The Slow, Steady Decline of Evangelical Christianity

Dying or Changing
Dying or Changing
Photo by Jared Stump

Just over a decade ago, evangelical Christians were ascendant. After the legwork of Falwell's Moral Majority and Ralph Reed's Christian Coalition, an evangelical Christian was in the White House, George W. Bush, whose favorite philosopher was "Jesus Christ." Indeed, even as late as 2004, the media told us that "values voters," i.e., evangelicals, had swung the 2004 election to Bush, even though this wasn't true.

Now, however, to take from a title of a book being worrisomely read by evangelical leaders, evangelicalism is receding. As the book, written by an evangelical pastor, notes: "the church's overall numbers are shrinking. Its primary fuel--donations--is drying up and disappearing. And its political fervor is dividing the movement from within."

(Pedantic, but important, point: many people confuse or conflate evangelical Christianity with fundamentalist Christianity. Fundamentalists are biblical literalists and more of the fire-and-brimstone variety, while evangelical are concerned with engaging in the wider world, "converting souls," and less theologically rigid (think Rick Warren and Joel Osteen)).

A significant explanatory factor of why evangelicalism is in decline is demographics: nearly half of evangelicals are over the age of 50, and over 80 percent are white. In contrast only 17 percent of evangelicals are in the 18-29 age demographic. Meanwhile, those claiming no religious affiliation has risen to 20 percent -- much of the so-called "nones" are Millenials. As the Barna Group, a pre-eminent evangelical research group, reports:

Over half of Millennials with a Christian background (59%) have, at some point, dropped out of going to church after having gone regularly, and half have been significantly frustrated by their faith. Additionally, more than 50% of 18-29 year olds with a Christian background say they are less active in church compared to when they were 15.

And why are Millenials leaving the church in droves? Not only is it culture war issues such as LGBT rights and abortion, but social justice issues like income inequality and environmental concerns.

And there is the rub. The decline of the current evangelical movement is inherent in the membership of the movement itself. As the older, more socially conservative evangelicals eventually pass away they will either not be replaced or be replaced by evangelicals with a significantly different worldview. The melding of free-market conservatism and social conservatism that Reagan made possible now faces ideological, generational fissures; indeed, the Great Recession of 2008 may have created a generation of progressives. Moreover, the gay marriage battle is effectively over, cultural conservatives' protestations to the contrary -- it is simply a one-sided war of attrition now. In other words, young evangelicals, such as they exist, have entirely different political priors than their parents.

The current version of evangelical Christianity is moving closer to the dustbin of history -- there is simply no demographically plausible way that the evangelical church can continue in its present form. Evangelical Christianity won't die, but it will change.

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