The Fall of the Evangelical Nation

Politically aware American nonbelievers worry a lot about religious right politics. And this worry centers on evangelicals, though conservative Catholics also have a very important part in the Religious Right.

In The Fall of the Evangelical Nation: The Surprising Crisis Inside the Church, journalist Christine Wicker suggests that we need not worry so much. Looking at US evangelicals, she sees not a religious powerhouse and political juggernaut but a subculture showing serious signs of decline.

Wicker says that the perception of evangelical power is partly a product of media manipulation. In reality, only about 7% of Americans belong to the very observant, hard-core, Religious Right faction of evangelicals. Most churches and denominations, including megachurches, are either in decline or have already reached limits to their growth. And in the background, modern American individualism and consumer culture continues to eat away at the cultural plausibility of Biblical literalism and the notion that a personal relationship with Jesus is the only way to avoid hell.

Much of what Wicker says is plausible, and fits well with what I know from writings by sociologists of religion. The evangelical subculture may well be losing ground. In the long run, the United States might not be able to avoid European-style secularization. This is not necessarily because of increased awareness of science (though Wicker does give this a role), but mainly because of religious individualism, cultural pluralism, and outright relativism. Old-fashioned, rule-bound, demanding religion will have less opportunity to reproduce itself. But Americans will not turn into scientific naturalists any more than Europeans. Wicker livens up the picture by avoiding long discussions of data and providing journalist-style stories of representative people who remain evangelicals or who have dropped out.

Not all the evidence she presents is equally persuasive. For example, she makes a lot of the fact that the more rigorous evangelicals are a minority among born-again Protestants as a whole, never mind the whole US population. But that need not be too significant. Many religions show a similar pattern of a small minority being the most observant followers, while a larger population of more worldly believers do not follow all the rules or show the same devotion. Most Muslim populations I know about are similar: only a relatively small population is rigorously observant. The rest typically acknowledge that the observant ones are the better Muslims, like the fact that at least some in the community are holding up the more rigorous ideals, but are generally happy to go through life as sinners. A similar relationship is true for many Jewish populations, where the Orthodox are acknowledged as the more authentic representation of the faith but do not get too many converts from among more worldly Jews. This pattern seems to be stable, and could remain so for American evangelicals.

The political significance of this pattern of religious overachievers and more lukewarm masses of less committed believers is less clear. I think it depends a lot on the context. Every now and then, the lukewarm masses get caught in a moral panic, and look favorably on the more morally pure taking charge. For example, many Muslims support hardline Islamists in an election even if they don’t like the full package—they’re just sick of all the corruption and think a more religious leadership will be less interested in lining their own pockets. In the US, however, a similar consideration may work against the Religious Right. After all, they are hypercapitalists as well as Jesus people, and their political ascendance with the Republican party has coincided with one of the most disastrous periods of institutionalized corruption in American history. Indeed, Wicker points out many in the evangelical religious orbit who have become disillusioned with politics and carry their disaffection in a religious direction as well.

Read the book. I can’t say I’m entirely convinced evangelical religion is in trouble, since it historically seems very good at reviving itself through new institutions. And even if the churches decline, evangelical Protestantism is too deeply ingrained in American culture for its influence to fall too deep below the surface. But Wicker does show that not all is well with evangelical religion. Those of us who prefer a more secular politics would do well to think about what opportunities this may present.