Simple Questions: The Why, What, and How of Changing American Christianities

Image via Daniel Oines:

Dear friends and colleagues on the godbeat:

You’ve heard it before: liberal churches are dying because they’re too liberal. It’s been a favorite trope on the right for decades, going back at least to Dean Kelley’s Why Conservative Churches are Growing, originally published in 1972.

Back then, the theory dovetailed nicely with Nixon’s “silent majority” of conservatives seething at liberal overreach in secular politics. In the same way—or so we’ve been told—the pews of America’s former stalwart Catholic and mainline Protestant churches have been emptying out as wave after wave of innocent truth-seeking people of good faith have been victimized by elitist, seminary-brainwashed progressives inflicting monstrous changes upon their congregations.

By now, it’s a received truth among conservatives that Christianity won’t come back in the United States until churches return to fundamentalist theology, militarism, and limited-government market freedom. A few people think American Christians should do more to confront Islam, or that the Catholic church should bring back the Latin mass.

Whatever specifics it comes packaged with, the “too liberal” theory has always had its problems: it never did fully satisfy the sociologists. It’s been pushed over the years by people with an agenda, to say the least. Most obviously, it’s 43 years old! You maybe have noticed that American society is a little different than it was in 1972?

Specifically, Americans aren’t lurching to the right anymore. In fact, according to Gallup, they might even be going the other way, getting more liberal on a broad range of social issues. Yet, as we know, the slide in declining church affiliation continues, and is even accelerating.

Conservatives will no doubt point out that evangelical Protestant churches aren’t in quite the same kind of free-fall that Catholics and mainliners are experiencing. That’s true enough. It’s also true that evangelicals pick up more church “switchers” than they lose, so apparently they’re doing something right in attracting new members.

But if the “too liberal” thesis were still workable, we’d probably see the mainline churches emptying, and social attitudes shifting right. What we have is almost the opposite. If anything, the evidence is that churches are too conservative for the rising millennial generation, and so they’re choosing to disaffiliate.

That’s a debatable proposition, which is actually my point. We’re long overdue for religion journalists treating with skepticism the argument that certain churches are dying simply because they’re too liberal. Given the shifts seen in social attitudes, more evidence for that assertion needs to be given than “mainline churches are shrinking.” If somebody tries to pass that line off on you, they’re taking advantage of your credulity.

Journalists wrestling with the changing face of American religion need to ask some simple but tough questions: Why do you think church affiliation is shrinking? What evidence can you give to support your position? What stake do you have in the conversation?

Those are pretty standard inquiries. But along the same lines, when discussing religion and politics, journalists and media types need to start asking a new question: How will policy or position x play with the unaffiliated?

We’re already at the point in in some swing states where the rise of the “nones” will have an appreciable effect on elections. Before long, they will be a constituency that the parties won’t be able to ignore safely. We might even be there already. Maybe that’s a story your readers haven’t heard before?

Yours in crankiness,
Pastor Dan