The other day I realized that I’ve seen a lot of surveys and studies done about Christianity’s decline in the last five years–and not a single one of those studies paints any kind of rosy picture for Christians. Not one! For all their bellowing about how well they’re doing in China, Africa, and places like that, or all their smug blathering about how totally happy they are to be losing all those fake Christians they were okay with before this great falling away began, Christians are losing people fast, and along with members they’re losing shocking amounts of credibility and influence. Some of them have finally begun to accept that their various groups are in a serious slump–years after anyone with half a clue could have told them they were. But they’re still not ready to engage with why the slump is happening, much less to start working out what they should be doing about it. Here’s what they think is going on–and what is actually going on.
Seriously: Christians have become the Christmas gift to humanity that just keeps on giving!
A Plea, Answered, Sort Of.
Last month Ross Douthat asked Alan Jacobs, who he considers one of the religion’s more clear-minded prophets, where young people in evangelicalism were going with the religion. In particular, he was wondering what trends were coming fundagelicals’ way with the next generation. Mr. Jacobs’ response was swift–and quotable:
As far as I can tell, where young evangelicals are headed is simply out of evangelicalism.
And that response marks exactly where fundagelical leaders’ heads are generally, especially because his very next sentence highlights that singular lack of situational awareness that really marks the religion’s leaders:
They have been, as Jared C. Wilson recently wrote, theologically and spiritually orphaned by pastors and other Christian leaders who were willing to entertain them and occasionally to hector them but who had no interest whatsoever in Christian discipleship.
To craft that answer, Mr. Jacobs draws upon another fundagelical leader’s work to create a narrative about how young people feel bereft of moral guidance from their elders, so you know this is a very common explanation for fundagelicals to reach for in answering why this terrible falling away is happening (that’s Christianese for tons of people leaving the religion or rejecting it–a lot of Christians literally see this falling away as a big part of the beginning of the end of the world, too, and even think the Bible totally predicted it). They’re putting their money on their leaders not being committed enough, not being Jesus-y enough, not being good enough to inspire their followers to want to live out a lifelong fervent faith in Christianity.
Yes, because if I could say one thing for sure about why young people are leaving Christianity in droves, particularly fundagelicalism, it’d be because their leaders just aren’t Jesus-ing hard enough at them. Yep, obviously The Big Problem Here is a lack of discipleship (that’s Christianese for that relationship between a teacher/mentor and their student/disciple; if it sounds creepy, well, there’s probably a good reason for that). He goes on to declare that evangelicalism itself is one of those “corpses [that] can’t be revived” and that Christianity will need to create a new movement, since all those sillybunnies have totally messed this one up.
Except that no, discipleship has nothing whatsoever to do with why young people are leaving his religion.
More Blahblah, Straight from the Blahblah Tree.
To be sure, we can find plenty of competing narratives from Christians trying to explain away why their religion is failing so hard.
One fundagelical thinks that Roy Moore got denied a Senate seat because the people in Alabama liked them some porn too much. Considering that Christianity is still the biggest religion in that state, and that his fellow fundagelicals voted for Roy Moore by a huge, wide, absolutely undeniable margin, it’s not hard to figure out who he’s really accusing here and how he sees this election loss fitting into his tribe’s loss of dominance.
Andrew Walker, a leader in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), blames the falling away on the current SBC bugbear of fake Christians. We’ve talked many times about just how hilariously bad this idea is, but just a couple of months ago he was quoted in the Christian Science Monitor as he drilled down on the idea that young people’s Big Problem Here is that they’re just not hardcore enough:
They grew up in a nominal Christian culture, where it’s no longer of a cultural or social benefit to identify as a Christian. . . To add to that is, there’s often not only no social prestige to gain, there’s also social prestige to lose, if you say you are a Christian in our society.
Of course, the real problem doesn’t look even remotely like that, and if he thinks his tribe is losing power and influence (and millions of members) because they’re simply stating matter-of-factly that they are in fact Christians, then he’s even more willfully ignorant than the average Southern Baptist (of any rank).
