EDITOR’s NOTE: One of the most striking series of headlines about religion in July 2021 concerns the decline in self-identified evangelicals in America, triggered by new data from the Public Religion Research Institute. Headlines included The Washington Post: The Rapid Decline of White Evangelical America? and in The New York Times: The Christian Right Is in Decline, and It’s Taking America With It and in New York magazine: White Evangelicals Now Outnumbered by Mainline Protestants in U.S.—and finally from CNN: America is no longer as evangelical as it was—and here’s why, written by the esteemed scholar Diana Butler Bass. That’s why we asked for this column by our own resident writer who focuses on America’s growing ambivalence toward traditional religious identifications. To help put this news in context, here are the perspective of journalist and author Martin Davis.
By MARTIN DAVIS
A number of years ago I began asking folks who attended church a simple question: “What does it mean to be Baptist?”
Or, Presbyterian? Or Methodist? I adapted my question to the person’s affiliation. However, more times than not, people had no idea. They attended the churches they were at not because they came to a decision about what they believed then sought out a community that reflected those beliefs. Rather, they attend because their children got invited, or the church was near their house, or they had friends who attended and invited them, or they liked the sermons (See Pew Forum research on this question).
Almost never would a Baptist talk to me about the importance of missions, or the centrality of the Bible in their belief. Presbyterians mostly had no idea how their system of governance differed from Congregational or Episcopal communities. And while they knew the name John Calvin, almost none had ever read much of his work or wrestled with what his message means today.
As one person succinctly said to me: “Look, I just attend a Baptist church; that doesn’t make me Baptist.”
So when the Public Religion Research Institute, headed by Robert P. Jones, released research in July 2021 announcing that “Since 2006, white evangelical Protestants have experienced the most precipitous drop in affiliation, shrinking from 23% of Americans in 2006 to 14% in 2020”—I was more than a bit suspicious.
First, the survey is based on self-identification, not actual records of church affiliation. And as suggested above, this can yield some perplexing findings.
Second, PRRI’s findings don’t square with other major studies of religion in America. Notably, Pew Research Center data shows only a minor drop in evangelicals. The General Social Survey and the Cooperative Congressional Election Study also show no such decline. (The Washington Post story linked above ends with a question mark in its headline and contains a nice summary of the conflicting data.)
What to make of this conflicting information?
First, recognize all of this data for what it is—a snap shot in time taken with one particular camera using a particular lens. This doesn’t make the information wrong or mean that the people conducting the surveys are up to no good. But the way you ask questions matters. And who you ask matters.
Second, it raises a more-important question: Who are these dwindling numbers of evangelicals, and what’s happening to those who no longer claim that name? Are they moving to mainline churches?
“The survey doesn’t provide precise explanations regarding the shift among white Christians,” Ed Kilgore relates in his New York magazine piece. “But [Jones] pointed to ‘circumstantial evidence’ that suggests ‘over the last two years in particular, white mainline Protestants seem to have absorbed at least some folks leaving white evangelical and other churches who may have otherwise landed in the religiously unaffiliated camp.’”
Or is it possible that these people who once identified as evangelical but no longer do are still attending the same houses of worship they always have? Perhaps they just don’t want to be associated with the term “evangelical” because of the Dumpster fire that was the Trump presidency and his unholy alliance with conservative Christians.
It will take more than a while–and a lot more studies–to sort all this out.
More Than Cultural Change
There’s a deeper concern in the general tone of the reporting this month. It’s as if many Americans would like to simply wish an entire group of people—so-called evangelicals—would simply fade away. There’s a hope among many Americans that the shrinkage of evangelical communities might somehow resolve some of our public conflicts and social ills. And that’s simply wrong headed.
However Americans choose to describe the religious part of their lives, the animating ideas that have long been associated with the word “evangelical” still are deeply embedded in our culture.
To highlight just one example: Racism still is part of American life. Although many Americans tended to associate racism with political conservatism and evangelical affiliations, racism runs from top to bottom in our culture and, more importantly, in our civic and corporate structures.
Another example: The yawning chasm between the haves and the have nots is a massive issue that will not be solved by books like Hillbilly Elegy, which wrongly places all the problems that poor Americans have squarely on their shoulders. The book’s overriding solution–just grow up and accept responsibility for your life–could only be expressed by someone who escaped poverty with little empathy for those left behind.
There are many more examples that probably are rolling through your mind right now.
The bottom line is: The people who have been called evangelicals, and the larger conservative world they populate, are not going away. If, as PRRI claims, evangelicals are in sharp decline, then how does one explain Donald Trump getting 77 million votes in 2020?
So What Do We Do?
So, perhaps evangelicals aren’t dying. Perhaps there’s just a fashionable change in labeling. There’s no question that millions of Americans see themselves along a whole series of political and cultural barricades. For those of us who appreciate the progressive values of American justice, concern for the less fortunate and embrace of diversity, the question becomes: How can we find a way forward?
I believe we are in for more political and social struggles, not unlike the fight that leaders in the Civil Rights movement waged throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.
Since the rise of the Religious Right under Jerry Falwell in the 1970s, evangelicals have refused to evolve away from the position that there is only one way to truth—their way. In fact, since that time the evangelical insistence that they hold The Truth has only grown more insistent. We see it in movements like dominionism, which is a move to subsume all aspects of American life under an extreme evangelical rubric. (Here’s an excellent story about one such community in Fort Worth, Texas.)
