Trump’s Evangelicals Are Killing Christianity

Following up my post from earlier this week, here’s some much ignored but significant data. In 2017, white Christians became a minority in the U.S. for the first time. And current projections say that Christians of all races will be a minority in the U.S. by 2050.

This is a shift that’s been going on for some time, driven partly by immigration but mostly by millennials. There is a long-standing pattern of young people skipping church attendance when they first leave home, but in the past they’ve returned to religious affiliation when they marry and have children. Millennials, however, are leaving religion and not coming back.

We’ve reached a point at which a reactionary faction among Christians appears to have taken over a large part of state and federal government, including the Supreme Court. They are now actively campaigning to either destroy or take control of the public school systems in conservative states. One wonders if this backlash to secularism and modernity isn’t partly driven by shrinking church memberships. Christians are losing control and feeling threatened.

A few years ago, there was much hand-wringing because the older, non-evangelical Protestant churches were losing members. Catholicism and evangelical denominations were doing fine. But Catholicism has benefited from immigration from South and Central America, which kept its numbers stable in spite of a loss of young adult members. And now evangelicalism is eroding.  “Only 8 percent of young people identify as white evangelical Protestant, while 26 percent of senior citizens do,” it says here.

A big reason for this shift, according to several researchers, is changing views on morality. Younger people are less likely than their parents to be knee-jerk homophobes, for example. Sex before marriage is now openly normal.  Conservative Christianity, with its rigidly absolutist Bronze Age moral code,  is increasingly out of touch with 21st century western culture. And culture is winning.

“Changing views about the relationship between morality and religion also appear to have convinced many young parents that religious institutions are simply irrelevant or unnecessary for their children,” it says here.

Those of us old enough to remember the Eisenhower Administration can probably remember when white Protestant Christianity was simply assumed to be America’s Religion, and white Protestantism dictated America’s accepted moral sensiblities.

1950s America

How white America saw itself, 1950s

Needless to say, between then and now there’s been a huge erosion of white Christian hegemony. Some People aren’t ready to accept this.

I suspect much of the corrupt state of U.S. Christianity can be traced to the rise of televangelism. Let’s face it; most televangelism is a freak show. It also made some well-known televangelists fabulously wealthy. This no doubt encourages them; religious freak shows make money. A kindly pastor tellng viewers to love their neighbors can’t compete with the likes of flamboyant Jimmy Swaggart, or with Joel Olsteen’s feel-good, guilt- and sacrifice-free prosperity gospel. But while these sideshow acts draw a lot of followers, they repel many more. If all you knew of religion is what you saw on television, you’d probably stay clear of it, too.

Earlier this week I wrote about the weird phenomenon of white evangelicals refusing to get covid shots. Writing in the Washington Post, Michael Gerson agrees that there is no Christian religious doctrine that discourages taking a covid shot. Just the opposite, actually; there’s an overwhelming argument to be made from Jesus’ words that people should just get jabbed.

Robert Jones of the Public Religion Research Institute, wrote that “in the upside-down world white evangelicalism has become, the willingness to act in self-sacrificial ways for the sake of vulnerable others — even amid a global pandemic — has become rare, even antithetical, to an aggressive, rights-asserting white Christian culture.” Golden Rule, anybody? Love your neighbor? Love your enemy, even? I guess not.

This objection to vaccines includes the widespread belief that the vaccines either contain aborted fetal cells (not true) or were originally cultivated in fetal cells. This is true of Johnson and Johnson, but the Pope says take it anyway. It’s not true of Pfizer or Moderna. And, anyway, whether Some People agree or not, there is no explicit biblical teaching forbidding abortions.

The objections of evangelicals to vaccine mandates is framed in the language of religious liberty. But, Gerson argues, that doesn’t fit. What the evangelicals are really arguing for is libertarianism, which has nothing whatsoever to do with Christianity. They have replaced Jesus’ moral and ethical teachings (which, you might recall, emphasized taking care of our neighbors, and everybody is a neighbor) with a libertarian position that individual rights supercede everything else, including the well being of others. And that the greatest evil in the world is government coercion, no matter what purpose is being served. “This is heresy compounded by lunacy,” Gerson says.

Writing in Salon earlier this year, an evangelical minister named Nathaniel Manderson said pretty much the same thing.

Over the last 70 years, Christian theology has been steadily replaced, within the evangelical world, by Republican or “conservative” ideology. … This shift is most obvious around the issues of gun rights and immigration. If you want to reject the foreigner, build a wall and own a private artillery, go right ahead. That is your right. But it is not your right if you sincerely want to follow the teachings of Jesus. We are not gun owners; we are pacifists. We are not provided with the gift of freedom and independence by God just to make sure no one else can have it.

