U.S. Evangelicals decline in number and political influence

Evangelicals have been a powerful political force in U.S. presidential elections. Although evangelicals turned out overwhelmingly for Mitt Romney last November 6, the hitherto unknown and unspoken fact is that their numbers have plummeted in just the last few years because their young are leaving Evangelicalism in droves.

Evangelicals sometimes refer to themselves as “non-denominational” Christians. Who exactly are the evangelicals?

This is how Wikipedia defines and describes evangelical Christians:

Evangelicalism is a Protestant Christian movement that began in the 17th century and became an organized movement with the emergence around 1730 of the Methodists in England and the Pietists among Lutherans in Germany and Scandinavia. The movement became even more significant in the United States during the series of Great Awakenings of the 18th and 19th centuries, where it drew far more members than in Europe. [...] 

Evangelicalism de-emphasizes ritual and emphasizes the piety of the individual, requiring him or her to meet certain active commitments, including:

  • The need for personal conversion, or being “born again”
  • A high regard for biblical authority
  • An emphasis on teachings that proclaim the saving death and resurrection of the Son of God, Jesus Christ
  • Actively expressing and sharing the gospel

David Bebbington has termed these four distinctive aspects conversionism, biblicism, crucicentrism, and activism, noting, “Together they form a quadrilateral of priorities that is the basis of Evangelicalism.”

A road in St. Louis, at dusk (photo by Brad Wilson/Getty Images).

John S. Dickerson is an evangelical, the senior pastor of Cornerstone Church, and author of the forthcoming book The Great Evangelical Recession: Six Factors That Will Crash the American Church … and How to Prepare.

Here are excerpts from Dickerson’s op-ed for The New York Times on December 15, 2012:

In 2012 we witnessed a collapse in American evangelicalism. The old religious right largely failed to affect the Republican primaries, much less the presidential election. Last month, Americans voted in favor of same-sex marriage in four states, while Florida voters rejected an amendment to restrict abortion.

[...] Evangelicalism as we knew it in the 20th century is disintegrating.

In 2011 the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life polled church leaders from around the world. Evangelical ministers from the United States reported a greater loss of influence than church leaders from any other country — with some 82% indicating that their movement was losing ground.

[...] Studies from established evangelical polling organizations — LifeWay Research, an affiliate of the Southern Baptist Convention, and the Barna Group — have found that a majority of young people raised as evangelicals are quitting church, and often the faith, entirely.

As a contemporary of this generation (I’m 30), I embarked three years ago on a project to document the health of evangelical Christianity in the United States. I did this research not only as an insider, but also as a former investigative journalist for an alt weekly. [...]

First, evangelicals, while still perceived as a majority, have become a shrinking minority in the United States. In the 1980s heyday of the Rev. Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority, some estimates accounted evangelicals as a third or even close to half of the population, but research by the Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith recently found that Christians who call themselves evangelicals account for just 7% of Americans. (Other research has reported that some 25 percent of Americans belong to evangelical denominations, though they may not, in fact, consider themselves evangelicals.) Dr. Smith’s findings are derived from a three-year national study of evangelical identity and influence, financed by the Pew Research Center. They suggest that American evangelicals now number around 20 million, about the population of New York State. The global outlook is more optimistic, as evangelical congregations flourish in places like China, Brazil and sub-Saharan Africa.

But while America’s population grows by roughly two million a year, attendance across evangelical churches — from the Southern Baptists to Assembles of God and nondenominational churches — has gradually declined, according to surveys of more than 200,000 congregations by the American Church Research Project.

The movement also faces a donation crisis as older evangelicals, who give a disproportionately large share, age. Unless younger evangelicals radically increase their giving, the movement will be further strained.

Dickerson claims to know why the number and political influence of evangelicals have declined in America. In short, it is because evangelicals are out of step with “ground-shaking changes in American culture,” including, notably, the move toward support for same-sex marriage.

He claims “The result is that evangelicals are increasingly typecast as angry and repressed bigots. In 2007, the Institute for Jewish and Community Research, in a survey of 1,300 college professors, found that 3% held “unfavorable feelings” toward Jews, 22% toward Muslims and 53% toward evangelical Christians.”

