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Not long ago, some readers linked me to a piece in Grid about Christianity’s decline in America. As well, a few new books have popped up on booksellers’ shelves about the topic. These insights join credible recent research about Christianity’s ongoing decline in America. None of it’s looking good for that old-time religion, so to speak, but it does highlight one ongoing theme observers have noted for years: Without Christians somehow regaining their powers of coercion, Christianity will inevitably become irrelevant in America.

The worst part of this situation, though, is this: A lot of the worst-of-the-worst Christians are well aware of that fact.

(H/t to the Fightin’ Hornets for their incredible linkage.)

Christianity’s decline began with a trickle of information

For years now, I’ve kept track of the incredible—and astonishingly swift—decline of Christianity’s cultural power, membership, and credibility in America. Since the mid-2000s, Christians have been in freefall on all three counts.

If someone had told me when I was Pentecostal, in the 1980s and 1990s, that this would one day happen, I’d have simply assumed this decline to be part of the Endtimes prophesied in the Bible. But if I’d heard such a prediction in the early 2000s, I’d have thought it was simply impossible.

Yet here we are.

When I began writing about religion in the early 2010s, I noticed a few signs of what was coming. Pastors were complaining more often about falling attendance on Sundays and blaming it on the strangest things: a lack of parking, the rise of youth sports leagues that played that day, etc. Youth pastors, in particular, were starting to talk about a sharp rise in the number of young Christians who were abandoning the faith as soon as they got free of their parents’ control.

As well, the few surveys and studies I could find on this subject all indicated that a sea change was coming for Christianity. None of this research offered Christian leaders any hope of surviving that change with their cultural power, membership numbers, or credibility intact.

Nowadays, we’re surrounded by this research. An unthinkable number of churches from every flavor of Christianity are closing each year. Once-powerful denominations are sliding more in membership and credibility with every passing year. No relief is in sight, no matter what Christian leaders propose to end their slump. Kids entering college this year might not even remember a time when Christianity wasn’t in decline.

Well, now we have a few more experts weighing in on that decline.

Pew Research recently modeled Christianity’s decline

In September 2022, Pew Research offered up a three-part model of Christianity’s potential future in America. For their model, they envisioned three different scenarios. These scenarios involved Americans’ rate of religious switching. For our purposes, that term means Christians changing their flavor of Christianity—or entering or leaving the religion itself.

If no more switching occurs by 2070, only about 54% of Americans would still consider themselves Christian. However, if switching continues to occur at the rate it does now, 46% of our population will profess Christianity. And if disaffiliation continues to rise, then 35-39% of Americans will be Christian. Here’s their graph:

Via Pew Research Center

These scenarios may still be a little optimistic. None of the declines charted match the steep, unparalleled decline noted prior to 2020. Still, they’ve got good reasons for modeling their numbers this way. For now, I’m content to bow to their almost-certain-to-be superior statistical understanding while also waiting with a sly smile to see if the real results bring about a revision to the model.

If there is one thing that Christianity’s decline has taught observers, it is that we should be careful about underestimating it. It is happening so much faster and more completely than anything we ever dared to dream might happen.

Where we are now, I once did not expect us to be until decades after my death.

Two recent books that each highlight different aspects of Christianity’s decline

Lately, two books on the topic of Christianity’s decline have hit booksellers’ shelves and sites. A large Catholic site, NCR Online, recently reviewed both of them.

Brian D. McLaren’s book, Do I Stay Christian? A Guide for the Doubters, the Disappointed, and the Disillusioned, came out in May 2022. It offers its audience two major sections. One devotes itself to answering “yes” to its titular question, the other “no.” The book has generally high ratings from readers on Amazon.

Its author used to be a major voice in evangelical leadership. But he began to break from lockstep around 2010 or 2011. He’s still Christian, but more emergent than evangelical these days.

(Emergent Christianity is a movement within more liberal, progressive Christian flavors. In its heyday in the mid-2010s, evangelicals seriously ranked it right up there next to Communism and Islam as threats to their dominance.)

Of interest to observers of Christianity’s decline are McLaren’s criticisms of how American Christianity has failed Christians and America alike. He criticizes Christian leaders for substituting strict orthodoxy and checklists of doctrinal beliefs over charity and compassion for others. This criticism is 100% on point, and it happens for a very good reason: it’s a lot easier to justify oneself that way when one doesn’t want to do all that boring stuff Jesus explicitly told his followers to do.

