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For years now, America has been teetering on the very edge of a downright breathtaking cultural shift: Christianity’s stunning decline in members, credibility, and cultural power. This astonishing development shows no signs of stopping any time soon, either. Recently, I saw a writer for Yahoo News describe that decline as ‘weird.’ But it’s not weird at all. It’s exactly what we should expect.

Let’s look at why Christianity is in decline, and why Christians can’t seem to get their act together at all in addressing it.

The first stirrings of decline

Back in the early 2010s, I began noticing that something was seriously very wrong in Christian groups. People—especially young adults—were leaving the religion in growing numbers. Evangelism efforts seemed less and less effective. I saw increasing pushback against Christian overreach of all kinds. Moreover, people offered that pushback in very public ways.

When I tried to engage Christian writers with my perceptions, though, they ignored me — or else they tried to silence me. Almost nobody in the Christ-o-sphere was willing to accept what was happening under their noses. Cold-Case Christianity was one of the few sites that noticed. Most, however, rejected the entire idea out of hand.

Then, Pew Research Center’s groundbreaking 2015 Religious Landscape Survey came out. It definitively slammed Christians with their new reality. It described and put numbers to the decline in a way nobody could deny.

So then, Christians dealt with their decline by misdiagnosing it, then flinging utterly ineffective, often completely self-serving and counterproductive strategies at it.

That’s where they still are now. Ten years after I began seeing the signs of decline and nearly seven years after finally understanding that a decline was indeed in full swing, Christian leaders haven’t moved one inch closer to understanding it or meaningfully addressing it.

And I can understand why.

Blaming the decline on the wrong forces

Even when someone isn’t dealing with motivated reasoning, it can be hard to see why Christianity is in decline. After all, it’s a big religion and there’s a lot going on right now.

In particular, this decline goes against every single one of Christianity’s official party lines about being on the winning team. Thus, very few of them can deal with it in any kind of rational way.

In particular, very few Christians can deal with the idea that their religion only achieved dominance through earthly and understandable means. One of their favorite myths involves this notion of super-explosive early growth. They think this growth could only have happened through divine help.

In reality, however, the fledgling religion grew only slowly and fitfully for a couple of centuries. It didn’t really start to grow till its leaders gained the power to force people to join and stick around.

Well, that time is coming to an end, is all.

Christianity’s decline continues

In a recent post I saw on Yahoo News, “The weird spiral of declining Christianity in America“, Joel Mathis describes the new Pew Research Center report that reveals that Christianity continues to face declines in membership and participation.

In this new study, Pew Research found that self-identified Christians now make up about 63% of the United States adult population—but in 2007, they made up 78% of it. During the same period, religiously-unaffiliated adults (atheists, agnostics, and Nones, meaning “none of the above”) rose from 16% of the population to 28% of it. And most of Christianity’s decline came from Protestant flavors of the religion; between 2007-2021, they went from 52% of the population to 40%.

At present, Christians outnumber the nonreligious by 2-to-1. In 2007, they outnumbered the nonreligious by 5-to-1.

Pew Research’s findings echo other surveys. PRRI (Public Religion Research Institute) found in July that white evangelicals went from their peak of 23% of the country in 2006 to about 14.5% now. Back in March, Gallup discovered that church members are now a minority in the United States, with only 47% of their respondents claiming membership in one.

The decline of Christianity might be slowing down a little bit, but it shows no sign of stopping any time soon.

That said, it’s not a “weird spiral” at all.

Trumpism and the decline of Christianity

In the case of the post we’re discussing (relink), Joel Mathis sees Christianity locked in a vicious cycle with Trumpism. Trumpism is the term for that brand of science-denying, violent, enraged, misogynistic, culture-warring, white nationalist, dangerously theocratic and authoritarian politics that Donald Trump embodied during his time as the President of the United States.

And here’s how Mathis sums up the situation:

The secularization of America is a long-term process and has many causes, and the percentage of Christians has been trending downward since Pew first surveyed the issue in 2007. Moreover, not everything in public life over the last decade has been about former President Donald Trump, even if it sometimes feels that way.

Still, Trumpism might be both the beneficiary and accelerant of Christianity’s loosening grip on the culture.

If Christianity’s decline feeds Trumpism, and if Trumpism feeds Christianity’s decline, then American churches might be locked in a nasty spiral, with the rest of the country along for the ride. God help us all.

Joel Mathis, December 14, 2021 (Source)

However, Trumpism isn’t the source of Christianity’s decline. Sure, it does exacerbate it. And it may well cause the rest of us a great deal of grief as Christianity continues to plunge into irrelevance.

That said, Trumpism is simply an outgrowth of the real cause of Christianity’s decline. The decline produced Trumpism, not the other way around.

