For years now, people have been wondering why Christianity grows and declines in various countries. Sometimes it gains large numbers of followers, while at other times its followers’ numbers decline precipitously. A few theories have emerged about why and how these changes occur.
For example, the secularization thesis is probably one of the most popular theories, if not the most popular. It states that as countries become more educated, tech-savvy, and industrialized, religiosity in general dwindles. However, the United States kinda threw a wrench in that gear. We’re plenty technological, but we still have a lot of extremely superstitious wingnuts in our country.
Other people think that prosperity spells doom for religions. There’s been a lot of research on links between affluence and religiosity. Most of it reveals a strong negative correlation. In other words, the poorer a country is, the more religious it is. Phrased that way, the United States isn’t bucking the curve too hard.
And now, we’ve got this new study. Nilay Saiya and Stuti Manchanda wrote it for the peer-reviewed Sociology of Religion journal. In it, they explore potential links between religiosity and political privilege. Of note, these two authors think their study bodes poorly for politically-active and grabby American evangelicals.
In this study, they think they’ve found a link between the decline of Christianity in a country and how much state favor it has.
What is political privilege?
In this context, political privilege is a measure of how favored a particular religion is by its country’s government. When a religion has political privilege in a particular country, that country’s government favors it and gives it lots of perks that are supported by law.
Just for example, this support might look like:
- the government making that religion its official state religion
- financial subsidization from the government
- forcing political candidates to take religious tests to hold office
- adding religious indoctrination to state-funded educational systems
- allowing members of the favored religion to break laws that others must follow
- penalizing critics of that religion or its adherents
- turning non-members of that religion into a marginalized class
- elevating that religion’s leaders to great political heights
That list looks a lot like what evangelicals want, doesn’t it? It should. After all, evangelicals have chased political privilege for decades now in the guise of their farcical quest for so-called religious liberty. That quest has only gotten more frantic in recent years, as they’ve become aware of their decline. For years, they’ve been absolutely certain that if they can just force Americans to completely support their flavor of Christianity, then they’ll finally be able to Jesus the way they’ve always wanted.
In such a near-theocratic state, evangelicals dream that they’ll finally be safe then from all their imaginary boogeymen and straw opponents.
However, maybe they’re completely wrong. Maybe, just maybe, finally gaining political privilege would actually make their decline worse.
The study of political privilege
Using data from three other big studies, today’s authors analyzed 166 countries. Their results surprised them:
As governmental support for Christianity increases, the number of Christians declines significantly. This relationship holds even when accounting for other factors that might be driving Christian growth rates, such as overall demographic trends.
In their writeup in Christianity Today, the authors offer up their own chart:
In the above graph, each red dot represents a country. Christian privilege means how far a particular country’s government supports Christianity. As you can see, the more support a government gives Christianity, the less growth Christianity enjoys.
In countries where Christianity enjoys very little state support, though, it tends to grow more and faster.
The 3 paradoxes of Christian decline
As our authors themselves note, the results of this study fly in the face of conventional evangelical thinking.
In that Christianity Today article, they begin by describing the paradox of pluralism:
Many Christians believe that the best way for Christianity to thrive is to shut out all other religions. Ironically, though, Christianity is often the strongest in countries where it has to compete with other faith traditions on an equal playing field. [. . .] Just as iron sharpens iron, competition hones religion.
Then, they discuss the paradox of privilege:
When Christians perceive a threat stemming from religious minorities, they may look to the state to give them a leg up on the competition. [. . .] Paradoxically, though, the state’s privileging of Christianity in this manner does not end up helping the church, according to our data.
And lastly, they discuss the paradox of persecution:
Stunningly, our study finds that contexts of anti-Christian discrimination do not generally have the effect of weakening Christianity; in some cases, persecution even strengthens the church. Like healthy religious competition, religious persecution—for entirely different reasons—does not allow Christians to become complacent. [. . .] In these environments, believers turn to their faith as a source of strength, and this devotion attracts those outside their faith.
At the end of that subsection, they conclude:
In short, the temptation of political privilege and not the threat of persecution appears to be the greater impediment to the Christian faith.
The authors’ takeaway on political privilege
In their Christianity Today writeup, the authors note that the Christian Right has been agitating for decades now to gain state support. But the more politicized these Christians get, the harder they repel potential recruits. In addition, they also alienate existing members, who get disgusted by their peers’ antics. After the 2016 election, the behavior of Donald Trump’s evangelical supporters alone cost Christianity millions of adherents. In addition, who even knows how many recruits they cost themselves?
