Sunday, July 20, 2008

Strength of US evangelicals is one of the big myths of our time


This rather wonderful week in Sydney reminds us of just how big the Catholic Church is. It's a useful reminder, because those of us not in the church rarely hear about its size. The biggest media story about numbers of Christians over the past decade has actually been about the various evangelical churches, their booming numbers and their political influence. We have been told often that a quarter of all Americans are evangelicals, and that the support of this enormous number of ultra conservatives has kept George Bush in office.

A book recently published in America casts doubt on both claims, particularly the first, suggesting that they comprise one of the big myths of our time. It's a myth that has flourished because it suits the interests of both evangelical leaders and those on the political left who have been so worried about evangelicalism. . . .

The standard story is that there are 54million adult and 21million child evangelicals. They are, in Wicker's words, "people who have accepted Jesus as their personal saviour and as the only way to heaven, [and] who accept the Bible as the inerrant word of God".

In political terms they are sometimes known as "the religious right" or "value voters". Their leaders have the capacity and the will to tell them how to vote and get them to the polling booths (important in a country with voluntary voting). The leaders have used this influence to affect government policy on matters such as abortion, gay marriage and the teaching of creationism in schools.

There is some truth in this picture, but not nearly as much as has been claimed. First, the numbers. The figure of 25 per cent comes from people identifying themselves as evangelicals in opinion polls.

But once you dig further you find the figure has little significance, either religiously or politically. The respected pollster George Barna found that when you start to ask these people if they agree with specific evangelical beliefs (such as the literal accuracy of the Bible), the numbers drop away. A large proportion of evangelicals are not conservative or fundamentalist. They're so-called "progressive" evangelicals such as Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Al Gore.

Evangelicals are supposed to attend church. Part of the myth, after all, is that their pastors have the ability to "deliver" the vote of their congregation. But when you start to count the number of people who actually attend church, the number of evangelicals shrinks further.

But even attending church is no indicator that a person is a hard-core evangelical. Wicker points out that many people go for social reasons: the big, well-funded churches provide an astonishing range of amenities and services, especially appealing to people such as young families and migrants.

When you look at behaviour, you find the average member of a congregation is far more typical of the average American than of any fundamentalist bogy figure. Various polls and studies have found there is no - or almost no - difference between the moral behaviour of Americans who say they are born-again Christians and those who say they are not when it comes to issues such as premarital sex, adultery and abortion.

Wicker says attendance at some sort of prayer group is necessary before a person can be categorised as a fervent conservative of the sort conjured up in the lurid stories of the evangelical dominance of politics. After many pages of searching and calculating, she concludes this number makes up just 7 per cent of Americans.

A big part of the myth has been that the number of evangelicals has been growing. In fact, the movement is in decline. That figure of 7 per cent is down from 12 per cent in 1991. Wicker tells stories of the failure of evangelicals to attract new members in recent times. Individual churches that have grown rapidly have often done so by attracting members from other churches.

In other words, while the media have been telling us that core evangelicalism has been booming, it has actually shrunk almost by half.

Why did we get the story so wrong? One reason is that many evangelical leaders constantly exaggerated the numbers to increase their own importance. This got them a lot of publicity in the media, which was important given the entrepreneurial nature of much of their professional activity. In some cases they were able to persuade politicians to introduce policies they wanted, which further increased the profiles of the leaders involved.

The other side of the coin is that the political left, influential in the media, embraced the exaggerated picture fervently because it seemed to fit in with their sense that presidents such as Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush have been irrational and anti-modern. The myth of a resurgent and incredibly influential evangelical movement allowed opponents to portray these presidents as nothing more than the glove puppets of superstition.

In truth, Wicker points out, the fastest-growing belief category in America is not evangelicalism, but the group to which so many on the left belong: non-believers. From 1990 to 2001 in America, their numbers increased from 14 million to 29 million. Sydney Morning Herald

This morning in the StarTribune newspaper there was a 1,900 word article about a local "gigachurch" that holds 10 services each weekend. It serves an average of 11,000 worshipers a weekend -- and swells to 17,000 on Christmas and Easter. They probably feature great music and a "prosperity gospel."

That's pretty impressive. [Of course, they provided the attendance figures.]

But I just did a count of the Lutheran parishes in the Minneapolis phone book. 218. Probably counting all the area that is covered by the Archdiocese of St Paul and Minneapolis, there must be more than 400 Lutheran parishes. Mount Olivet probably serves nearly as many faithful as the gigachurch in all of its services.

And the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, with its 220 parishes, probably serves weekly several hundred thousand, estimating conservatively at church attendance of its estimated 730,000 members.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the insights. A couple of correctives, though. It would be wrong to narrow the evangleical numbers simply on the basis of Barna's line of questioning.

Evangelicals are not evangelicals because they believe a pre-determined laundry list of beliefs. They are evangelicals because they find themselves attracted to and participating in conservative "Bible-believing" religious ecclesial communities.

In point of fact, large numbers of members at local evangelical and big-box Churches (i.e. Eaglebrook) are, by their own count "Ex-Catholic." However, mostly these appear to be previously maginalized or uncatechized members of spiritually anemic "post- Vatican II" parishes. No wonder thay left! There wasn't much to say goodbye to.

Another (and slightly more positive) way to put this is to say that when we Catholics get serious about practicing and proclaiming our faith, the objective truth of Catholicism has the power to call back some of those who left the Fold in order to find some objective truth based and discipleship enabling environment. That's what drew me to the Church, and many folk I have met in RCIA had a similar experience.

Most people don't reject the Church built on a Rock, St. Peter. They reject the Rock-N-Roll Church that would make St Peter roll over in his grave.