Hi and welcome back! Yesterday, we talked about Thom Rainer’s assertion in 2018 that American evangelical churches had found themselves at a ‘tipping point.’ He thought that if those churches didn’t get on the stick (and pay him a whopping lot of money for his silly revitalization services), then American Christianity would fade to irrelevance just like European Christianity has. Oh noes! But in truth, that tipping point came and went already — a long time ago. Cultural dominance has certain requirements, and Christianity just doesn’t meet those requirements anymore. Today, let me show you how America tipped into secularism, and why Thom Rainer and all the silly self-appointed revitalization experts in the world can’t bring it back again.
A Certain Failure to Recognize Urgency.
When I first read Thom Rainer’s post (archived here, for funsies), I immediately noticed that it was written in 2018.
Oh, y’all, that gave me the belly snerk I needed right then.
Thom Rainer’s previous gig involved being the Grand Poobah of LifeWay. That’s the propaganda-printing and faux-research arm of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). In other words, nobody was better positioned to know what was going on in Christianity.
All the same, here he was, speaking as the head of his own new business Church Answers and telling his readers that Christians (by which he meant fundagelicals like the Southern Baptists, guaranteed) actually had any chance at all of regaining cultural dominance in 2018. Sure, that chance was contingent on hiring his new company and paying him a whole lot of money for his revitalization services. But he still declared in that 2018 post that Christians had a chance:
Still, I am not discouraged. The tipping point is not inevitable. Our obedience may have waned, but God’s power has not. Many church leaders and members are recommitting themselves to a renewed and vibrant mission. Many of their churches are seeking and seeing revitalization.
There is indeed an incipient movement of scrappy churches. It is real. It is growing.
He ends on this dramatic note:
It is time.
Even in 2018, he should have known better than to spray something this bees-headed out of his pie-hole.
In fact, it was not time. Christianity’s decline was indeed “inevitable” by 2017, in fact, and well before that even. But Thom Rainer’s always beat this same drum solo. He says the same sorts of things in that 2018 post that he was saying in 2013.
And the flocks love him for his inability to recognize and speak the truth of reality.
The little-f facts and the little-t truth, and the DeLorean.
In 2018, Southern Baptists — along with all the other flavors of the rainbow in Christendom — had already entered irrevocable decline. They’re still in decline. I don’t see any way, short of unthinkable eruptions of domestic terrorism over and above what we’re already experiencing from TRUE CHRISTIANS™, for them to regain the dominance they once enjoyed.
Back in 2014, I still thought that Christian leaders had a little time left to reverse their decline. I didn’t think they had much left, but hey, some would be better than none to them. I wrote in a post around that time,
Christian leaders don’t have the luxury of time for self-indulgent self-deception. The clock’s ticking, the lightning’s about to strike the tower, and they’re idling in the car fooling around with the stereo and arguing about what music to play.
They’ve now left the metaphorical DeLorean and are getting into fistfights in the street over what color to repaint it, while half of them have torched the car to spite the other half.
If anything, I was way too optimistic myself. 2014 was still way past Christianity’s real tipping point.
Love or Force.
A group or product can gain cultural dominance through love or force.
Beatlemania is an example of the former. Nobody had to force millions of people to attend Beatles concerts. Propagandists didn’t need to wage culture wars to scare people into Beatles fandom. No countries enshrined concert attendance into law. Instead, fans bought those tickets because they simply wanted to do it.
If people just didn’t want to buy Beatles stuff, they just didn’t. They didn’t live in fear that Beatles fans would show up to torch their homes or imprison them.
Christianity is an example of the latter. It has always relied on force to gain compliance. Love has never won it dominance; nothing about it really commends love in most people. Its groups have been known for nastiness and hypocrisy from the beginning of the religion. For centuries, if someone rejected Christianity or refused to comply with their leaders’ demands, the group’s retaliation could be lethal. Fear of that retaliation kept quite a few butts in pews and mouths shut.
