a mama sheep watches over her little sheeplings
Reading Time: 10 minutes Big sheep, lil sheeplings. (<a href="Sven Brandsma.)
Reading Time: 10 minutes

Hi and welcome back! Yesterday, we examined a big report, ‘Promise and Peril,’ by conservative culture warrior Lyman Stone on behalf of American Enterprise Institute (AEI). In it, Stone had a lot of things to say about the decline of Christianity in America. I detected a constant theme of fearmongering and potential exaggeration throughout his work. We’ve already covered what his assertions are. Now, here’s my assertion: Lyman Stone needs his target audience to be scared enough to buy his product, because ordinarily they’d recognize what a bad idea that’d be. 

a mama sheep watches over her little sheeplings
Big sheep, lil sheeplings. (Sven Brandsma.) Not seen: the shepherd in wolf’s clothing offscreen examining a recipe for lamb fricassee.

(Related posts about toxic Christians: What’s This Then; Identifying Toxic Christians; Persecution Myths in Toxic Christianity; Missing the Point; Andy Stanley and Why Nobody Leaves His Tribe; Scott Lively’s Bonus Plan.)

(Please note: When I talk about “toxic Christians,” I don’t only mean fundagelicals. Hardline Catholics are completely indistinguishable from their Protestant counterparts. The term means authoritarian Christians who seek to win their contrived and cynically-engineered culture wars through aggression, coercion, and intimidation. To be sure, the report’s findings are more or less ecumenical. But it won’t be liberal Christians or the majority of live-and-let-live American Catholics who’ll support Stone suggestions.)

Scaring the Marks.

Lyman Stone begins his report with a description of the founding of Fort Caroline, Florida in 1564. It’s a very telling creative decision.

A group of Huguenots (French Protestants) established the settlement with high hopes. Unfortunately for them, the Spanish had already claimed Florida.

At the time, the Spanish had zero sense of humor about their conquest of the New World. So without any remorse at all, they fought against, defeated, and finally executed every one of those French trespassers.

It’s a chilling tale, though it doesn’t sound remotely like an example of religious persecution. The “savagery” the Huguenots faced had nothing to do with religious intolerance. Rather, this fight occurred because they’d planted a fort on Spanish-claimed land.

However, Stone presents this gruesome incident as a purely religious squabble. And I can see why. For years, MUH PERSECUTION has been one of the fondest fantasies of the Religious Right. Stone needs his audience thinking about religious discrimination, martyrdom, and jerkweeds bein’ mean to ’em fer JUS’ BEIN’ KRISCHIN.

Lyman Stone needs his tribemates to see themselves as the totally-brave (but in reality trespassing) Huguenots, while their enemies are the Spanish waiting to execute them all for no reason except MUH PERSECUTION.

Scaring evangelicals softens them up, as his tribe’s leaders discovered many years ago.

A Long Tradition.

For a long time, I wondered and wondered why evangelical “research” (scare quotes) kept predicting that their sky was falling. In most evangelical-created studies, that’s the impression I always got.

Reputable survey houses might predict that Christianity is in decline, even in rapid decline. However, evangelicals make it sound like any moment now, their religion will vanish off the face of the planet and they’ll all get frog-marched to guillotines set up in every American town square.

As a consequence, I’ve learned to be very careful about evangelical predictions of doom-n-gloom. Even when they conclude something that I totally want to see, even when they make a prediction that thrills my heart, I’m careful. Especially in those cases, I put on my critical-thinking glasses.

Eventually, I realized why these evangelical survey houses keep making their situation look worse than it might be.

Another Evangelical Cottage Industry.

These doomsayers are selling stuff to panicky evangelicals.

Barna Group, for example, operates a for-profit survey house. They conduct their ersatz research on topics that will interest evangelicals. On their site, they offer teasers of their research. Then, they sell analyses of that research to worried evangelical leaders. As well as analyses, Barna also sells solutions to the problems they’ve identified. Their leader, David Kinnaman, has also semi-independently written a number of books aiming to fix Christianity’s decline. (We reviewed one of them a while ago and were entertained but not impressed.)

The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) operates LifeWay Christian Resources, another evangelical research groupTo support their ailing denomination’s culture-wars and justify their control-grabs, LifeWay produces reams of poorly-conducted research. In addition, they subcontract with other ministries to do equally shoddy research for them. Their site boasts a huge shopfront shilling this research — as well as products they swear will fix everything. (They’ve got a tag too.)

Ligonier, yet another bunch of evangelical culture warriors, often runs surveys and conducts studies. These all uniformly blow goats in terms of rigor, while also supporting Ligonier’s general aim of making money selling terrified evangelicals stuff they don’t need to throw at problems they don’t actually want to fix. (They have a tag, though I don’t focus much on them; still, I’ve written about their antics off and on in the past.)

I’m not even counting all the homebrew individual books and systems released that run along exactly the same routes.

There’s Gold In Them Thar Hills.

