The Creeping “Christian” Coup

Take a stroll around America and you’ll see bajillions of “Christian” book stores, “Christian” schools, “Christian” churches. Of course, these institutions represent a certain sort of Christianity, a conservative evangelical Protestant one. There are lots of Christians who do not fit this definition of “Christian.” But a new set of survey data from the Pew Research Center for Religion and Public Life shows that the gap between the two seems to be narrowing. There are fewer Christians overall, but “Christians” are doing just fine.

Anytown, USA

Anytown, USA

So get ready for it. In the next week or so we’ll hear lots of exclamations about the recent Pew numbers. We’ll be told that the United States is becoming less Christian. As the folks at Pew tell us,

The Christian share of the population is declining and the religiously unaffiliated share is growing in all four major geographic regions of the country. Religious “nones” now constitute 19% of the adult population in the South (up from 13% in 2007), 22% of the population in the Midwest (up from 16%), 25% of the population in the Northeast (up from 16%) and 28% of the population in the West (up from 21%). In the West, the religiously unaffiliated are more numerous than Catholics (23%), evangelicals (22%) and every other religious group.

Does this mean we’ll see an abatement in culture-war scuffles over religion? Will America disagree less about abortion? Gay rights? School prayer? Evolution?

Not likely. In fact, we should expect the opposite.

Here’s why: Christianity’s share of the overall population might be dwindling, but evangelical Christianity has shrunk, if at all, by a much smaller percentage. In the words of the Pew report,

The new survey indicates that churches in the evangelical Protestant tradition – including the Southern Baptist Convention, the Assemblies of God, Churches of Christ, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, the Presbyterian Church in America, 0ther evangelical denominations and many nondenominational congregations – now have a total of about 62 million adult adherents. That is an increase of roughly 2 million since 2007, though once the margins of error are taken into account, it is possible that the number of evangelicals may have risen by as many as 5 million or remained essentially unchanged.

I don’t know why the pollsters lumped Missouri Synod Lutherans in with evangelical denominations, but they certainly belong in the conservative camp. In any case, as anyone who knows the long history of our culture wars is aware, the fiercest fights have usually been between liberal and conservative Protestants.

Many of our liberal and secularizing culture-war leaders have come from mainline Protestant denominations. These days, for example, from the United Church of Christ, the denomination formerly known as Congregationalism, The Reverend Barry Lynn heads the liberal Americans United for Separation of Church and State. In the 1920s, as I argue in my first book, liberal Protestants such as Edward Birge and Edwin Conklin led the fight for evolution education.

If that sort of liberal Christianity continues to dwindle, it is entirely possible that Americans will come to agree that to be a “Christian” means adhering to a conservative evangelical Protestant faith. It might even snowball. The new Pew numbers show that evangelicalism is the only major religious group to pick up adherents from other churches. As they put it,

The evangelical Protestant tradition is the only major Christian group in the survey that has gained more members than it has lost through religious switching. Roughly 10% of U.S. adults now identify with evangelical Protestantism after having been raised in another tradition, which more than offsets the roughly 8% of adults who were raised as evangelicals but have left for another religious tradition or who no longer identify with any organized faith.

If evangelical Christianity bucks the trend of shrinking Christian identification, it makes sense to think that soon more and more Americans will identify evangelicalism with Christianity as a whole. What might that mean?

It’s impossible to predict, of course, but I’ve got a couple of hunches. First, we’ll see a stronger distinction between liberal evangelical Protestants and conservative ones. There is a strong tradition of politically progressive evangelicals, but its story tends to get swamped when people talk about evangelicalism.

Second, we’ll see a continuing weakening of the racial divisions between conservative evangelicals. As the new Pew report asserts, “Black Protestant” groups are also growing. But the Pew pollsters don’t differentiate between very different sorts of African American evangelicals. If evangelicalism becomes more of a stand-in for Christianity as a whole, pollsters will begin to connect conservative evangelicals across the race line. The interesting questions will become how many conservative evangelicals there are out there, not how many “Black Protestants.”

Third, and for SAGLRROILYBYGTH perhaps the most interesting, we will likely see a heating-up of culture-war rhetoric. Conservative evangelicals will frame themselves more and more vociferously as the voice of “Christianity.” With smaller numbers of liberal Christians to naysay, the identification of conservative evangelicals with the entire Christian community will become ever tighter.