Even now, many non-Christians today have good reason to fear “Christian love.” Christians themselves often fear it as well, with reasons just as strong. Stepping out of lockstep can ruin even a fervent Christian’s entire life.
The history of Christianity is not one marked by love, but by force.
Losing Cultural Dominance.
And in fact, by the time the Beatles gained cultural dominance in the 1960s, people were already speculating that Christianity itself was losing cultural dominance in various countries.
Ironically, the Beatles themselves sparked some of that speculation. Band member John Lennon made a comment in 1966 about the Beatles being “more popular than Jesus.” Here’s what he said:
Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. I needn’t argue about that; I’m right and I’ll be proved right. We’re more popular than Jesus now; I don’t know which will go first – rock ‘n’ roll or Christianity. Jesus was all right but his disciples were thick and ordinary. It’s them twisting it that ruins it for me.
How loving! How meek and lacking in vengefulness and judgmentalism! Haha, no. In reality, their retaliation was a purely authoritarian move made by outraged authoritarians. A heathen had just pecker-slapped them in the face. Furious and stung, they decided to make that heathen pay.
TRUE CHRISTIANS™ never forgave John Lennon, either. I’ve no doubt in the world that his joking comment would later land rock music in the crosshairs of the Satanic Panickers of the 1980s.
But destroying effigies of the Beatles did not bring back Christians’ cultural power.
They’d already passed their tipping point. People wouldn’t recognize it fully for a while, but it’d already come and gone.
Why Nothing Worked: The Tipping Point.
As I mentioned, Christianity gained cultural dominance through brute force.
Indeed, the moment the religion’s leaders gained real power, they began to use it.
Early on, their leaders inserted themselves into the politics of countless countries. From there, they directed the making and enforcing of laws that punished the noncompliant and frightened the sheep into obedience. They utilized the fire, the sword, the prison cell, a boatload of different torture devices, and more and worse to extract obedience from nonconsenting millions for centuries.
They knew that love alone would not give them absolute power.
Only force would.
But a funny thing happened on the way to Gilead.
Governments began restricting and preventing Christian overreach.
Laws began to make it safer for people to reject Christian demands for compliance.
And that is exactly what began to happen, more and more and more.
I see coerced compliance as similar to herd immunity for vaccinations. As long as a population is kept well under control and terrified to step out of line, an authoritarian regime doesn’t need to do much to enforce compliance.
But there is one thing the leaders and fervent members of this regime must do, and it must be done quickly, reliably, consistently, and brutally over-the-top. I refer here to retaliation for noncompliance. Moreover, they must perform this retaliation in very public and easily seen ways. They must terrify anybody considering anything similar.
If a dominant faction fails to respond as I’ve described, then potential dissenters will start seeing defiance as something they can do safely. And they will dissent — more and more and more of them.
All it takes is one person to safely escape retaliation, but oh, it helps mightily if a higher authority moves to prevent retaliation in the first place.
At that point, retaliatory efforts may still occur, but they simply won’t fit the conditions for enforcing compliance. They won’t be quick, reliable, consistent, and brutal enough to scare other people out of trying the same thing.
And after that, the flood begins in earnest.
Trying to Regain Dominance.
What I describe here began happening after World War II at least. Religious leaders and fervent Christians began lamenting the very lax religiosity of their neighbors and culture. They gazed wistfully at the 1850s-1890s, when Christians held much more cultural power. Making matters worse, an ugly new enemy loomed on the postwar horizon:
Communism, with its scary secular bent.
What I describe here is the simmering cauldron of resentment and thwarted authoritarianism that birthed Billy Graham and his entire culture-war model of Christianity. By 1949, he was preaching huge nationwide revivals aimed at linking TRUE CHRISTIANITY™ with loyalty to America and overall goodness as a human being.
I link these revivals — and the ensuing surge in evangelical power they created — with the beginning of Christian decline.
Love in the Age of Culture Wars.
Thus, it was no accident at all for American Christians to react to John Lennon’s comment in 1966 with implications of violence and fire. They weren’t simply angry. They were also trying to send their enemies a clear message.
