Paul Prather

Thanks to politics, churches have run off their young adults — and potential converts, too

How evangelicals gained political power

White evangelical Christians are among President Trump’s most important supporters. But more than 40 years ago, they were on the margins of American politics.
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White evangelical Christians are among President Trump’s most important supporters. But more than 40 years ago, they were on the margins of American politics.

Christianity in America is critically, perhaps mortally, wounded. It’s slowly bleeding out, and its wound is entirely self-inflicted.

A prophet I’m not. I wish I were, but prophecy has never been my gift.

On this subject, however, I was right long ago — not because I’m a visionary, but because all it took to discern it was functioning eyes, a passing familiarity with the New Testament and a modicum of common sense.

Way back in the 1990s, I predicted that if American Christians — especially conservative evangelicals — continued to wrap their faith in secular politics and preach a gospel of rage and exclusion and self-righteousness, they would end up doing the kingdom of God more harm than good.

They would alienate some of their own members and most potential converts. Eventually they might even push the United States toward a wholesale rejection of religion that would leave our country as secularized as Western Europe.

Current numbers show that’s what’s happening. Those numbers are especially foreboding for white evangelicals.

According to Gallup, in just the past two decades, overall church membership among U.S. adults has fallen from 69 percent to 52 percent.

The percentage of U.S. adults with no religious affiliation at all — meaning not only that they don’t belong to a church but claim no faith — has more than doubled, from 8 percent to 19 percent.

This abandonment of faith grows greater with each successive generation. Among millennials, 29 percent claim no religion.

A new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found that the share of Americans who say religion is very important has dropped from 62 percent in 1998 to 48 percent today.

Among those age 18 to 38, only 30 percent cite religion or belief in God as very important, that survey found, compared with 67 percent of those 55 or older.

For white evangelicals specifically, the news is worse.

About 26 percent of Americans 65 and older identify as white evangelical Protestants, says Michael Gerson, a conservative Christian who served as a speechwriter for President George W. Bush and now is a columnist for the Washington Post.

Of white adults 18 to 29, a mere 8 percent identify as evangelicals.

Younger adults always have shown less religiosity than their elders. But it used to be that they’d return to the church as they had kids of their own, matured into middle age or finally reached their senior years.

As Gerson points out, though, referring in part to observations by University of Notre Dame scholar David Campbell, today’s young adults are starting from a significantly lower statistical point than their parents or grandparents did. They’re unlikely to ever become as religious as their forebears. Evangelical identification among young adults could triple without reaching the level of their elders.

“Why this demographic abyss does not cause greater panic — panic concerning the existence of evangelicalism as a major force in the United States — is a mystery and a scandal,” Gerson writes. “With their focus on repeal of the Johnson Amendment and the right to say ‘Merry Christmas,’ some evangelical leaders are tidying up the kitchen while the house burns down around them.”

Why are Americans generally, and younger Americans specifically, leaving churches in droves? And why are evangelicals notably hard hit?

Without question, the Roman Catholic Church’s sexual abuse scandal has played a big role in furthering skepticism toward the Catholic Church and Christianity generally.

But an even larger issue may be that right-leaning white evangelicals have become the predominant public face of American Christianity, even though they don’t represent the majority of U.S. Christians.

Evangelical leaders and their congregations often support the polarizing President Donald Trump. They exhibit apoplectic opposition to legalized abortion, LGBTQ rights, environmental awareness and compassionate treatment for immigrants.

These stances repel millions. Prominent evangelicals’ surliness strikes many Americans as a hypocritical reversal of Christianity’s basic values.

“People hate religion when the loudest proponents of religion are shown to be mercenaries for a leader who debases everything he touches. And yes, young people are leaving the pews in droves because too often the person facing them in those pews is a fraud,” writes Timothy Egan, a National Book Award winning author, in a widely circulated recent New York Times op-ed.

Similarly, Gerson, the former White House official, cites Campbell the scholar as having called this falling away from religion “ ‘an allergic reaction to the religious right.’

“This sets up an irony,” Gerson continues, in part quoting Campbell. “ ‘One of the main rationales for the very existence of this movement was to assert the role of religion in the public square in America. And, instead, what’s happening in that very movement has actually driven an increasing share of Americans out of religion.’ This alienation preceded the current president, but it has intensified during the Trump era.”

No, the defection from churches, and even from belief in God, isn’t surprising.

I’m certainly not gloating about it. It makes me indescribably sad. But you could see it coming a mile — or 25 years — away.

Anytime you mix religion and politics too closely, you corrupt both institutions.

And anytime you replace the spectacularly good news of God’s love, grace and mercy with fury, condemnation and political gamesmanship, you turn people away from the very kingdom of heaven you think you’re promoting.

Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling. You may email him at pratpd@yahoo.com
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