So what is Dickerson’s advice to evangelicals?

First, he says evangelicalism will never return “to the politically muscular force it was as recently as 2004, when white evangelicals gave President George W. Bush his narrow re-election.”

Next, Dickerson says Evangelicals must “refashion themselves into a more sensitive, spiritual and humble movement” by abandoning their moralizing “posture” and seemingly superior demeanor:

We evangelicals must accept that our beliefs are now in conflict with the mainstream culture. We cannot change ancient doctrines to adapt to the currents of the day. But we can, and must, adapt the way we hold our beliefs — with grace and humility instead of superior hostility. The core evangelical belief is that love and forgiveness are freely available to all who trust in Jesus Christ. This is the “good news” from which the evangelical name originates (“euangelion” is a Greek word meaning “glad tidings” or “good news”). Instead of offering hope, many evangelicals have claimed the role of moral gatekeeper, judge and jury. If we continue in that posture, we will continue to invite opposition and obscure the “good news” we are called to proclaim.

I believe the cultural backlash against evangelical Christianity has less to do with our views — many observant Muslims and Jews, for example, also view homosexual sex as wrong, while Catholics have been at the vanguard of the movement to protect the lives of the unborn — and more to do with our posture. The Scripture calls us “aliens and exiles” (1 Peter 2:11), but American evangelicals have not acted with the humility and homesickness of aliens. The proper response to our sexualized and hedonistic culture is not to chastise, but to “conduct yourselves honorably among the Gentiles, so that, though they malign you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God” (1 Peter 2:12).

This does not mean we whitewash unpopular doctrines like the belief that we are all sinners but that we re-emphasize the free forgiveness available to all who believe in Jesus Christ.

Not being an evangelical, I’m very interested in what the evangelicals among FOTM’s readers think about all this.

~Eowyn

6 responses to “U.S. Evangelicals decline in number and political influence

  1. Ok – Happy to volunteer! :D

    This “falling away” was prophesied thousands of years ago in Scripture. It is the first step to the appearance of Anti-Christ.
    2 Thessalonians:
    Vs. 3 says there must be a “falling away” first.
    Vs. 7 says that “He” (the Holy Spirit) must be taken out of the way before the man of sin can emerge. And Revelation 3 describes the last church age (the dominant church at the end) as being “lukewarm.”
    2 Thessalonians 2

    King James Version (KJV)

    2 Now we beseech you, brethren, by the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, and by our gathering together unto Him,

    2 That ye be not soon shaken in mind, or be troubled, neither by spirit, nor by word, nor by letter as from us, as that the day of Christ is at hand.

    3 Let no man deceive you by any means: for that day shall not come, except there come a falling away first, and that man of sin be revealed, the son of perdition;

    4 Who opposeth and exalteth himself above all that is called God, or that is worshipped; so that he as God sitteth in the temple of God, shewing himself that he is God.

    5 Remember ye not, that, when I was yet with you, I told you these things?

    6 And now ye know what withholdeth that he might be revealed in his time.

    7 For the mystery of iniquity doth already work: only He who now letteth will let, until He be taken out of the way.

    8 And then shall that Wicked be revealed, whom the Lord shall consume with the Spirit of his mouth, and shall destroy with the brightness of His coming:

    9 Even him, whose coming is after the working of Satan with all power and signs and lying wonders,

    10 And with all deceivableness of unrighteousness in them that perish; because they received not the love of the truth, that they might be saved.

    11 And for this cause God shall send them strong delusion, that they should believe a lie:

    12 That they all might be damned who believed not the truth, but had pleasure in unrighteousness.

    13 But we are bound to give thanks alway to God for you, brethren beloved of the Lord, because God hath from the beginning chosen you to salvation through sanctification of the Spirit and belief of the truth:

    14 Whereunto he called you by our gospel, to the obtaining of the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.

    15 Therefore, brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle.

    16 Now our Lord Jesus Christ himself, and God, even our Father, which hath loved us, and hath given us everlasting consolation and good hope through grace,

    17 Comfort your hearts, and stablish you in every good word and work.

    • That’s sobering, sage_brush.