In this way, they behaved just like creepy weirdos who scare women in public spaces, those belligerent TRUE CHRISTIANS™ who go into big-box stores loaded for bear, and screechy street preachers like “Brother Jed” accosting students at colleges nationwide.
But it was already too late. These control-grabs worked in a sporadic, haphazard way for a while, but the laws in America had already put the writing on the wall for Christian cultural dominance.
The Free Hand, Unshackled.
Once authorities began to enforce those laws, it was all over for Christianity’s long-running cultural domination of America.
People slowly began to gain the freedom to react to Christians naturally, without fear of retaliatory “Christian love.” In a growing number of communities, people began to accept or reject Christian recruitment attempts naturally — without fear of what might happen to them if they refused.
And in growing numbers, that is exactly what they did. Herd immunity had been broken: people began to perceive that it was safe to dissent.
So they did.
And Then What Remains.
They declined Christian invitations to join their groups and left groups they had already joined. When they encountered hypocrisy, they spoke out against it — as well as shedding light on the cruelty that flows under every authoritarian group’s happy shiny facade.
In return, Christians could only complain and feel hard-done-by and try harder to stoke anger and self-pity in the flocks. Many retaliated in passive-aggressive ways, or secretly, or dishonestly (vandalizing property, making up reasons to fire a dissenter, quietly changing textbooks, etc). They did all of these and more, yes, and they got mocked and called out more and more often for doing it — and slapped down in courts of law.
Oh, they still try hard to recapture their glory days — the early 1950s, when they were flying high on the fumes of the first moral panics their Dear Leaders stirred up. Many of them still think that those moral panics will be their ticket to regaining cultural dominance.
Others think gaining massive amounts of political power will do the trick — which yes, is a danger but a remote one for reasons I’ll sketch momentarily below.
And in their little dens, these frustrated lordlings stew and mutter together. They create wilder and wilder conspiracy theories every single day. By now, their reality looks like absolute Bizarro-Land to everyone else.
But none of it has brought them back dominance, because none of it can give them the power to force compliance from the nonconsenting.
Take Hope; Be of Good Cheer.
I’m writing all this because Thom Rainer gave me a shot of hope right to the arm the other day — without intending to, without realizing it. I’m sure he wouldn’t like where I took his thoughts, either. But here we are anyway, with me feeling a warming sense of hope that lights my day.
I wanted to pass this little flickering flame to you in turn.
Christianity cannot appeal to enough people for them to want to join its groups on their own in enough numbers to regain cultural dominance. It never has, and it never will. It’s a nasty, cruel, and inhumane ideology, even dressed up in its nicest clothes by the nicest Christians you could ever hope to meet. Consequently, very few of its groups are actually worth the time and money required to keep them running.
And Christians have lost the power to force people to join and stick around. Very few churches can even force their own fervent members to do everything their leaders want, like attend faithfully and tithe a full 10% — and those churches tend to be absolute hellholes who get discovered eventually. Many sink under the weight of their own scandals, as Catholicism is now.
If churches gained the power to force compliance, the first people to complain would be those fervent Christians. They’d probably love it at first, but the novelty would wear off very quickly. Such a victory would backfire like Prohibition did.
In summary, without regaining enough temporal power to terrify people into attending and supporting churches, staying silent instead of speaking out against abuse and injustice and cruelty, and forcing everyone to play along with their Happy Pretendy Fun Time Game, Christianity is not ever regaining its former cultural dominance.
Out of everything going on in the world, we have that at least. It’s not much, but have you ever seen just how much light a little flickering candle can give in the darkness?
NEXT UP: We’ll play it by ear. I’m frozen by an embarrassment of riches. See you tomorrow!
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Last notes: Recently, someone noted that I haven’t been wrong very often at all about Christianity — except in being entirely too generous with my timelines. It made me laugh, because yeah, that’s very true. The more I see out of reputable survey houses, the less generous I become.