years here in the U.S. is the dramatic rise of the religiously unaffiliated. While these include atheists and agnostics, many of them belief in God but just don't affiliate with a religion. Here's a graph illustrating their increase:

The percentage of religiously unaffiliated remained fairly level from 1972 to 1990. It rose dramatically from 1990 to 2000, and it's increased more slowly since then. (Source: General Social Survey).

Sociologists Michael Hout and Claude Fischer examined this trend, and they concluded that:

"In the 1990s, many people who had weak attachments to religion and either moderate or liberal political views found themselves at odds with the conservative political agenda of the Christian Right and reacted by renouncing their weak attachment to organized religion."

Now, I'm no genius about church life, but I'm guessing that Christian leaders would rather have *not* lost these people.

If accurate, this explanation addresses the drop in (predominately) mainline Protestantism in the 1990s. It gives no reason to expect a sudden collapse in the Evangelical church in the coming years.

3 comments: said...

I think maybe it better helps explain the stall of evangelical Christianity in the 1990s as per your graph in your previous post. said...

A followup thought. Canadian Evangelicals have done much better growth wise since the 1990s than American Evangelicals. I have a strong suspicion that it is because we have not been as involved in a culture war and have been able to focus on energies on other things.

Mike Bell.

Brad Wright said...

Yes, the political activism associated with Evangelicalism might have slowed down it's growth.

I hadn't thought of the Canadian comparison, but it makes a lot of sense. It would be interesting to learn more about...