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  1. How I read the report:

    (1) “Evangelicalism” is primarily defined now by not just the Bebbington Quadrilateral but by a set of “conservative” political positions and affiliations that are actually deemed problematic and reactionary by libertarians and political conservatives who are not religious or social conservatives, not to mention Evangelicals identified as “progressives.” For example, the “biblicism” leg of the Quadrilateral is seen as necessarily supportive of opposition to “gay marriage” and expressed homosexuality. Issues like this then become a litmus test for not just political but religious orthodoxy and membership.

    (2) Evangelical “growth” is actually staked on the long-term decline of conservative confessional Protestant denominations as those historic churches tend to lose members to the broad categories of Evangelicalism. When the historic confessions become more conservative and assert their traditional identity it tends to be a reaction and retreat that causes them to lose members. When they make concessions and try to adopt Evangelical modes of piety, worship, and expression they lose people or simply become more Evangelical in the general American sense than Baptist, Methodist, Lutheran or Presbyterian.

    (3) Evangelicals cease being Evangelicals at roughly the same rate as Evangelicalism assimilates confessional Protestants. Presumably post-Evangelicals become religiously unaffiliated “nones” or join, maybe often through marriage like Jeb Bush, a non-Protestant faith like Catholicism and Judaism. I think those trends will continue especially on the Catholic side as the Latin population grows and carries with it historically, ethnically interlinked Pentecostal (Protestant/non-denominational) and Catholic identities. Another notable recent Pew report shows that messianic Jews are now seen as fellow Jews by other Jews and not as simply Christians. Future American religious identities may be more permeable, hybrid and amorphous than they have been in the past when the “Catholic, Protestant, Jew” model imposed by a WASP dominant culture prevailed.

    There’s also a lot that reports like this do not include. Unforeseen future trends may come from today’s margins. Progressive Evangelicals or those who simply do not like politicized Evangelicalism continue not to have a home probably feel increasing pressures to conform or be cast out, but I suspect this will change as the Boomer generation ages out. Some old but small and growing pietist traditions that eschew dogmatic conflict see this as their moment. The new mainliners like the ELCA and UCC seem to be holding up contrary to Evangelical predictions of their fated demise. The old mainline still has a lot of people and possibility despite being treated so often on the right as dead/irrelevant. And while the global south may often rally to many traditionalist and anti-liberal causes, they are less likely to amplify American Evangelical disregard for poverty, social justice, and the abuses of free market capitalism. White Evangelicals tend to regard the foreign poor as “deserving” and a mission field, but not the domestic poor who play the political role of scapegoat. For even conservative Evangelicals the trend is away from this disconnect or contradiction, and it ought to increase as Evangelicals become more diverse with immigrants from Latin America and Africa. It is unthinkable to me that at midcentury the kind of dogwhistle politics that has worked so well to stoke older white American anxieties about race and class will be effective at all unless the civic landscape has merged with that of the prison yard.

    • Thanks, Dan. Did you see this rebuttal from Baylor?

      • No, but it seems mostly in agreement with my reaction about global growth and change, fluid boundaries, etc. — within Christianity and religion in general. But when it comes to the data on Evangelicals and Protestant denominations in the US, it does seem like there is a kind of decline in the form of defection.

        The most interesting material in this Baylor piece is frustratingly vague and unsourced. They seem to be saying that a lot of Evangelical church members answer surveys saying they “have no religion,” as if they are all some sort of Barthian, Bonhoefferian, postmodern “religionless Christians.” Really? That would be a surprising new trend.

        Then there is the reference by Melton to “the three strains of European unorthodoxy—Unitarianism, universalism and deism” where he seems to be saying these traditions represent and have spawned more categories of Christian-inflected religiosity that can be called unbelief, non-belief, free thinking, unorthodoxy, skepticism and even atheism, but they are still essentially religious and theological in their origin and practice.

        These are typically unthinkable thoughts for conservative upholders of protestant and evangelical orthodoxy. They’re prone to regard high membership and even growth in European state churches as inauthentic or negative because it also combines with high rates of atheism, agnosticism, and “nones” who attend church regularly.