      Alarmed about Obama’s war against the Catholic Church and against religious liberty, Cardinal Francis George of Chicago said “I expect to die in bed, my successor will die in prison and his successor will die a martyr in the public square.”

      • It is alarming, Eowyn, but we are instructed in many places to draw comfort from the “blessed hope.” After all – if this life here in this sinful, fallen world was pleasant for us – we would never have heartache and long for Heaven. It is the plan of the evil one, through false prophets such as Joel Osteen, to trick the sheeple into thinking that things are getting better, and that if only straighten out our lives (and give money) – it will be heaven on earth! They never teach their followers how to lead the lost to a saving knowledge of Christ,

        Titus 2:12-14

        King James Version (KJV)

        12 Teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly, in this present world;

        13 Looking for that Blessed Hope, and the glorious appearing of the great God and our Saviour Jesus Christ;

        14 Who gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto Himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works.

  2. A sobering, but not surprising, post. I also appreciate sage_brushes replies and biblical references. I was raised as a Catholic by parents who weren’t really invested in the faith, but “did their duty” by carting me and my siblings to church each Sunday. Ironically, I felt a deep connection to the customs and traditions, and over the course of my life have investigated many faiths and spiritual practices. Now in middle age, I consider myself a Christian but affiliate myself to no specific church. Strangely, I was never exposed to “Bible study” in Catechism classes, and am trying to become more familiar with the words of the apostles and the books of prophecy.

    I’ve intuitively known enough, however, to understand that the decline in our culture and estrangement from our church-rooted past is part of God’s plan, and a time of “tribulation” is the price that must be paid to eventually find our way home again. “To everything there is a season,” and I believe we are now harvesting the bitter fruits of our own complacency and indulgences. What were once considered bedrock institutions are now falling apart, madness is seen as Wisdom (the election of Obama TWICE!), and depravity is promoted as humor. A dark sway has taken hold, and mesmerizes those without the anchor of insight and a knowledge of God.

    I must confess that I don’t fully understand Mr. Dickersons’ advice for becoming “more palatable” to those whose beliefs and lives are conducted contrary to the beliefs and values of Evangelicals. I understand that a loving countenance is fundamental to one espousing Christian principles, but doesn’t a line eventually have to be drawn? Aren’t there indisputable Truths in the Gospel? Doesn’t compromising your standing make you weak?

    I can understand wanting to share the lifeline of Faith, especially with someone utterly lost in drink, drugs, or worse. But here’s the tricky part: to address their particular pain, don’t you have to tell them it’s unhealthy? They may call that Judgmental; I call it Truth.

    Unless one is steadfast in their cause, they will always be vulnerable to the whims of the day. God will go on, even when this world and all its churches are just a memory. But “strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.” – Matthew 7:14

  3. Thanks for this thought provoking post Dr. Eowyn,

    The term, “Evangelical,” as used by Mr. Dickerson, doesn’t fit what seems to be happening among the people who name Jesus as Lord. If we had to fit the narrow definition of people associated with Jerry Fallwell, then of course we are declining.

    I would say that the number of “Evangelicals” may indeed be declining, but I would not say that about the number of people who’s faith in Jesus Christ is alive and well.

    Mr. Dickerson, do I sense in you a parallel with the RINO Republicans who think Sarah Palin is the reason John McCain lost the election?

    I might have been a Baptist yesterday, an Anglican today, and a Catholic tomorrow, but in all these moves (in my case), I have not left God’s family or His love. I (speaking personally) am on a pilgrimage, and locations sometimes change. I’m trying to follow, not lead, the Master. Like Mark Twain said, “The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”

    However, our battle with the monolithic culture of academia, media and entrenched government is very serious, as they are proactively attempting to pervert our children.

    To those who’ve joined the chorus of “the Christians are falling” I would remind them of these words from Solomon:

    “Do not lurk like a thief near the house of the righteous,
    do not plunder their dwelling place;
    for though the righteous fall seven times, they rise again,
    but the wicked stumble when calamity strikes.”
    – Proverbs 24:15-16 (NIV)

  4. After my wall of words, I admit, I’ve noticed the same decline. It bothers me. I hope and pray for a turn of the tide, not to bring back some moment frozen in the 1980s, but, “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

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