“You Protestants sure scare easy,” noted a Catholic Jesuit-type dude to me years ago on a Facebook discussion of evangelical fearmongering. He was right. There’s a lot of money tied up in scaring evangelicals and then soothing them.

And that’s really what all of these groups do. They make up all these wackadoodle reasons why people reject them. Then, they offer up systems and apologetics routines that’ll fer-shur win those folks back. However, none of it even remotely tethers to reality. They conduct this shoddy research purely to support the products they sell.

Oddly, I don’t think I’ve ever seen research out of any of these evangelicals indicating that their products actually work as claimed. As far as they’re concerned, their task concludes when money changes hands.

Really, it’s no surprise that noted liars-for-Jesus like Jim Bakker lose their ever-lovin’ minds when someone stops them from using fear to shear evangelicals of their critical-thinking skills before selling them products that don’t work.

Jim Bakker’s sheer, toddler-level meltdown at facing punishment for shilling his fake coronavirus cures is truly something to behold. I guess he simply expected snake-oil sales to operate exactly like apologetics when he left his lane. Indeed, he’s now trying to claim that shilling his snake oil is an expression of his religious liberty. Dude should have stayed in his lane, as crowded as it is nowadays. Nobody holds Christian leaders accountable for their products’ lackluster performance!

So in writing “Promise and Peril” as he did, in opening it as he did, Lyman Stone engages here in a time-honored method of emotionally manipulating his tribe’s worst elements.

Lyman Stone’s Modest Proposal.

In his report, Lyman Stone offers up a ray of hope for toxic Christians. He tells them that his solutions will arrest or even reverse the trend of decline in their ranks.

And here are his galaxy-brain solutions:

  • The American tax code needs to coax couples into marriage by rewarding it over civil partnerships or shacking up, so they have more children that evangelicals can indoctrinate.
  • Evangelicals need to support the expansion of the social safety net so couples can afford to have more kids for them to indoctrinate.
  • American legislators at all levels need to support school vouchers that will force American taxpayers to subsidize religious schools that can indoctrinate schoolchildren before they’re too old to know Christianity’s just nonsense.
  • If Christians can’t reverse their decline, they might end up actually massacred like the Huguenots in Fort Caroline, Florida.

All that fearmongering and all his studies and graphs build toward that one goal of gaining buy-in and traction for some big plan for some big fundie or Republican (or both) group that super-wants to get government funding for what they want to inflict on children.

The mind just boggles at how intellectually-dishonest this guy is. I’m not exaggerating at all regarding that last bit, either, as I’ll show you in a moment.

Hate Crimes!

In his “Conclusion” section, Stone warns (p. 54):

The share of Americans who are religious is declining according to every metric, just as the social and legal position of religion is deteriorating as well. At the extreme, this change is manifesting as an increase in hate crimes against people of many faiths.


One of his subsections deals with hate crimes, but he didn’t track who’s committing them. In my experience, it’s toxic Christians who reach for violence when dealing with their enemies. Evangelicals talk a big game about “religious liberty,” but when push comes to shove, the last thing they want is a diverse, vibrant religious community to function as competition for their salespeople.

In fact, Lyman Stone identifies diversity in religious groups as a potential factor in increased secularization.

School Vouchers > LGBT Harassment.

Having made that scary-sounding observation, Stone then laments that his tribe has concentrated so hard on their anti-LGBT culture wars, when what really mattered all along is the indoctrination of their children:

Furthermore, in recent years, religious engagement in politics has strayed far from the voluntarist support of intergenerational transmission of faith that could actually reverse secularization. Religious interest groups have made political enemies fighting costly battles around issues of sexual identity in particular.

Meanwhile, policies to support choices for parenting have attracted relatively little attention.

I just can’t even.

He doesn’t just suggest school vouchers, of course, as I mentioned earlier. However, his tribe has always rejected out of hand the very idea of expanding the social safety net for families or encouraging marriage over cohabitation. Thus, there is no way Stone mentions these measures as anything but a smokescreen for his real suggestion: vouchers vouchers vouchers VOUCHERS VOWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWCHURS.

I’d really love to know who’s funding this report. Stone pulled out the stops on it. Evangelicals rarely ever fess up to any conflicting interests, but I can make a few general guesses there.

Whoever wanted this report, I bet they sell indoctrination-heavy curricula to religious schools — or even that they create, plant, and manage the schools themselves.


If his tribe rejects his paper, Lyman Stone has some predictions about what’ll happen. Here’s his report’s very last paragraph:

It is not entirely clear why this difference developed in the past, but, today, religiosity in America is in speedy decline, converging to the lower levels observed in Europe. At the same time, the social and legal position of religion is in decline in America. Whether the future will look more like Fort Caroline, Plymouth, or somewhere in between remains to be seen.

