I’m weary of dooms-day articles signaling American Christianity’s demise. Salivating secularists hail an on-coming age of light while woe-begone evangelicals prophesy deeper darkness, with the latter writing new books offering innovative solutions. Strangely, the remedies look like repackaged programs from previous eras. Add them together, mix and stir: Sermons should radiate theological depth while emulating market-driven sales pitches and churches should welcome all while zeroing-in on their fixed target groups. And always aim for youth, because supposedly apathetic millennials are our last hope.
Please, above all else, reject previous programs, often offered up as sure-fire formulas for revival.
So I viewed the first lines of Peter Beinart’s Atlantic Monthly piece (“Over the past decade, pollsters charted something remarkable: Americans—long known for their piety—were fleeing organized religion in increasing numbers …”) and thought “yawn.” I shelved it.
I finally took it off the shelf. I was surprised. It’s actually good. Thoughtful, even — with subtlety and nuance and logic and … everything. A key paragraph:
When pundits describe the Americans who sleep in on Sundays, they often conjure left-leaning hipsters. But religious attendance is down among Republicans, too. According to data assembled for me by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), the percentage of white Republicans with no religious affiliation has nearly tripled since 1990. This shift helped Trump win the GOP nomination. During the campaign, commentators had a hard time reconciling Trump’s apparent ignorance of Christianity and his history of pro-choice and pro-gay-rights statements with his support from evangelicals. But as Notre Dame’s Geoffrey Layman noted, “Trump does best among evangelicals with one key trait: They don’t really go to church.”
That substantiates the truth behind the statistics: Most self-identified white evangelicals don’t even believe in basic evangelical doctrines. They’re evangelical in name only, veritable wolves in sheep’s clothing — or maybe harmless poodles, but definitely not sheep. Studies show that 71 percent believe Jesus was a created being and 56 percent believed the Holy Spirit is “divine force but not a personal being.” Only 52 percent said sex outside traditional marriage is a sin. Billy Graham would invite most of today’s “evangelicals” to walk the aisle and accept Jesus. Jonathan Edwards, the 18th-century theologian who led colonial America’s Great Awakening, would say they’re sliding down the slippery slope, certifiable “sinners in the hands of an angry God.”
Beinart’s article helps me reconcile with all the anecdotal evidence I’ve seen. To wit: Most of the people at my church, which is lily-white evangelical, voted for Clinton and feared Trump (granted, that church is in a university town); many holding evangelical beliefs don’t identify themselves as “evangelical” (read the Facebook religious identifications; see all the “followers of Jesus.” They’re probably more orthodox in their creeds than “evangelicals.”). The upshot: Those 81-19 polls showing white evangelical favoritism for Trump are skewed.
Complicating everything is this: Most evangelical Trump voters I know found the candidate as attractive as diphtheria. They simply could not fill-in Clinton’s ballot box oval because the Democratic National Committee, which lives in its own little world, snarls at anything pro-life. Its members even disdain holistically pro-life voters favoring climate change mitigation, gun-control laws, and elimination of the death penalty. They just can’t stomach abortion because, like it or not, they view abortion as taking a human life. It’s a matter of conscience. Many of them could live with former President Clinton’s safe-legal-and-rare language, but the latest DNC position moved abortion from a matter of rights to a matter of policy.
In other words, the DNC did everything it could to alienate evangelicals and traditional Catholics, then stood mystified when those very voters didn’t whoop it up for Hillary. Howard Dean hasn’t helped. When asked if there was still room in the Democratic party for pro-life progressives, he responded: “No. Because the young generation isn’t that way. I think the old left/right is an anachronism.[…] They are not ideological. They are extremely interested in social justice, so we are never going back to maybe making compromises on abortion, and gay rights is another one.”
Message to Howard: First, you’re standing on ideological purity (never flex on abortion) while invoking the practicality of younger voters. That doesn’t make sense. Second, polls show that one third of all registered Democrats are pro-life. Some remember Robert Kennedy, Eunice Shriver, Sargent Shriver, Hubert Humphrey, Harold Hughes, and other Democratic lions. They opposed abortion.
But I digress. Breinart says much more. Read the article. Please. I’ll even give the link again. It’s here.
Meanwhile, here’s my solution to the empty-church dilemma: I hereby invite evangelicals to come to Christ. Fall in love with Jesus. Begin by praying the sinner’s prayer for the first time.