Monday, May 19, 2008

Face the Facts: Assessing Wicker's Fall of the Evangelical Nation, Part 1

As an evangelical leader myself, reading Wicker's book was not an exercise in edification. But it is a cold dose of reality, and although I don't believe all her claims, I think the thrust of what she says must be heard. She begins with her thesis:

Evangelical Christianity in America is dying. The great evangelical movements of today are not a vanguard. They are a remnant, unraveling at every edge. Look at it any way you like: Conversions. Baptisms. Membership. Retention. Participation. Giving. Attendance. Religious literacy. Effect on culture. All are down and dropping. It’s no secret. Even as evangelical forces trumpet their purported political and social victories, insiders are anguishing about their great losses, fearing what the future holds. Nobody knows what to do about it. A lot of people can’t believe it. No wonder. The idea that evangelicals are taking over America is one of the greatest publicity scams in history, a perfect coup accomplished by savvy politicos and religious leaders, who understand media weaknesses and exploit them brilliantly. ix
Could this be true? She lays out studies showing the problem is real, mostly from Christian, evangelical sources--Gordon Conwell, Barna, Josh McDowell, Southern Baptist Mission Board, and from some secular, but neutral sources like Pew and Gallup. She, herself, is not neutral. She is a lapsed Baptist who lost her faith in college, like 90% of evangelical children do, according to McDowell. She tries, but fails to conceal her glee over the situation. But I liked the fact that this was coming from a non-evangelical. Do we dare to read what the world thinks of us?

As a non-believer, Wicker is more interested in the issues raised by the Christian right. She portrays the common perception that evangelical churches are growing in America as sort of a plot, or scam, designed to give the right-wing political people more power at election time. I found this part uninteresting and somewhat implausible.

But while I questioned her interpretations at many points, I did not find her main thesis implausible. Our own studies show the same thing. For instance, "The evidence comes from Southern Baptists’ own studies. Only 7 percent of members who’ve been in a Southern Baptist church five years of less are true converts.” 62 We have done studies that show the same thing, and Baptists are generally better than other evangelical churches. In some of our studies of famous churches, the percent that report they met Christ in that church is as low as 3 percent.

She rolls out numerous studies in an interesting way, interspersed with stories of people from both favorable and hostile perspective. She concludes, "The truth behind all these numbers is that evangelicals are not converting and cannot convert non-Christian Americans, especially native-born white people, in significant numbers." 64 I believe that is as true as any statement in the book.

In a larger view she says, "A small and declining group of people has been portrayed as tremendously powerful and growing so rapidly that they might take over the country—when in fact that number of converts among this group is down and dropping. They are rarely able to convert and , middle-class American. Their share of the population is not 25 percent, but at most 7 percent of the country and falling. All these numbers come from the churches themselves." 67

What about the reports that 30 or even 40% of Americans are evangelicals? She de-bunks that myth using work again from evangelical sources, including Barna who made that figure popular. His real test for actual believers of a simple list of 9 basic truths shows that the real number of those who believe the Bible at a level that could be considered evangelical is only 7% of the population. Even this crew is suspect. The rest of the so-called 'born-again' Christians in America don't even know what it means. Wicker observes, "The other larger group [the rest of the 40%] comprised evangelicals who were born again but didn’t accept the great majority of the most basic religious tenets that evangelicals are “supposed” to live by. 86 I've known this for years. There's no way most of the people Barna refers to as born-again are true Christians.

One of the biggest questions in my mind as a read this book, just released on April 29, 2008, is whether the evangelical church will be willing to read it. I don't think so. I predict this book, which should be read by all evangelicals, is destined for the remainder table. Evangelicals have consistently shown no willingness to read anything that suggests their current path might be wrong.

Next: We'll drill down into some of Wicker's data for the facts.


Joe said...

"The idea that evangelicals are taking over America is one of the greatest publicity scams in history"...I found this quote particularly interesting.

I've always thought the same thing when the media bash Christians and then claim "born agains" control the country in the next breath. It is pretty obvious who the true ruler of this world is; and with people's love growing increasingly colder and morality thrown out the window...

Dennis said...

Yeah, her implication that it's the evangelicals who deliberately create the impression they are so strong doesn't ring true. I think news shows like to show pictures of people worshiping with their hands up because it presents Americans with a picture they don't like. The commentary usually makes sure that will be the spin.

icurpoint said...

Well, i do hope we are now entering the post right wing evangelical era. Evangelicals lost their voice several years ago when they started converting the political system instead of concerning themselves with being lights to the unbelieving world themselves.

Brad said...

Don't you find that it's more common for non-Christian political commentators to complain that Christians have all the power, and that right-wing Christians are always complaining that godless heathen have all the power? Just about everything I've read from either side claims that the other side has the majority of the influence... which seems like a ploy on both of their parts to drum up support. I think she is correct in her reading of the numbers, but I don't think that evangelicals are trying to make the argument that she says they are. I think it's usually those who are against the Christian right that always talk about how much power they have.

Dennis said...

Yeah! Brad's right. That's exactly what happens. Christians are always saying how they're being persecuted. On the other hand, they do claim they're going to "take back America," which is very menacing to non-Christians.

Christine Wicker said...

I'm loving this discussion and most of what Dennis says. I'm sorry I got in so late on this. I've been on the road.

But wait just a minute.

You talk about my glee with the fall of the religious right. OK. Maybe that is there, even though I wince to think so.

But in the book, I also tell stories of incredible faith. I do not want religious right-type faith to die. It does too much for too many people - some of them in my family. It can build an incredibly strong faith as the book shows again and again.

I just don't want the religious right to be the only Christian voice in the public square. As it has been for 20 years.

As for a conspiracy, I never use that word and wouldn't. Conspiracies aren't required.

My main complaint is with my own and my profession's performance. We should have done a better job. We should have followed the numbers. We shouldn't have been so easily cowed by religious right folks who didn't like any reporting but that which glorified them. We shouldn't have been so seduced by the most extreme stories.

OK. Now I'm going to read more.

Dennis said...

Okay, Christine, you did have stories of faith that were positive. That's true, even though aspects of those stories made my flesh crawl at times.

I don't think you should wince at wanting the religious right to crumble. A lot of us have been wishing openly for that for 25 years.

True, you didn't call it conspiracy, but you have a chapter about America being "duped" and indicate that the evangelicals have been active in this, and the press incompetent.

I, too, would love to see the press knock off coverage of these "surging" mega-churches that our studies show are just competitors with other evangelical churches.

Dennis said...

For clarification on our studies of church transfer growth, see the entry from Jan. 26, 08