ZOMG y’all! TRUE CHRISTIANS™ could be killed and murdered dead by them damn dirty secularists if they don’t take Stone’s suggestions to heart! If Christianity falls into utter irrelevance, their enemies might will destroy them! See, see, they’re already bein’ totally disCRIMinated against! They’ll do to us what we’ve always tried to do to them!

The pearl-clutching in this last paragraph is infuriating as well as absolutely cowardly. The more a society focuses on consent as a value, the less likely such an outcome becomes. 

But I’ve no doubt his fearmongering helps him make sales.

(Mr. Captain: “I f***in’ hate this guy so much. I just want to put that forward.”)

Stone’s Intended Marks.

Obviously, this report was intended to land in the hands of the various elected officials who can make school vouchers happen. Maybe Lyman Stone’s group, AEI, hopes to bamboozle some otherwise sensible legislators into thinking that Christianity will die, and that it is very sad that it would die, unless it’s kept alive through these measures.

However, I can also see toxic Christian leaders brandishing this report at the parents in their flocks.

In the report, Stone tries hard to make a case for the importance of childhood indoctrination, and emphasizes the role of overtly religious, indoctrination-focused schools in that process. (Repeatedly, Stone very specifically shakes his finger at religious schools that don’t engage in that level of indoctrination. He implies that he can’t even see the point of their existence.)

I can very easily see those parents suddenly fearing that their kids will reject Christianity due to the alarmingly-secular nature of their education. But alas! Religious schools tend to be expensive! Oh, what’s this? School vouchers…? Hooray! Everyone can now afford this schooling! Christianity is saved!

(And obviously, the very people who whine about “Obama phones,” “takers,” and “gibs” will welcome these vouchers without a second thought. It’s okay if you’re Christian. The only moral handout is their handout. They don’t wanna subsidize other people’s seeeeee-yin, but they’ll gladly demand we all subsidize them hurting their kids’ futures with untrue nonsense that we know will only harm our progress as a nation.)

Parents and Voters, Beware.

Lyman Stone explicitly links religious schools to children’s indoctrination. By contrast, secular schools have a negative effect on that goal. Even in religious schools, the curricula and materials involved in teaching matter enormously — they must be very religious and indoctrination-heavy, or the students won’t bite.

However, many religious parents can’t afford to send their kids to schools that will reliably indoctrinate them. Thus, Stone’s goal is to figure out a way to make all taxpayers help pay for the indoctrination of those children.

Some parents who aren’t really very religious send their kids to religious schools out of the (usually mistaken) impression that the educational quality at these places is higher than they can find at secular schools. Other parents might be Christian themselves, but shrink back from the level of indoctrination that Stone wants to see.

Both kinds of parents need to be aware of what’s going on here.

Whether they’re parents or not, in addition, all voters need to scrutinize each and every “school voucher” program. They must ensure that the schools eligible to receive these vouchers maintain a consistently high educational standard — which includes teaching real science and history, consent, critical thinking, and bodily autonomy, as well as upholding human rights for all ages (which are all areas that the Religious Right would rather completely escape American schoolchildren’s attention).

If religious schools won’t uphold those standards, then well, they need to look elsewhere for their funding. If indoctrination is that important to them, I’m sure they’ll figure out a way to make their offerings affordable.

“The Gospel Doesn’t Need Trickery,” And Other Lies.

“School vouchers” in particular tend to be a sneak attack by toxic Christian on good education. They attack real education so they can put forward their own inferior version of it. Their goal is to evangelize and indoctrinate children while they’re at their most vulnerable, and while their parents aren’t around to stop it or even to consent to it.

I can see a coming culture war around education, if it isn’t already happening under our noses. Lyman Stone’s positioning of this culture war against the way flashier and exciting one against LGBT people only confirms that suspicion.

Everything in this report confirms something else, too.

Preachers like to splutter that the Gospel doesn’t need trickery, but oh, it very much does.

It always has.

Christianity cannot survive without coercion.

It never could. 

We’re just seeing that more clearly nowadays.

Dominance > Honesty and Love.

Without utilizing every underhanded, dishonest, sneaky tactic in the book, Christians cannot even hope to see their decline bottom out. Remarkably, many of ’em would rather do exactly that than live according to their own rules, sell their product with integrity, and win friends and recruits naturally through admiration.

But they can’t, and they know it.

This report demonstrates vividly that these Christians have completely abandoned honest strategies. They aren’t even all that interested anymore in engaging with non-believers and ex-believers (as we saw when we looked at that silly list by Sean McDowell for why Christians should buy apologetics training for themselves and their kids.)

No, they’re down to locking down their children as hard as they can, all in hopes that the resulting mental shackles will last for life and even into the next generation.

Dominance matters more to toxic Christians than compassion and honesty. If that ain’t one of the most damning aspects of the toxic-Christian psyche, then y’all, I just don’t know whatever would be.

NEXT UP: Ten years ago, Barna Group made some “megatheme” predictions about the next ten years. I’m curious about how accurate they turned out to be. So we’re gonna go check it out! See you soon! <3

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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,...