Meanwhile, the SBC’s president, Steve Gaines, told his adoring flocks last summer that they needed to “be evangelistic” and that’d totally reverse their many-years-long “baptism drought.” That’s another of the SBC’s big party lines about how to reverse both Christianity’s falling away and their own “baptism drought,” and we’ve skewered that notion more than a few times here as well. Yes, because you just know that what Christians need to sell their product more effectively is a doubling-down on the tactics that already don’t work, right?
Ross Douthat himself recently spent a column wringing his little handsies about the possibility of there being “an Evangelical Crisis,” and he barely brushes up against the idea that maybe–just maybe–the whole movement is nothing but “white Christian tribalism and a very American sort of heresy” before turning away from it in a desperate hope that he’s “wrong.” Dude’s not fundagelical himself (anymore), but he’s probably come the closest to the truth of any of his ideological bunkmates before rushing away from it in terror.
Generally speaking, Ross Douthat’s far more likely to come down on women as the sources of all of Republican!Jesus’s problems. In his smug-git eyes, they’re the ones responsible for Donald Trump’s election because of all that BORSHUNING they keep doing, and they’re the ones to blame for America’s rapid evolution into a country where white people aren’t a majority anymore, what with all that casual-sex-having and non-marrying they insist on.
One of the most incisive examinations of fundagelicalism’s churn problem comes to us from Charles Mathewes, who I strongly suspect is also Catholic or something in that end of the pool at least. He wrote an editorial for the Washington Post last week that really puts paid to fundagelical ignorance, belligerence, and control-lust. In it, he reveals that scholars like himself understand why Americans are losing their allegiance to Christianity. He calls that understanding an “open secret in the sociology of religion for almost two decades.” (The 2002 paper he links to is quite the read if you’re as interested in the topic as I am–in it, some sociologists discover that Christians’ increasing focus on political power is what’s driving more and more people away from them.)
Mr. Mathewes sadly concludes that “Christians’ response to a misperceived crisis have become, in fact, a self-fulfilling prophecy.” And nothing’s changing anytime soon about that response. Next time, for our Christmas special, we’ll be talking about the weird emphasis this year on super-predatory Christmas services in churches, but for now I’ll just say this: Christians are their very own worst problem. They always have been. The only reason it didn’t cause them problems before was because they had a lot more cultural, legal, political, and interpersonal power than they do now.
I’ve come to think that this is probably the norm for cats in homes with Christmas trees.
The Clue Bat, Deployed.
Shall we hit these poor befuddled Christians with some much-needed knowledge?
The religion’s supernatural claims aren’t based in reality, and that lack of truth is exactly what leads so many people in the religion to be such terrible people. That’s why hypocrisy itself is a feature, not a bug in Christian groups.
And we’re rapidly getting over broken systems generally.
(Many) people are leaving because Christianity has been hijacked, increasingly, by fanatics who want to inject their religion into government to create a theocracy, to strip human beings of their rights, to silence dissenters and marginalize anyone they think is inferior to themselves, to force people to play along with their delusions and pretendy games, and to try to dictate the private lives of everyone they can.
And we’re getting sick of it.
And these “sins” are not even something that only the leaders of the religion are guilty of committing; their foulness seeps from the top all the way to the bottom.
Worse, people–like Mr. Jacobs, to be fair, generally at least, and Mr. Mathewes–who actually disagree with what’s going on can’t do a single thing about it.
There was a time–before things got really bad, I mean–when Christians stayed in the group despite that hypocrisy. Maybe they didn’t realize just how bad it got; maybe they felt their own groups were doing enough good that they could justify staying. More likely, however, they had family in the religion that they feared they’d alienate if they left, or they were afraid of what those Christians would do to them if they left or spoke out openly against the group.
The simple reality here is that Christians have finally gotten so purely malevolent as a group that generally speaking, members really can’t handle disagreement in the old ways. The tribe literally forces followers either to stay–with full agreement with what the tribe’s doing–or to take their dissent with them out the door (and get mocked and insulted by the tribe the whole way out). And once the tribe has offended someone, that person has options now besides the ones that the tribe wants people to have. People are no longer so isolated that they might (as I did for years) think that they’re the ones with the problem when they have serious doubts, and they can easily find other people who have fought those same doubts–as well as resolutions for those doubts that don’t look a thing like the Christian party line.
