Becoming A Moral Minority

Reviewing a number of recent books on the state of American Christianity, especially John Dickerson’s The Great Evangelical Recession, Jim Hinch tracks the decline of conservative religion:

[T]he chief problem facing conservatives is not simply demographic or cultural change in America but rather conservatism itself — a particular approach to Christian theology and practice that worked well for churches during a certain period in American history but now has become a serious impediment. That approach combined (selective) biblical literalism with American religious nationalism to produce a Christian worldview that was strong enough to withstand the cultural upheavals of the 1960s but flexible enough to embrace the Reagan-era turn toward free-market capitalism and cultural individualism. Conservatives already have begun shedding parts of this mix, as evidenced by evangelicals’ pivot on immigration reform. Biblical literalism, though, and its accompanying inflexibility on sexual issues, has proven harder to change. And therein lies the problem.

One of the biggest problems for conservative Christians? How they read the Bible:

[R]igid literalism makes it extremely difficult for conservatives to change course, even when compelling arguments are raised against their particular biblical interpretations. One of young people’s chief complaints about present-day Christianity, polls show, is that the faith is antiscience. Christianity itself is not antiscience, and many scientists (including Francis Collins, the current director of the National Institutes of Health) are practicing Christians. But biblical literalists are antiscience, and their inability to let go of the idea that Scripture trumps scientific evidence constitutes a needlessly self-inflicted wound.

In an interview about his book from last year, Dickerson explained data on how many evangelical Christians there are in the United States. You might be surprised by what he found:

The bottom line is that we are a much smaller movement than many of us have believed – certainly not a majority of the United States, and, I believe, a gradually declining minority. Many of us attend growing churches that are attracting folks from other churches, so we have the perception that “the Church” is growing, when she’s really just shuffling. Meanwhile, as we play musical churches, the broader population is growing.

The exact size of evangelicalism is probably impossible to calculate. Sociologically, the movement is broad and motley and scattered. Culturally, the terms “born again” and “evangelical” now mean different things to different Americans. … On this question of the actual size of the evangelical church, I discovered that four separate, credentialed researchers have recently used four separate methods to count U.S. evangelicals, in four completely independent studies. Interestingly, they all concluded that evangelical Christians are between 7 and 8.9 percent of the U.S. population.