Is the Religious Right fading? Reporters need to pay attention
(COMMENTARY) How often have we been informed that the religious left is about to revive with new power, or that the Religious Right will fade?
That sort of political punditry occurs alongside periodic warnings — or hopes, among politicos and many journalists — that America’s sprawling network of evangelical Protestant congregations and agencies is destined for big decline.
If this is true, journalists should spring into action immediately.
Evangelicalism was often the most dynamic force in U.S. religion over recent decades, with impact worldwide, and generally managed to resist the serious slide that afflicted the evangelicals’ more liberal “Mainline” Protestant rivals beginning in the mid-1960s. (This article will bypass changes among Roman Catholicism, historically black Protestant denominations, and other religious sectors.)
A notable example of negativism was “My Prediction: The Coming Evangelical Collapse,” posted a decade ago by the late Michael Spencer, a popular blogger and self-described “post-evangelical Christian.” He predicted “a major collapse of evangelical Christianity” within 10 years, which means just about now, that would “fundamentally alter” the culture of the West.
Further, Spencer prophesied that within two generations this Bible-based empire would shrink to half its present scope, with scads of dropouts, sagging budgets, shuttered doors, and ruined careers, and “nothing” would restore former glory. Etc. Read it all for yourself.
Some of this has in fact occurred, though not (yet) so dramatically, as reporters easily see in statistics of the largest evangelical denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention. Evangelicalism’s health is relatively stable despite cultural pressures. This brings to mind Mark Twain’s jest that “the reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”
But then last week — media pay close attention — pessimism was suddenly proclaimed by one of the most important voices in the evangelical establishment, Mark Galli, editor in chief of Christianity Today magazine.
The Mainstream Media typically cover the political impact of religious groups and have limited interest in religious aspects of religion. I’m thinking of the pastoral care, worship, spiritual moorings, moral guidance, warmth of fellowship, youth work, community outreach and charitable activities that engage most congregations most of the time.
Thus, it’s important to understand what these two analysts observed. Spencer, predictably, worried about the identification of many evangelicals with the “culture wars” (a frequently abused term) and political conservatism. But more than that he saw a failure to pass along basic belief to young people that would create a “monumentally ignorant” future, combined with superficiality, as with “consumer driven” megachurches, with the movement incapable of withstanding “the rising tide of secularism.”
Galli, in the first of a projected series of articles, likewise decries weak roots.
Yes, President Donald Trump’s election — with enthusiastic and reluctant evangelical support — spells future trouble, he thinks. But there are more basic woes in worship, marriage and family, evangelism, pastoral care and discipleship, meaning “we truly are in a moment of crisis in American evangelicalism.” To him, the root of the problem is spiritual. Amid all the busyness, “we have forgotten God.” This and future Galli pieces deserve careful analysis.
In many ways this harks back to what was arguably the most significant book about evangelicalism of the generation past, “The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind” (Eerdmans, 1994) by historian Mark Noll, then at Wheaton College. Noll thought the evangelical movement invested its treasure and time in spectacles and unimportant diversions rather than enriching the basic substance of the Christian faith in order to equip believers for long-term spiritual strength.
So, religion writers, does Galli’s plea tell us it’s time to take a broad look at the present and future of this huge, complex movement?
Now, a brief turn to a related subject connecting religion and politics.
Previously, I have pointed out personalities who united in a fruitless last-minute appeal to the U.S. House not to pass the Equality Act. That bill, which would scuttle religious-liberty claims on gay and transgender issues, is likely to become law if Democrats win the White House and U.S. Senate next year.
The list includes many big-steeple pastors and seven familiar veterans on the right: James Dobson of the Dobson Family Institute, Franklin Graham of the Billy Graham association, Presiding Bishop Harry Jackson of the International Communion of Evangelical Churches, Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, Ralph Reed of the Faith & Freedom Coalition, James Robison of LIFE Outreach International, and Tim Wildmon of the American Family Association.
Reporters should be watching three other signers more intently: Former Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann now works for Well Versed, which conveys “biblical principles” to government officials internationally. Eric Metaxas is a radio talk-show host and author. And Everett Piper is the longtime president of Oklahoma Wesleyan University, affiliated with the theologically conservative Wesleyan Church.