  2. Mark B.

     /  May 21, 2015

    Always interesting to see how an outside lens looks at you, especially one within the SUNY system coming from New York. I might tend to agree that culture war type exchanges will grow, but I think your lenses are quite a bit out of focus. The pollsters finally understood something, and it has nothing to do with “conservative” politics, when they found a home for the LCMS in the evangelical grouping. It is the same reason that the SBC, PCA, LCMS and the others in that grouping do not have formal pulpit sharing ecumenical agreements, while their ABC, PCUSA, ELCA counterparts all do, but they recognize each other. There is a creedal orthodoxy, even in non-creedal places like the SBC, that is expected. An LCMS pastor who decided to deny the virgin birth or the resurrection would no longer be on the roster relatively quickly. That same care for theology is present in the evangelical world. Some are bible alone while others are confessional (i.e. have a formal written confession), but there is an intellectual basis to build from. Biblically they are situated on the rock and not the sand.

    It is that primacy of theology, especially in the pastorate and those who do the work of the church, that won’t kill the culture war. But your picture in the post I think tells the second blurriness. There is not a family Christian bookstore in all of New York state. Hardly “anytown, USA”. But business model problems were not really your point. Your point as I take it is that as the non-creedal forms of church wither away (happens when you aren’t connected to the vine), the creedal forms will take over the term exclusively or at least it will become clear that orthodoxy and the progressive church really are different religions. (Something that Machen argued 3 generations ago.) That is something that all of those evangelical groups have been struggling toward for a couple of generations. The vast majority of evangelicals I know would be more than willing to simply be silent as long as the church can be the church. But that internal distress of the past couple of generations appears to be moving to external. Unable to change all of the church from within, look at the snit the progressive UMC faction is in, it is the state that will keep the culture wars going. And that primarily because it drives votes.

    If you really want to understand the evangelical, you have to understand the theology and hermeneutics first. Politics is way downstream of that. And truthfully, most evangelicals after assuming such first things were secure for a long time, are recognizing the need to resource after a long internal strife now mopping up.

    • There is not a family Christian bookstore in all of New York state.

      What makes you say this? There certainly were in the 1970s-80s. And according to Google there still are many.

      I don’t believe “creedal orthodoxy” in your sense has much to do with the Pew groupings or Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses would not have been included. It really is not what ties Evangelicals and oldline confessional Protestants together. What brings them together — and Mormons and JWs — while differentiating them from the mainline is not how you understand, say, the trinity or virigin birth but whether you believe they refer to real entities and events. I think that is the true bottom line for the major divisions in the culture.

      • Mark B.

         /  May 21, 2015

        Just go to their website store locator ( Closest store is NJ. There might be a locally owned Christian Protestant Kitsch store, but they tend to trade in angel figurines and cross jewelry. Like the Catholic version sells St. Joseph statues, saint cards and pictures of the Virgin of Guadalupe. The lack and decline of these says more about the growing distance of the corona of Christian life, that outward over the top piety isn’t a seller or isn’t need.

        Mormon’s and JW’s are not part of the Evangelical group in Pew ( Listed as separate groups of other Christians. The reason for that goes back to basic theological doctrine. Pew did well. The real trouble is in that big Catholic category. Protestants have separated orthodox/heterodox. To get that out of Catholics you have to ask some deeper questions.

        What you say about referring to real entities and events I could agree with. But that is part of what makes doctrine like Trinity, Virgin Birth and Resurrection, all stated in three old creeds (Apostles, Nicene and Athanasian), such a touchstone. The second you start hearing someone talk about the metaphor of resurrection or any of the by now old tropes, you know you are hearing a different gospel. If you said that 25 years ago there was still enough squishy ecumenical thought, putting the best construction on what people said, and outward piety that you’d get told to stop causing trouble or can’t we just get along. The only people who say that today are 75+ and their hearts just aren’t in it. Even they can see it.

      • You’re just looking at one retail chain. It’s the biggest, but you can get a better picture by looking at the store locator for the umbrella organization for conservative Christian bookstores and other retailers. They have lots of members in New York: There has been a perceived decline in the industry, but I don’t know if you can say it’s because these stores sell kitsch that’s not wanted anymore.

        My point about JW’s and Mormons is that they’re not regarded by Evangelical Christians or the Catholic and Orthodox churches as Christians at all. The Pew survey does not include them in the “Other Christian” group as you say; they are placed following the Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox categories within the overall Christian grouping. Rather than following the creedal definition of basic Christian orthodoxy in those other groups, Pew seems to be accepting the self-definition of JW and LDS members, as they do regard themselves as Christian.

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