In reality, Christianity’s decline began many decades ago — right after World War II. And it began because Christianity became just a little bit more optional for Americans.

This decline began with Christians’ loss of coercive power

When Christianity first got rolling as a legitimate religion in its own right, Christians utterly lacked any way to force others to play along with them. They didn’t gain that power for quite some time. Once they did, somewhere around the 4th century, they began using it to its fullest extent. They didn’t stop using it until greater powers forced them to stop.

But those greater powers didn’t even exist for many centuries. Until then, the top leaders of Christianity possessed top-dog levels of power. Even though they eventually lost the ability to torture, dispossess, imprison, and even execute dissenters, Christians could still make life extremely unpleasant for those who didn’t want to play along with their games.

Around World War II, though, Americans began to experience a new kind of freedom, one that had been guaranteed by their government long before it became reality: freedom of religion. Christians noticed this sea change of a shift almost immediately; a 1946 book, As We Were, contains nonstop, hand-wringing complaints about this new and — to Christians — deeply-unsettling cultural development.

It’s no accident that evangelical leaders like Billy Graham got involved around this time in conservative politicians’ efforts to tie patriotism and human decency to participation in Christianity — and to paint non-participation as evil and treacherous.

Though they had many methods, Christian leaders used moral panics as their tool of choice: the Red Scare, lavender scares, straw feminism, and more.

On the ground, Christian communities exerted coercion in other ways. They still do when they can, though they could muster way more abuse back then.

Things are way different now

By the mid-1990s, when I deconverted from Christianity, Christian communities had lost most of their coercive power.

Even though I belonged to a military community in Texas, I was able to walk away from the religion with no real social consequences. I could tell people “I’m not religious” and decline church invitations without fearing that furious Christians might destroy my property or get me fired from my job. Such fears didn’t even occur to me at the time. In fact, it blew my mind years later to discover that anybody still faced such retaliation.

(For that matter, it also hadn’t occurred to me that my fundamentalist husband would be so upset by my deconversion that we’d eventually break up over it. I was a sweet summer child in so many ways!)

Not everyone in every location can leave Christianity so easily even nowadays, but that anyone could do so anywhere in 1990s America speaks to the already-fragmenting cultural power of Christians as a dominant group.

That power has only continued to fragment and dissolve.

Christianity has never been a top seller by itself

Here’s the second piece of the coercion puzzle: For many years, nobody had to sell Christianity to Americans. It was obligatory.

With the religion’s increasingly optional nature, though, the need for salesmanship skills in recruitment has soared. However, Christians have no clue in the world how to handle that new normal.

Evangelism — which at its base is simply a sales and recruitment process — still relies on threats, emotional manipulation, and various fallacious appeals. What aspiring evangelists can’t do is offer a product consumers want at prices they want to pay.

(The product, of course, is not belief in anything particular. It’s active membership in the salesperson’s own group.)

For a great many (and still-growing number) of people, including churchless believers, Christian groups just don’t offer anything they need. In growing numbers of areas, secular groups can fulfill whatever needs people have at a way better price than Christian groups demand — and often without the cesspool of gossip and backbiting that churches often contain.

The result: it’s safer and easier than ever to leave Christian groups, and it’s less and less appealing to join one. And even Christians themselves don’t feel compelled to play along with their own groups.

And now, the actual spiral—though it’s not weird

Christians now find themselves on the other end of the pendulum with regard to their growth. They now face a religious marketplace wherein their product stands without artificial supports before a cultural audience that is not compelled to purchase and keep purchasing anything.

It’s now obvious that no gods were involved in their rise to dominance, just as no gods seem interested in changing their loss of dominance.

However, Christian leaders still can’t even come to grips with why their religion is in decline in the first place. I’ve yet to see any big names admit that their product has never appealed to many people on its own merits. They still think that if they just drill down harder on exactly what’s already making people leave their groups, then Jesus will totally hand them back their cultural dominance.

In a word (or two), LOL OK.

The worst part, for Team Humanity at least

However, a number of those big-name leaders with the Christian Right seem to grasp — at least tacitly and privately — that their religion requires coercive power to survive. Though their cultural dominance is fading quickly, these groups have redoubled their efforts to gain more political power.

Even if right-wing Christians’ unseemly displays of power-lust and overreach alienate even more people from their product, it won’t matter to them or their group leaders. They’ll have exactly what they want anyway. For all their evangelistic fervor, they value compliance way more than actual buy-in.

This is why we must learn to recognize—and then reject—Christians’ attempts to gain dominance through moral panics and retaliatory abuse. We’ve already seen what happens when Christians gain coercive power over others: they use it.

We don’t need another repeat of that dog-and-pony show. It lasted way too long the first time!

ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...