We see it in our political system, when a womanizing, foul-mouthed, intellectually-deficient man-child becomes the great beacon for the group pollsters describe as White Evangelicals. And we see it in governments in Texas, Mississippi, Missouri, South Carolina, Georgia, Indiana, and others, where Republican-led state legislatures use the Bible to defend denying people the vote, punishing the poor, depriving children of nutrition, and punishing people who–heaven forbid–have sex outside of marriage.
There is no working with or talking to many of these individuals. I can write that line, because I came from that world. And I left that world. And I had my life nearly destroyed along the way.
My story isn’t important. I have finally put that part of my life in the rear-view mirror. I’ve never taken my eye off what I left behind, however. And I am convinced that it is gaining ground again–even if the numbers of self-identified adherents are down. Even in decline, their power is far out of proportion to their numbers.
It is time that we claim and raise the voice of our own Silent Majority: people of no religious affiliation like myself that now account for 1 out of 4 people in this country, plus religious liberals and people of faith who simply are just decent people. One deep concern we share is the rise of an evangelicalism that can become more nihilistic even as it declines in numbers.
We need to encourage national conversations about what it truly means to embrace American values.
Values that unify us as Americans
Four come to my mind.
A commitment to freedom lived in a respectful community. For too many on the extreme right of the evangelical world, religious freedom means the freedom to do whatever they want, and to deny those same freedoms to others. We must insist that our freedoms are not grounded in any one religious group or theological position. Our freedoms are grounded in the Enlightenment, which gave birth to the US Constitution, guided the thinking of our Founding Fathers and Mothers, and stresses that every individual is a person of worth. These ideals flummoxed our nation’s leaders in the earliest days. Washington and Jefferson and Madison all struggled with the dissonance between the ideals they espoused in the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence—and slavery. That dissonance has never gone away. Progressives today are stifling our ability to create a broader discussion around freedom and community by continually taking the culture-war bait that evangelicals keeping throwing out. It’s time to quit defensively responding and force the debate about the reality that freedom must be lived out in community.
A commitment to facts. When KellyAnne Conway insisted from inside the White House that there were “alternative facts,” she made public what people who have followed evangelicalism have long known. The worst of evangelical tendencies is a refusal to deal with facts in a reasonable way—and a rejection of objective knowledge and science that is inconvenient to their creed. We must insist that being part of this nation means accepting as reality what is testable and knowable.
A commitment to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The evangelical movement has long rejected this core tenet of American society. That dates at least as far back as so-called Progressive movements like Temperance that were thinly veiled bigotry against poor immigrants. Those of us among the Silent Majority I am describing must also guard our own actions against similarly demonizing poor communities. What we need is honest, balanced, hospitable engagement and conversation. The danger is a slide toward a Balkanization of our nation. I know that I am not alone among community leaders nationwide who are working, even now, on new structures to cross our chasms and re-engage in the American values that can continue to unite us.
A commitment to peace. The reality now is that a significant portion of radical evangelicals accept that they will have to launch a violent overthrow of the current system. This is no idle threat as we all witnessed on January 6, 2021. The temptation is to suppress and fight back. Or simply wish these people away. That will not win the day. We must rise up, nonviolently, and stare this evil squarely in the face.
Understand the Moment
It is important that we truly grasp what is happening around us, and the very real threat that we all face. We cannot afford to gloat in the wake of one study that shows the threat to the way of life that we enjoy is shrinking in numbers. Shrinking, maybe, but power is not now, nor has it ever been, distributed equally. And far too much of it rests in the hands of extremists.
But don’t take my word for it. Listen to how Michelle Goldfarb summarizes where we are at in her current New York Times Op-Ed piece:
“I was frightened by the religious right in its triumphant phase. But it turns out that the movement is just as dangerous in decline. Maybe more so. It didn’t take long for the cocky optimism of Generation Joshua to give way to the nihilism of the Jan. 6 insurrectionists. If they can’t own the country, they’re ready to defile it.”
Evangelicals have driven the discussion far too long in the country. We must take charge of the discussion, and quit hoping things will get better without the active engagement by all of us.
MARTIN ALSO REMINDS US that there are major questions about the validity of American polling that have been raised by everyone involved with such research—from the pollsters themselves to the journalists, scholars and community leaders who rely on this kind of data. He says, “I recommend that people also read this Washington Post story about the very real problems with polling and why we should always be skeptical of the numbers we are seeing. I love the conclusion, which I agree with fully.”
The conclusion of the Post story says:
Instead, polls should serve as a rough guide to public opinion. They’re the only way to ask the country a question and get a timely, meaningful response. We should be cognizant of polling’s problems and shortcomings—at least until someone comes up with a better way to discover what Americans think.
Care to read even more?
Right now, Martin and our editors are completing a book filled with uplifting stories about high school coaches and players nationwide—men and women, black and white, famous and unsung heroes alike. His book will appear soon in our series of 30 Days With under the title: 30 Days With America’s High School Coaches.
You can follow Martin’s work through his personal website, MartinDavisAuthor.com, which describes his work as an author and editor, as well as his background as a veteran journalist for national publications.
Look around that website and sign up to receive free updates from Martin about new columns and podcasts. You’ll be glad you did!