And once they do find a resolution for their doubts, one other major change in modern culture ensures that they can take whatever actions they want to take, rather than being constricted and constrained by Christian love.
The Power of Coercion, Lost.
Christians have always relied upon coercion to sell and keep recruits in the sheepfold–and they’ve done so since their religion’s very earliest days. Without coercion, there is literally nothing about Christianity itself that would naturally keep people in the pews.
From the most sanctimonious elementary-school teacher who thinks it’s okay to force children to pray every morning to wingnut parents who threaten to throw their perfectly normal kids into gulags for any show at all of individuality, from the TRUE CHRISTIANS™ terrorizing the women trying to visit Planned Parenthoods to the nattering hypocrites crowding around the President like they’re schoolchildren visiting a walrus in the zoo to push their fundagelical agendas at their crowned champion before their religion loses too much more influence, this religion is morally bankrupt and its most fervent members are clawing for as much power as they can seize before they fade so much that they just can’t grab for it anymore. This is truly the situation we should most fear in an abusive relationship: they’re at that point where they realize their power is fading, but they still have enough to strike out and do some real damage before their would-be victims can fully escape.
And it’s not like people haven’t seen for centuries–even millennia–what Christians are really like. Ever since Christianity was a thing at all, outsiders have noted how hypocritical and awful Christian groups are. But in the past, Christians had a great deal of power to retaliate against dissenters and coerce them to shut up and remain in the religion. That power kept those dissenters in place and silent. They were terrified of the Christian love they’d face if they said anything.
The big problem for Christians isn’t their leaders’ lack of discipleship. It’s not a lack of fervor in the salespeople. It’s definitely not porn, which existed aplenty long before Christians began losing power in America and Europe (seriously: LAWL).
The big problem for Christians is that they have finally lost much of that power they once had to coerce people to remain silent, much less to remain members of the religion. Their flocks don’t have the same retaliatory powers against those who leave. Their leaders no longer have the reach to punish those who push back against their overreach.
Really, the moment Christians lost that coercive power over others, the writing appeared on the wall as if by magic, coming into focus for anyone who could read.
Unfortunately, Christian leaders can’t acknowledge that writing–especially not fundagelical leaders. It flies against every single idea they teach their flocks and hold in idolatrous reverence. They can’t stop trying to grab for power. And their flocks have gotten so addicted to the rush of jollies they get from retaliatory abuse that they can’t stop doing it either.
The more Christians try to act like they still have their onetime power, the more they try to use those coercive measures and to deploy those retaliatory tactics against their tribal enemies, the more people they alienate.
And gang, young people know all this stuff. They perceive it quite clearly. That’s why they’re leaving. That’s why almost everyone is leaving.
In a way, it’s really beautiful, isn’t it though, to see humanity fighting free of such terribly toxic stuff to emerge blinking into the sun?
Alan Jacobs can’t pin his losses on just the leaders of the religion, alas! Those leaders aren’t (usually) out insulting atheists online or falsely flagging videos on YouTube, or crowding into school board meetings to try to get their pseudoscience trash taught to innocent children in science classes in public schools. That’s on the members, and there are many more members than there are leaders.
So we’re in no danger of fundagelicals reversing their losses anytime soon, is what I’m saying. Merry Christmas!
We’re going to talk more soon about risk perception, but I’ll just set this parcel down here for the moment: Christians can’t stop what’s happening because they lack, as a culture, as a movement, as a group, the ability to perceive the possibility of terrible things happening as a direct result of their current courses of action. When we talk about this topic, be thinking about that.
And ya know, one last thing: If I were a Christian, I’d sure be wondering why nothing they’re doing smacks of divine discernment or wisdom, that’s for sure!
Merry Christmas!!! We’ve got a Christmas special up next for our LSP on Monday, and then we’re plunging into some more fun sociology that I think illuminates more about what’s going on in the Christ-o-sphere. And on the heels of that, some really, really shocking-but-not-surprising-probably stuff about the anti-abortion culture war. We’re gonna hit the New Year at a dead sprint. See you soon!
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