In addition, McLaren points out that all the horrific stuff that Christians have done over the centuries was stuff they could all easily justify in the exact same way that Christians justify their behavior today: with Bible verses galore, wordplay, and redefinitions of common words like “love” and “respect.”

Focusing on fixing the present to get to the future

Bob Smietana’s book, Reorganized Religion: The Reshaping of the American Church and Why It Matters, came out in August 2022. Smietana is a Pulitzer-prizewinning journalist who focuses on religious matters. He used to be the senior editor of Christianity Today. These days, his work can be reliably found at Religion News Service.

Instead of offering advice to doubting Christians, Smietana instead focuses on what McLaren calls “the failed project” of American Christianity. He tracks more recent developments in the religion, including the deep hypocrisy, scandals, and abuses of its biggest names, as well as the shocking failure of American Christians overall to even bother pretending that they take their Savior’s commands even a little seriously.

Smietana believes that Christians need to reject the lies their leaders have told them about the past, realign themselves with the truth about their religion’s flaws, and fix their most glaring issues. If they can’t, he warns, then they absolutely will not be able to attract new generations to their churches.

An interesting takeaway from these two books

It’s interesting that NCR Online’s takeaway from these two books revolves around the deep need for American Catholics to reinvent their communities and institute changes in how they do church, to borrow the evangelical Christianese:

What lies ahead is speculative, but it involves change both institutionally and personally. Any change, however, will rest on the foundation that proceeds from an honest assessment of what is. And that assessment is the most valuable contribution by McClaren and Smietana. The inconvenient truths won’t disappear because we ignore them.

Yes. Because as we all know, if there is one eternal truth about American Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular, is that its leaders and members alike are eager and willing to carefully examine themselves for errors, to fully own their mistakes, then to dismantle those mistakes, and finally to build a whole new group paradigm that looks ahead to the future.

Oh wait. Actually, the reverse is true.

In truth, Christians’ absolute unwillingness to do a single bit of that is exactly why nobody credible gives them a single chance in hell, if you’ll pardon the pun, of returning to their former dominance.

What Grid gets correct about Christianity’s decline: “Why now?”

Other countries that were once dominated by Christians began secularizing decades ago. What Americans are seeing now happened in those other countries in the 1990s or so. We’ve always lagged behind Europe and the UK by decades in these religious trends.

Another Christian writer, Stephen Bullivant, has tried to answer the question of why American Christianity has taken so long to hit its big decline. He’s a Catholic educator who’s just published his own book, Nonverts: The Making of Ex-Christian America, in December 2022.

(He also published Mass Exodus: Catholic Disaffiliation in Britain and America since Vatican II, in 2019. As you might guess from the subtitle, he is not a fan of those reforms at all. Like many Catholic hardliners, he may blame Catholicism’s steep declines in membership and credibility on them.)

In Nonverts, Bullivant points out that America may have lagged behind other secularizing countries because of how patriotism got indelibly linked with intense Christian faith. To be atheistic, to criticize Christians’ stranglehold on government and culture for any reason, was to implicitly declare oneself a traitor—and even the enemy of all that was good. In particular, Americans linked communism, which was their big enemy during the Cold War, to atheism.

This is correct. It fits in with all the reading I’ve done of Christians during this period of time.

What Grid completely misses about Christianity’s decline: How that link got established, why, and by whom

As each new generation got further and further away from the Cold War and its moral panics, Bullivant asserts, the less the people within it felt forced to adopt and display Christianity as a way of demonstrating their patriotism and social acceptability. Their culture provided more room not only to question Christianity, but to carve out a life entirely free of it.

The discussion in Grid makes this progress sound like it all happened accidentally, almost incidentally.

In truth, Christian leaders worked with conservative Republican politicians to engineer the Red Scare. They created this moral panic deliberately, and they did so with one goal in mind: to return power to themselves that had been steadily ebbing away for years.

Particularly after World War II, Christian leaders lamented their lack of power and authority over Americans. I own a book written around that time frequently referencing that complaint, As We Were: Family Life in America 1850-1900 (printed in 1946; author Bellamy Partridge, with copious images from Otto Bettmann, and yes, it’s the Bettmann Archives fellow).

As We Were captures the roots of the Red Scare. Its author was a rural lawyer who despised the trends of his time, but not enough to reject a lucrative offer from Hollywood to adapt his bestselling book Country Lawyer for film. Unfortunately, America’s entry into WWII stymied the project. Perhaps losing it gave him time enough to write a book lamenting Americans’ increasing distance from the gauzy religious sentimentality and intense nostalgia he peddled instead.