As I wrote in the previous post, evangelicalism wasn’t always like this. Originally it was a big and very diverse movement. In the 18th century evangelism was defined by its emphasis on a personal relationship with God — without priest and church as intermediaries — and on a “born again” experience in which one makes a personal commitment to that relationship.

There have long been tensions between conservative and liberal movements within evangelicalism. In 19th century U.S., white southern evangelicals were marked by their support for slavery, while northern evangelicals called for Abolition. Some denominations split apart, some permanently.

But now some are beginning to wonder if evangelicalism is sustainable at all. Evangelicalism is breaking apart writes Peter Wehner at The Atlantic.

“The root of the discord lies in the fact that many Christians have embraced the worst aspects of our culture and our politics. When the Christian faith is politicized, churches become repositories not of grace but of grievances, places where tribal identities are reinforced, where fears are nurtured, and where aggression and nastiness are sacralized. The result is not only wounding the nation; it’s having a devastating impact on the Christian faith.”

Wehner talked to many ministers and church leaders, many of whom have walked away from their former churches. “How many people look at churches in America these days and see the face of Jesus?” one said.

Wehner’s is a really excellent analysis of how contemporary evangelicalism came to be hollowed out of Christian doctrine and replaced by politics and grievance. Churches have been putting more effort into being entertaining — which keeps people in their seats and puts money in the offering plate —  than in teaching.

And large numbers of conservative white Americans who happen to be evangelical are insisting that their churches perfectly reflect their political views, or they will take their offering plate money elsewhere. This is more likely to happen among evangelicals, who have a long tradition of anti-institutionalism, than “mainllne” Protestants. The Southern Baptist Convention, for example, sees itself as a kind of confederation of independent churches rather than as a single hierarchichal organization.

Finally we get to Jennifer Rubin, who writes that Trump idolatry has undermined religious faith. Worth a look. Trump really is the Golden Calf.

Getting back to the projection that Christians will be a minority of Americans by 2050 — for a long time I’ve heard that Europe is “post Christian.” This doesn’t mean there still isn’t a lot of Christianity in Europe, but it’s no longer the default. For some time, a growing majority of younger Europeans are “nones” — no religious affiliation. This is especially true in western Europe. The “nones” are not necessarily atheist. They just don’t consider themselves to be Christians or part of any other religious tradition. This is happening in the U.S. also, although the U.S. is a tad behind Europe. This phenomenon is not happening in places dominated by other religions, however in particular Islam and Hinduism. Globally, Christianity is expected to experience a greater net loss in the coming years than other religions.

Between 2015 and 2020, Christians are projected to experience the largest losses due to switching. Globally, about 5 million people are expected to become Christians in this five-year period, while 13 million are expected to leave Christianity, with most of these departures joining the ranks of the religiously unaffiliated.

I could be wrong, but it’s possible that the influence of Christianity on culture and events peaked in the 19th and 20th centuries and is about to go into a decline. If so, it has only itself to blame.

14 thoughts on “Trump’s Evangelicals Are Killing Christianity

  1. In Jack London’s The Iron Heel, published in 1908, he writes quite a bit in his novel about how religion is co-opted by the powers that be. This may have shocked his readers, but we all have experienced it since Reagan’s conservative revolution, and the sickening toll it’s taken on the Christian church. Of course young people are abandoning the church if they think this is what Jesus is about, and good riddance.

    During socialism’s heyday in America (the Great Depression), socialists like Eugene Debbs and Dorothy Day had the guts to take seriously Jesus’ commandments to care for others, in direct contradiction to the spiritual pathology of more recent years. The conservatives on the Supreme Court have their own legal version of this (“originalism”) which is almost as stupid.

    Christianity will pass through this, but only after it’s been purified of the right-wing dross who think they have a lock on God.

    Personally, I am looking forward to a rebirth of Christianity, along the lines of recognizing contributions from Eastern religions, such as knowing God directly through meditation. The world is getting smaller, and eventually limited, archaic interpretations of spiritual truth will be seen as outdated as expressions like “the slow boat to China” when anyone can fly there in a day.

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    • The rebirth of Christianity is a very tall order. Christianity was co-opted long before Reagan. My belief is that much of the political compromises with the teachings of Jesus took place way back when some gospels were promoted as canonical while others (Thomas, Philip, Mary for example) were marginalized. In this way the exegesis was made official.

