We’ve been talking lately about the various ways that Christianity rose to power as the dominant Western religion in the 2nd to 5th centuries. But the fun couldn’t last, and now that power is declining sharply with every passing year. As Christians began losing the power to force people to comply with their demands, they also became increasingly desperate to regain that power.
Christianity was never a monolithic belief system, but at least it had a central authority for a while there to at least try to keep everyone in line (for better or worse!). That ended with the Reformation. Today we have some tens of thousands of Protestant denominations, various Orthodox churches, millions of breakaway Catholics in independent groups that consider themselves Catholic even though they’re not formally affiliated with (or even recognized by) Roman Catholicism, and an impossibly large number of quirky individual takes on the religion held by Christians who might or might not even be part of a formal church. There are even Christian atheists out there, and I once knew a Christian sorceress (no, I have no idea what that entailed).
As much as Christians might individually or collectively have some idea in their heads of what they think a proper TRUE CHRISTIAN™ looks like (and this picture will usually look much like themselves), the truth is that there is no way whatsoever that any of them can convince any of the others that they are right and all the other doctrines and practices are wrong. Without a central authority to try to rein everyone in and no possible way to check any of the religion’s claims against reality, Christians can and do constantly create new interpretations of their source material. And do they ever! Believers are only splintering further and further apart as time passes.
Even without the other big problem facing Christianity, this splintering alone would be a disaster for Christian leaders. They’re playing a zero-sum game, after all, since there are only so many Christians to go around. All of these groups represent slices of a finite pie in terms of their power and influence, and every new group makes all the other slices of the pie smaller. Thus, it becomes harder and harder for any one group to stand out, and existing groups inevitably shrink with each new group’s creation.
The other problem is that the pie itself is shrinking dramatically. As we’ve discussed many times, studies routinely reveal that Christianity is losing members like you wouldn’t even believe. Churches are closing all over the place. For various reasons, Christians are drifting away from their onetime churches and not rejoining any others. Sometimes they’re just disengaging from the religion by ceasing the practice of devotions (prayer, church attendance, proselytizing), and sometimes they’re deconverting entirely. They take with them the money, time, resources, and manpower they once gave their churches, and there appears to be nothing at all that their onetime leaders can do to stop them.
The problem now is that Christian leaders and media-makers have so polarized their followers that they’ve chased off just about everyone who’s decent, loving, fair-minded, and charity-oriented. All they’re increasingly left with is a core of fanatically angry and under- or mis-informed racist, sexist, classist bigots. Fundagelicals were at one point very fond of pointing to the Pew survey’s findings that less-extremist denominations were losing way more members than theirs were. What they didn’t realize was that they were losing fewer members, comparatively speaking, because they’re fueled more by rage, exclusion, and fear than those other groups are. They’re not above using pandering, race-baiting, fearmongering, and outright threats (both metaphysical and physical) to retain power over their members and to gain new ones who respond to that kind of behavior. Further, many people from those less-extremist denominations are drifting into fundagelical denominations as their own former groups start embracing doctrines like LGBTQ inclusion–forcing more-hateful members to leave for more ideologically-nastier pastures.
And despite it all, even with the shift of Christianity toward a more fanatical, extremist, polarized base of believers, they’re still losing hundreds of churches a year and thousands of believers a day. The social cost of leaving is dropping further with every member lost.
Christian leaders are spinning these devastating losses in every which direction. Some sniff disdainfully that they’re happy to see these members leave because they weren’t TRUE CHRISTIANS™ (like themselves). Others lament that the Western world is entering a “post-Christian” phase and start preparing for their impending martyrdom.
Others still are fighting these losses as hard as they possibly can.
Here are some of the ways I’ve seen them trying to turn the tide to regain their dominance.
First and foremost, Christian leaders want to keep the members they already have. One way to do that is to force those members to sign a covenant.
Covenants are a formal, signed agreement that give church leaders unilateral power over their followers’ personal lives, as well as a (perceived) protection against lawsuits. Church leaders use covenants because they know that without some way to force adherents to do anything, Christians, well, won’t. They’ve demonstrated that point time and again!
Church leaders didn’t need covenants until recently because back in the Good Ole Days they hold so dear, they had a lot more power over congregants’ lives. Today, in communities that are excessively burdened by fundagelical overreach, church leaders can still live outrageously hypocritical lives and make life rough for wayward sheep (here’s one account of a town full of Mormons retaliating against a newspaper for investigating the Mormon Church’s cover-up of a local child-raping Scoutmaster), but it’s nowhere near as easy as it used to be for Christians to destroy someone’s life or cover up a minister’s crimes. Public humiliation and ostracism are still very painful for the Christians put through these ordeals, but for many folks it’s easier to just walk away than it has ever been–and we’re seeing waves of abusive ministers getting caught and losing power.
Christian leaders are keenly aware of how quickly they are losing their hold on what was once a surefire source of money and power. They need these covenants much more than their flocks could ever guess, and if they have any sense at all then they are, as we speak, hoping against all hope that those flocks never perceive what all those covenants are actually meant to accomplish, nor who they are truly meant to benefit.