Clearly, many American Christians agreed with him.

One of the Christian leaders who came to prominence in those same days, Billy Graham, became a powerful voice for decades by asserting the imagined links between faith, American-style democracy, and patriotism. The high-level politicians he advised, like Dwight Eisenhower, came to “evoke faith as a weapon against communism, just as Graham had done.”

In this environment of hypercharged Christian nationalism, anything less than devoted faith became an implicit declaration of treason.

And quite a few Christians liked it that way.

How American Christians kept their cultural dominance for decades after WWII

Even now, America contains many communities that never knew the Cold War ended. In these mostly-evangelical communities, Christians dominate at all levels of society: legal, cultural, legislative, you name it.

In these Christian-dominated communities, Christians control what schoolchildren in taxpayer-funded schools learn (and more importantly, don’t learn) and read (or more importantly, do not read). If their state happens to have laws against what they’re doing, or if their desired courses of action violate big swathes of federal law, they simply ignore those obstacles.

In these communities, dissenters do not ever dare to raise their voices against the Christians oppressing them.

The penalties for open dissent are simply too much to bear: vandalism and property theft/destruction, threats of violence and occasionally actual violence, loss of livelihood and income, perhaps the loss of one’s home, and more. Those penalties are guaranteed to fall upon the heads of not only the transgressor but also the transgressor’s entire family and their friends.

When you hear about some Christian-dominated community’s shocking overreach, remember one thing above all:

This is how these communities usually worked in the past almost everywhere. They only stopped if someone with more power than they had forced them to stop. If these obstacles were ever removed, they’d instantly revert back to their former behavior.

Even now, when Christians decide to start intensely-Christian communities that are run by Christian-centric rules, more often than not we soon hear about the abuses and scandals erupting out of those communities.

The fly in the Vaseline: the rise of the consumer internet

So nothing about Christians’ dominance of post-WWII America was accidental or incidental. It was, rather, the result of stoking endless and deliberate moral panics and allowing conservative politicians to purchase their votes through cheap, tawdry pandering. After achieving their desired results, guarding their dominance was as simple as allowing local Christian communities to stomp on anyone who dared reveal that they were anything less than true-blue, gung-ho Christians.

When I first ran across a 1959 evangelical-written book about evangelism, its overly-simplistic suggestions seemed completely surreal. In fact, I’d gotten my hands on a 1981 edition of the book. It still bore no resemblance whatsoever to personal evangelism in the mid-to-late 1980s. Absolutely nothing its author suggested worked then. In all likelihood, those suggestions have worked less and less well since then.

But I hadn’t quite reckoned with exactly how oppressive Christianity was in 1959. Even in the early 1980s, Christians hadn’t yet come to terms with their diminishing power. Its author had never really dealt with people who had no reason at all to buy his product. (The product is always active membership in the evangelist’s group.) More importantly, he’d never dealt with people who had very little fear of what these ambassadors of the Prince of Peace and Lord of Love would do to them if they refused the so-called “good news.”

His head would have exploded like that guy on Scanners if a time-traveler had told him about the rise of the consumer internet.

Very quickly, the internet connected people. It also gave them spaces to build communities of their own that entirely lacked Christian control and oversight. In those spaces, doubting Christians could network with other doubters and find answers. Often, these were not the hand-waving “Sunday School answers” that their church leaders gave—or approved. When these Christians deconverted, their online communities provided them with space to deconstruct their beliefs and discuss their frustrations.

For countless ex-Christians, they still do.

Why Christianity’s decline won’t be ending any time soon

Bullivant recognizes the power of the internet in destroying Christian control over America, at least. He also understands that even if churches realign themselves with modern American values and mores, that won’t bring people back to their groups. He just doesn’t seem to connect the dots as to why a realignment won’t work, any more than NCR Online grasps why realignment won’t ever happen, ever, and really can’t.

Christian groups are like any other group. People join them and stick around because they find membership meaningful and rewarding. When membership stops feeling that way, they look around for another similar group to join. Or increasingly, they leave and don’t bother seeking another like that.

And for decades, Christian leaders were happy to market their groups in exactly this way. They were happy to evangelize along similar lines: Join us, obey us, and you will get rewards beyond your wildest dreams in both this life and the next.

Unfortunately, people don’t often join Christian groups to do real work, challenge themselves, or deny themselves stuff they really want. Instead, they align themselves with flavors of the religion that mostly already agree with their worldview and ambitions, then make peace with or work around the rest.