      A genuine return to the teachings of Jesus is a hugely audacious and heretical act, and is happening not at the institutional level but at the margins with smaller groups and individual practitioners, thanks to folks like Cynthia Bourgeault and Richard Rohr among others. In that connection the mystical traditions of the East are providing fertile perspective for the re-interpretation of scripture.

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  2. As Muslim countries and India become wealthier, and the worldly life of the average citizen becomes more comfortable, watch Islam and Hinduism decline as well. 

    The sexual codes, for example.

    The old sexual code in the USA can be thought of as a three-legged stool.

    One leg, and only one leg, was the fear of social (including legal) and spiritual consequences.

    The second leg was the fear of unwanted parenthood.

    The third leg was the fear of STDs.

    Then, those naughty scientists (making trouble again, just like that scamp Darwin) invented The Pill, and cured syphilis and gonorrhea, while herpes and AIDS hadn't shown up yet.

    What happens to a three-legged stool after you knock two legs out from under it?

    TIMMM-BERRRRRRRR!  cheeky

  3. A possible reason that Catholic’s numbers don’t seem to drop from something I read recently:If you've been baptized in a Catholic church, as I was, the church counts you as a member for life even if you stop attending. The only way to have this reversed is to formally defect, notifying the bishop of your local diocese that you've left the church.

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    • Tony – the methodology behind the statistics isn't defined in the article but the fact that they track "no affiliation" suggests the polling isn't done by asking the churches. I suspect they did random sampling polling far away from any church. 

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  4. I just call the right wing evangelicals fake Christians or faux Christian. Sometimes I just cut to the chase and call them haters. I don’t see how it is possible to be a Christian and a hater

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  5. If you're a real Christian, how is is it you can see The Prince of Peace portrayed as armed for battle like Rambo, and not protest to the best of your abilities?

    Also too:  I love reading the criticisms of Christianity being politicized by the very punTWITS who helped politicize it in the first place.  I'm lookin' at you, Gerson and Wehner!

    Oy!

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  6. I recall the "golden (toilet bowl) years of televangelism well, and stories of how my bosses' parents had squandered their parent's tiny nest eggs on donations to these charlatans.  I think we have gotten a bit on the progressive side on that problem at least.

    I do not cry Tammy Fey tears about that victory.

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  7. I don’t use “Fox Christian” for two reasons first its funny and I’m totally serious. Second, the hatred was taking over long before the FNC was founded

  8. Christianity was a cult for 300 years. It started to become mainstream in Rome with Emperor Constantine in the 4th century and non-christian religions were banned in 381. This was the melding of the Christian cult (turned religion) and political figures set Christian doctrine (Council of Niceaea.) 

    The point being – the teachings of Jesus were hijacked for political purposes 1900 years ago. Theologians have tried to return to the original philosophy of pacifism and love for all mankind. (There is a "Jefferson Bible" which is a subjet of the New Testament including  the words of Christ from the four Gospels and excluding what might have been political rewriting of Christ's philosophy.)  So religious AND political leaders have tried to un-corrupt the church. They will again after this chapter of bigotry and hate "justified" by the clergy fails. 

    It should be pointed out that other religions from Judaism to Islam are also politicized periodically. It's not a failing of the religion – it's a tactic of ambitious demagogues. 

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  9. https://www.dailykos.com/stories/2021/12/6/2067897/-The-Trump-Cult-Has-Much-Higher-COVID-Death-Rates-and-FOX-News-Isn-t-Telling-Them?detail=emaildkboy

        Trump's Cult is Dying from COVID in Much Greater Numbers, but FOX News Won't Tell Them

          Martin Luther, both quoted sections below; my emphasis.

      "They are much too rash and reckless, tempting God and disregarding everything which might counteract death and the plague. They distain the use of medicines; they do not avoid places and persons infected by the plague, but lightheartedly make sport of it and wish to prove how independent they are. They say that it is God’s punishment; if he wants to protect them he can do so without medicines or our carefulness. This is not trusting God but tempting him. God has created medicines and provided us with intelligence to guard and take good care of the body so that we can live in good health."

        Luther went on to warn that those who "make no use of intelligence or medicine…become a suicide in God’s eyes." Then he leveled the most serious charge against the "rash and reckless" trying to "prove how independent they are," saying that…

      "It is even more shameful for a person to pay no heed to his own body and to fail to protect it against the plague the best he is able, and then to infect and poison others who might have remained alive if he had taken care of his body as he should have. He is thus responsible before God for his neighbor’s death and is a murderer many times over."
     

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