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.