They like to blame their decline on media bias or a hostile culture that hates them for no reason at all. But sometimes, they let slip that they're aware of the real reasons.
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Organized religion is dwindling and dying in America. The trend lines are impossible to mistake, and they’re becoming clearer with every passing year. This has given rise to one of my favorite genres: religious apologists belatedly noticing this trend and puzzling over what to do about it. (For example.)
I want to discuss another example from March 2022: “The fatal fall of religion in America will affect everything“, by Don Feder in the Washington Times. For the most part, it’s a standard presentation of Christian tropes—but it contains one amazing admission. Let’s look:
Generation Z (born 1997 to 2012) is the least religious in our history, with 34% reporting that they aren’t affiliated with a church, synagogue or another religious body. That’s nine points higher than for Generation X and five points higher than millennials.
…Not only is religious affiliation declining, but atheism and agnosticism are growing — 18% for Gen Z, the highest in our history, compared to 4% for the Silent Generation, which apparently did not find Nietzsche in the foxholes.
These figures are correct, as I wrote about in “The Least Christian Generation in American History“. I give him a point for accurately describing the problem, rather than pushing it away like some apologists who insist that the young are just having a Rumspringa and will come back to the church as they age. All the available evidence shows the opposite: not only are younger generations not returning to the fold, they’re getting less religious as they get older.
What could be causing this? Feder takes it upon himself to speculate:
…it’s hard not to see a connection between the growth of secularism and a culture dedicated to debunking traditional religion. In a 2021 Gallup survey, only 37% said they had a great deal (or quite a lot) of confidence in organized religion. That’s a dramatic fall from 2001, when 60% said they had a lot of confidence in religious institutions.
Such trends do not happen in a vacuum. Undoubtedly, clerical sexual abuse had an impact, but minimal compared to the culture’s relentless attacks on religion and people of faith.
I love the protestations of injured innocence. If you go by Feder’s language, you’d have to imagine churches sitting around, peacefully minding their own business, offending nobody, when suddenly they were attacked by a rampaging horde of secularists.
Mistaking opposition for persecution
The glaringly obvious reality is that conservative Christians have been attempting to push their own beliefs on everyone else for decades. Covering up for clerical predators is one part of why they lost the public trust (and it wasn’t just the Roman Catholic church that did this), but their aggressively partisan political agenda is another.
They’ve fought to outlaw abortion, to limit birth control, to teach ineffective “abstinence-only” sex ed. They’ve been trying to restore patriarchal law and return women to subordinate status.
They waged a massive battle to legalize discrimination against gay and lesbian people. They fought tooth and nail to prevent same-sex marriage from becoming law. When they lost, scarcely chastened, they simply shifted the focus of their bigotry to transgender people.
They lobbied to teach creationism as science in public schools. When that failed, they tried again by rebranding it as “intelligent design”.
They’ve tried to install hulking Ten Commandments monuments, garish crosses and other emblems of Christian supremacy in schools, in courthouses and on public lands. They’ve demanded tax breaks and other special privileges that aren’t available to secular non-profits, while flouting the minimal rules they’re supposed to follow in exchange.
Christian churches have tried to make their beliefs the law of the land and force everyone else to obey. What they’re suffering is a backlash to that political program, plain and simple. Their arrogance is such that, when they face opposition to the sectarian beliefs they’re trying to impose on others, they cry persecution and act as if they’re being targeted for no reason.
Feder overlooks all of this. Instead, he dusts off a time-tested apologist trope: it’s all Hollywood’s fault!
Where are our era’s great religious movies, like “The Song of Bernadette” and “The Ten Commandments”?
This is an amazing hypothesis. Feder claims that religious affiliation is plummeting because Hollywood doesn’t make enough pro-religion movies. Apparently, religious belief is so weak that it will slip away if it’s not being constantly reinforced with cinematic propaganda. (What about Mel Gibson’s Jesus torture-fest?)
Why is it Hollywood’s responsibility to prop up Christianity? Can’t the churches get their own message out? Are they so impotent and helpless that they depend on life support from secular movie studios?
The next part is where this gets interesting. More than anything, I’m fascinated by apologists’ descriptions of how they think the wider culture views them. This creates a paradox for them, because they know perfectly well that they’re not viewed warmly, but they can’t accept the real reasons. Instead, they have to caricature nonbelievers as villains who hate truth, beauty and goodness and just want to sin to their heart’s content.
However, sometimes a glimmering of awareness leaks through. Like this:
Unless it’s the religion of the left (renewable energy cultism, God-made-me-transgendered and perpetual penance for the sin of being born white and male), Hollywood portrays the religious as superstitious bumpkins or hate-filled fanatics.
…Instead of faith in the hereafter, we look to the omnipotent state to solve all of our problems, between elections.
The more religious you are, the more likely to vote Republican. Since you have a father in heaven, you don’t need one in Washington.
With these remarks, Feder shows he’s got his face scrunched up against the elephant in the room. Although he takes pains to describe them in the most derogatory terms possible, he’s identified the issues that younger generations care about, and that white conservative Christians disdain or actively resist.
Younger generations do believe in protecting the environment, phasing out fossil fuels for renewable energy, and fighting the massive crisis of climate change.
Younger generations do believe that we should love who we want, marry who we want, express our genders and our sexualities however we want.
Younger generations do believe that we should overthrow white supremacy, end racism, and build a society of equality for all.
Younger generations do believe in debt forgiveness, living wages, affordable education and housing and medical care, and a social safety net so that no one has to live in poverty. They believe we should take care of each other in this life, rather than live in misery while hoping for a better hereafter.
Feder seems to think it’s an underhanded tactic for the media to portray these causes in a positive light. He never stops to consider why they would do this. There’s one obvious explanation in a capitalist society: TV and movie studios, which depend on people tuning in to watch, recognize that these ideas are popular and therefore insert them into their products so as to appeal to the greatest possible number of viewers.
In these few lines, you can see why the churches are hemorrhaging members. They cling to their Fox News-ified grievances and culture-war strategies—but every cause that actually matters, they dismiss with sneers and scoffs. Republican politicians can cling to power through voter suppression, but those dirty tricks aren’t available to churches. They can’t gerrymander people into showing up for Sunday services.
This is an epiphany: right-wing Christians know exactly why they’re unpopular. They pretend they’re being attacked with no provocation, that the culture has turned against them for no reason at all. The real explanation is the simplest one imaginable: no one is buying what they’re selling. They’re losing the battle of ideas, and they know it. And sometimes—when they forget their face-saving talking points—they come close to admitting it.