Besides covenants, toxic Christians have become increasingly savage to any members who leave their ranks. For many Christians nowadays, hearing about someone who’s left their faith might wring from them a little sympathy and maybe some gentle questions, but more and more often the response is generally and surprisingly supportive. Hell, when I left Christianity barely anybody said a word to me about it aside from my then-husband! But lately especially, many Christians see deconversion as a defection and a personal attack–and one that must be countered by as much force as can be brought to bear. Parents disown children, spouses instantly dump ex-Christian mates, employers fire apostate employees, religious colleges toss on their ear students who publicly dissent from their ideology, and entire towns might ostracize and shun someone who has rejected their religion. Worst of all, these Christians’ leaders often recommend and urge their flocks to treat ex-Christians this way.
It is downright dismaying–but not surprising at all–to see how retaliatory and cruel the ambassadors of the Prince of Peace and Lord of Love get when they are defied. To get their critics to shut up and at least pretend to be in compliance again, they will go to any lengths at all, even making threats of violence, committing vandalism (aka “evandalism”!), and administering shocking beatings to children, to get their way.
Force of Law.
The second method is more insidious: attempts to regain their former dominance by trying to enshrine religious privilege into law by any means possible.
You’d think toxic Christians would understand how valuable it is to have a secular democracy that doesn’t take sides in any religious squabbles, but they’re totally convinced that a theocracy based around their own religious worldview would be totally awesome and not go wrong even a little. Indeed, when you hear someone whining that they want to “take their country back,” you are almost always hearing a fundagelical who is outraged at the rise of secularism and all the progressive values that go along with it. They want a return to what they imagine (mistakenly) are “the good ole days,” but they’ve conveniently forgotten all the terrible things that came along with their domination: the cruel misogyny, the blatant racism, the lack of personal rights and inability to make free choices about much of anything, and a culture that glorified ignorance, paternalism, and groupthink.
They’ve got a number of methods that they think will get them back their power. The main tactic is a disingenuous, wide-eyed pursuit of what they have euphemistically called “religious liberty” that is in reality a naked grab for power and a baldfaced demand that their particular flavor of Christianity be given public funds, special perks, and coercive power over society. (In the United Kingdom, Christian leaders are demanding the same things and for the same reasons.) Others seek to pervert freedom of speech by demanding the passage of anti-blasphemy laws when their overinflated egos are pricked by much-deserved mockery and scorn.
Christians seeking to reestablish power are also trying to worm their way into public, taxpayer-funded schools to gain access to vulnerable children without their parents’ permission or consent. They do this by establishing religious groups in schools and then pressure children into joining, or else holding religious observances during the school day that children will feel compelled to participate in. The second is to introduce Christian indoctrination to students in classes, especially science classes (since the scientific method, in particular how it has revealed evolutionary processes to us, is considered by them to be antithetical to a literalist reading of the Bible) and health classes (with a science-free and shame-filled ineffective mess called abstinence-only education). The Christians responsible for these abuses of trust are well aware of how absolutely critical it is to get to kids as early as possible, so they can get downright creative when it comes to gaining access to children.
Yes, it’s all quite predatory and breathtakingly hypocritical, but when the ends are allowed to justify any means, then this is the sort of abuse we see as a result.
And they’re still losing people like whoa and driving tons of people away from their cause. It’s almost like everything they do to try to gain members just backfires and makes the situation worse.
The Sky is Falling!
All that said, it’s not always easy to tell what in hell is going on with this religion–denominations often fudge numbers one way or the other, and nobody’s forcing them to give accurate information to anybody. So we have to go by often-biased studies and surveys, read between the lines of their leaders’ writing, and finally gauge what we’re reading by what we see going on around us.
On the heels of that Pew report last year I was mentioning earlier, Barna released one a few months ago that paints a similarly dismal picture of the religion, though they go to ridiculous lengths to put a good face on it (and one can hardly blame them; they make their living selling their research to churches, so obviously they need to make sure those churches want to buy their product). Now that I think about it, though, I haven’t seen a single survey or study released in the last few years that said anything optimistic. Like Barna, most Christian researchers have to move goalposts to a ridiculous extent just to come out with a picture of a semi-religious America that they have half a chance in Hell of winning back to their odious banner.
For his part, LifeWay’s leader, Thom Rainer, thinks that one in three American churches, which he says is some 100,000 groups, will be dead within the next few years if they don’t make needed changes soon. (His idea of what has to be changed: “do more of what we told y’all to do, except more of it and harder” — where have we heard that before?) Granted, fundagelicals like to exaggerate these kinds of warnings to get their flocks’ attention and you’ll be holding your breath a very long time if you are waiting for him to reveal why he named that number in particular or how he’s defining “dead,” but still, when a major leader of one of the country’s biggest denominations is predicting the sky falling with that kind of grim certainty, that’s something to take into account!
The more I hear, the more astonished I am with just how fast and how dramatically it’s all happening. It’s like a huge sinkhole opened up right under the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting of their fast-shrinking Ignorant Tightass Club. We live in interesting times, friends, and I can’t wait to see what next year brings after this super-sucky one is finally done. I’ve had enough of 2016, how ’bout y’all?