In Divided by Faith, we find this hefty dose of wisdom:

If we accept the oftentimes reasonable proposition that most people seek the greatest benefit for the least cost, thy will seek meaning and belonging with the least change possible. Thus, if they can go to either the Church of Meaning and Belonging, or the Church of Sacrifice for Meaning and Belonging, most people choose the former. It provides benefit for less cost. Prophetic voices calling for the end of group division and inequality, to the extent that this requires sacrifice or threatens group cohesion, are perfectly free to exist, but they are ghettoized.

Divided by Faith, quoted by vialogue

And that about covers flybys. If churches realign too much, then whatever meaning and belonging their remaining congregants derive from membership will end. But they will never be assured of drawing back those who’ve already rejected them.

Evangelicals, in particular, have been indoctrinated for decades to believe that any such realignment is nothing more than evil compromise, and they will reject and trample anyone suggesting it.

Summary: How it started vs. how it’s going now

In the social chaos occurring after World War II, American Christian leaders got handed an unimaginable prize: dominance.

Of course, what they did with this prize is exactly what similar Christians have always done with it: they immediately began using it and pushed it to its utter limits for as long as they possibly could, stopping only when forced to stop by forces greater than themselves.

“Jesus” has never stopped Christians from abusing their power. But laws enforcing individual freedom of religion and America’s status as a secular country certainly have done a lot to make it safer and safer for dissenters to reject Christian overreach.

At first, it was dangerous to do that. But Christians’ ability to retaliate drops with every new target that enters their arena. Before too long, only the highest-profile dissenters needed to fear that retaliation—and those still trapped in the few remaining pockets of Christian dominance.

Americans find ourselves now in a situation that is completely unprecedented. Our government is dominated by Christians, evangelicals in particular. Our government’s religious makeup looks less and less like the face of America itself.

Culturally speaking, Christianity has little power in America. Americans don’t care what this or that Christian leader thinks about much of anything. Christians’ credibility is at an all-time low, along with their membership numbers.

But that’s not where the real power lives.

Power is the key to Christian dominance, and it always was

The real power lives in the government. At local, state, and federal levels, its three branches (executive, legislative, judicial) tend to be completely swamped by people seeking Christians’ approval.

Here’s one example of what I mean. In 2015, a high school football coach had a habit of showboating his religion after games by praying ostentatiously. The school district rightly told him to cut that out. In response, the coach sued them. His lawsuit got all the way to the Supreme Court. This summer, we discovered that the highest court in our land is equally full of approving fellow Christians who somehow don’t see how coercive that coach’s behavior was, nor what message it sent to the children in that taxpayer-funded school.

The coach was sublimely unconcerned about Jesus’ direct command to his followers to avoid ever praying in public. (In fact, Jesus said in the verse preceding that one that public prayer was something that only hypocrites did so they could get the approval of other people. I guess the Bible isn’t always wrong, because that’s always seemed like the coach’s motivation.)

Sure, very few of that coach’s players, their families, and their allies will think fondly of control-hungry, power-grabby Christians forever after.

But do you honestly think that coach or his Christian pals care about that?

Christianity’s decline is about power

No, they absolutely don’t. If they cared what people thought of their childish and hypocritical antics, they wouldn’t do that stuff in the first place.

What they care about is power. A high school football coach in a small town likes to swan around at the 50-yard-line after games, staring earnestly and worshipfully at his idol-football as he kneels in prayer to it. In a very real way, he’s thumbing his nose at all the people he knows don’t like what he’s doing. He’s expressing his sense of dominance over his critics.

Yes, I’m comparing these power-hungry Christians to catcallers. It’s not about worshiping Jesus or putting him first in their lives, any more than catcallers just want to vocalize their appreciation of women’s attractiveness. It’s about power.

It always was. It always will be.

Some years ago, I wondered if American Christian leaders recognized lost coercive power as the reason for their decline. Now, I don’t wonder at all. I know they’re aware of it, simply because their strategies all seem to center around regaining that power specifically. They expect that once they have it again, they’ll be able to trample dissenters back into silence, if not back into the pews themselves.

Hey, it worked during the Red Scare!

And if you don’t believe me, check out this video and the commentary around it. (Archive link to video.)

Yes, they know.

If lost coercive power caused American Christianity’s decline, then it sure doesn’t take a rocket surgeon to figure out that the fix involves getting it back.

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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,...