The not-so-simple ‘Decline of Evangelical America’

—Justin Wilford

A week after the 2012 national and state elections, I noted how downcast many evangelical leaders were about the election results. There was a widespread sense that evangelicals were facing “a new moral landscape,” one in which they were marginal figures. No doubt, for many institutional leaders in American evangelicalism, this is worrisome news. If it is “the end of evangelical dominance in politics,” as one evangelical writer put it, then this cannot bode well for what really matters for these leaders: putting people in the pews.

This past weekend, James S. Dickerson, an evangelical pastor writing in the New York Times’s Sunday Review, argued that although “it hasn’t been a good year for evangelicals” and things look to be trending downward, there is hope still for this embattled form of Christianity.

Dickerson argues that the American evangelicalism can right itself if it embraces its new marginalized status, acting less with the “superior hostility” of a bullying, dominant cultural group, and more with the “grace and humility” of outsiders in a strange land.

This may be good advice in any case; who among us couldn’t do with a little more grace and humility? But it also happens to be the only card left to play for conservative Protestantism. As I show in Sacred Subdivisions: The Postsuburban Transformation of American Evangelicalism, many of the largest and fastest growing churches in America—like Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church—foreground everyday secular problems of work-life and family, modulate hot-button cultural issues such as abortion and homosexuality, and downplay theological differences between denominations. And yet, these churches hold the same conservative theological views as the churches of older generations. The difference is in presentation, not in the core doctrines held by the church leaders.

This might appear as the purely cynical marketing strategy of a failing brand. Even Dickerson’s excellent presentation of the matter leaves room for such an interpretation (he implores evangelicals to hold on to their “unpopular doctrines” while “re-emphasizing” the less off-putting message of God’s saving grace). But I don’t think the matter is so simple.

First, these hardline doctrines have served as important boundary markers, clearly delineating the sacred in-group from the secular out-group. Now that many evangelicals like Dickerson and Rick Warren are concerned that these very boundary markers are keeping people away, even relegating these issues to secondary importance is a major shift for evangelicalism. It means that the most defining issues of conservative Protestantism, chiefly biblical literalism, could be up for debate as leaders begin to grapple with an increasingly eclectic membership body with few historical ties to evangelicalism who have been drawn in by the “good news” but turned off by the increasingly unpopular cultural doctrines.

Second, the structure of these new churches is built around blurring the distinctions between the sacred and secular. Their buildings are designed to blend into the secular landscape; the weekend sermons are focused on success at work, marriage difficulties, underachieving children, and even fitness and diet; and the most important gatherings in the church occur during the week, in small groups in members’ homes. This is not about drawing boundaries between a (spiritually and doctrinally) pure church and secular world, but rather about tearing down these boundaries to make the church more meaningful in the context of the world. Unfortunately for hardliners, this means that many of the aforementioned “unpopular doctrines” become issues pushed off for another day that never comes.

Finally, Dickerson’s piece and the examples he gives of churches like Warren’s Saddleback are tacit acknowledgments of something that many social researchers’ of religion have been resisting for several years: old-school secularization. When he writes of a “shrinking minority [of evangelicals] in the United States” and a generational crisis in which the young are not replacing the old, he’s describing what has become fashionable to refer to as the “European exceptionalism” of secularization. It appears now that Europe is not so exceptional after all.

What is, however, exceptional about American evangelicalism, and pastors like Dickerson and Warren, is their willingness to innovate, blur old distinctions, and adapt to the culture they are in, rather than fight it. To my eyes, this means that secularization is not a fate, but a situation that can be responded to in a multitude of ways.

Justin Wilford is author of Sacred Subdivisions: The Postsuburban Transformation of American Evangelicalism (NYU Press, 2012).

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