We’ve also seen this study’s findings corroborated aplenty in the work of scholars like Paul A. Djupe. He studies disaffiliation and politicization in right-wing Christianity.
In the end, the study’s authors urge evangelicals to quit seeking political privilege if they want Christianity to stop declining in America. The more evangelicals seek that privilege, they counsel, the worse their decline will be.
Somehow and for some reason, I seriously doubt very much that evangelicals will find themselves convicted, to use the Christianese, by this writeup. It’s not that I disagree overall with the study itself. It sounds consistent with what I’ve been reading for years. However, evangelicals can’t walk back a Jesus-told-me-so position without losing a lot of face. And their stances on politics and increasing politicization both represent divinely-mandated positions to them. So it ain’t gonna happen.
Sidebar: Now, everyone remember the happy pretendy fun time game, okay?
In the article, the authors frequently point back to the tribe’s untrue religious beliefs. Clearly, they themselves are evangelicals. Also clearly, they really feel uncomfortable describing Christianity in purely secular terms. I mean, this study makes absolutely clear that no gods at all have ever been involved in Christianity—that the religion’s growth and decline both have understandable, explainable causes. And well, these authors reeeeeeeeeeally don’t like that fact.
The ways they reveal their discomfort, though, are hilarious. They punt to religious mystery and pious blahblah as often and as hamfistedly as they can, all while describing this link between political privilege and Christianity’s growth in the most secular and human-driven ways imaginable. Seriously, I cannot even! Get a load of this bit:
We acknowledge that our methodology and datasets cannot account for a factor of great importance to Christians: the movement of the Holy Spirit. However, our numerous statistical tests of the available data reveal that the relationship between state privilege of Christianity and Christian decline is a causal one, as opposed to only correlation.
Yes indeed, it is very, very hard to account for a factor that doesn’t actually exist. I liked how the writer immediately plunged in with that “however” statement to make clear that “the Holy Spirit” isn’t involved here at all.
At the very end of their writeup in Christianity Today, we encounter this pious blathering:
[R]ejecting privilege will make believers more reliant on the Holy Spirit to open hearts to the gospel message.
Yes, oh yes, I absolutely would love for evangelicals to actually act like they believe in their own religious claims.
What evangelicals will likely do about this study
You know, the same thing evangelicals did about all those Scandal of the Evangelical X books that have hit evangelical bookstores over the years: nothing.
Indeed, I’ve seen almost no reaction whatsoever in the Christ-o-sphere to this study, and none at all from any big names in their game. Really, though, who’s surprised?
If evangelicals actually took the authors’ recommendations to heart, they would need to end their culture wars. As noted, that ain’t gonna happen. It can’t. Such action would require evangelicals to be exactly who they are not.
But okay, sure, fine, let’s say that a large number of influential evangelical leaders actually took this study seriously and began steering their flocks in the same direction.
Relying on “the Holy Spirit to open hearts” would last about as long as it would take for evangelicals to realize they’re not making sales regardless. Then, they’d go back to clawing for political privilege so they can force everyone to comply with their demands, just like they’re doing now.
Political privilege as the evangelical end game
Ultimately, evangelicals know that political privilege, unlike Christianity, actually does what it advertises on its tin. It’s a far more reliable tool than “the Holy Spirit” ever was. Oh sure, evangelicals will still put a thin veneer of Jesus frosting over their politics and culture-war cakes.
After all, that frosting has fooled millions and millions of evangelicals over the past 40 years.
Even as they steadily bleed members who figure out that they’re in a totalitarian political movement disguised with Jesus frosting, even as they thoroughly disgust potential new recruits who swiftly recognize that truth and steer clear, they’ll happily keep grabbing for more and more privilege and power for themselves.
You see, evangelicals would rather have a Pyrrhic victory than none at all.
Forcing compliance through brute force represents just as much of a #WIN to them as gaining cooperation through persuasion (or reliance on magic). They get what they want either way. The first method is easier and more reliable, so it’s become their go-to.
Making matters worse, evangelicals have tasted real temporal power, friends. Don’t expect them to walk away from the gaming table now, not when they feel (rightly or wrongly) like they’re on the cusp of gaining everything they’ve ever wanted. Not even a god could draw them back now.