The Kids are Alright (Or Hopefully, At Least Pretty Not Bad)

My friend Shane Morris has written a response to “The Deepening Crisis in Evangelical Christianity” by Peter Wehner at the Atlantic Monthly. You should read both before reading what I have to say.

In the spirit of this classic scene from “I Love Lucy,” what follows is my response to Shane’s response to Wehner’s article.

Just as Shane finds “two major problems” with Wehner’s argument, I can identify two problems with Shane’s.

The first problem is with his characterization of Wehner’s argument. According to Shane, Wehner “seems to have fallen for the common idea that if Christians just behave politely and don’t compromise our morals by voting for guys like Trump, everyone will love us.”

Wehner’s long experience in politics alone makes it difficult to believe that he would be as naive as the “everyone will love us” characterization suggests.

More to the point, nothing in what Wehner wrote or has ever written suggests that he equates Christian witness with “everyone” loving or even liking us. On the contrary, it’s fair to say that this has it exactly backward: For Wehner, Christian witness consists of finding “the capacity to love in unexpected ways; to see the enemy, the foreigner, the stranger, and the alien, and to go toward rather than away from them.” In other words, it’s about us loving everyone else.

In addition, this characterization implies that the alternatives really only are being “thrilled,” as one prominent religious conservative put it, with the “‘street fighter’ model of politics” (or at least reconciled to it as a necessity) embodied by the current White House or an ingenuous belief in the power of niceness to win our opponents over.

Shane doesn’t believe this, but that’s how it can be read. More importantly, as the attacks on David French, which Shane has written about, demonstrate, it’s what people already believe. We’ve gone from being “thrilled” at having a “street fighter” on “our side” (those are most definitely scare quotes) to denouncing those who believe that Jesus was serious about the whole “turning the other cheek” and “loving your enemies” thing.

Catholic blogger Mark Shea tells a story about the Catholic Church under Communist rule in Poland:

“In 1966, the Polish bishops wanted to celebrate a thousand years of Polish Catholicism by touring the icon of the Black Madonna around Poland.  The Commies forbade it.  So, with absolute genius, like Ella Enchanted, the Polish Church said, ‘Very well.  We will obey the order you have given us’ and they toured the empty frame of the icon around Poland instead.  Every Pole in the country turned out to venerate the frame. It was a shattering victory for the Church, a complete act of obedience to The Rules, and a crushing defeat for the Rulers.”

It’s the kind of “absolute genius” that the “street fighter/compromise our morals so everyone will love us” false dichotomy can’t even imagine, much less pull off.

The second problem is when Shane writes that “no matter how anecdotally compelling we may find the claim that the evangelical church is ‘losing an entire generation,’ there’s little evidence for it.”

Before I tell you why I disagree with this, let me tell you where I agree with Shane. Like Shane, I found this part of Wehner’s argument less-than-convincing. His evidence for young Evangelicals leaving the faith as the result of culture-war/partisan politics is, at best, anecdotal and, as the saying goes, “the plural of anecdote is not data.”

But citing the report discussed in this article as evidence that “evangelicals have held steady at about a quarter of the U.S. population for the last twenty years” begs an important question: What do you mean by “Evangelical?”

It’s a question we often discuss among ourselves here at the Colson Center. While these discussions are almost always about theology, there’s a sociological and demographic dimension to the question.

In his piece, Wehner uses the word “evangelical” eighteen times. In six of those instances, the word “evangelical” is modified by the word “white.” Wehner’s subject isn’t every American who holds and/or professes Evangelical beliefs. It’s specifically “white Evangelicals.”

That’s a distinction that the Christianity Today pieces Shane links to all but ignore. They see that the percentage of Americans who self-identify as “Evangelical” has remained more or less constant and invite readers to conclude that all this talk about Evangelical decline has been greatly exaggerated.

A closer look at the numbers tells a different story.

In its 2017 report, “America’s Changing Religious Identity,” the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) that in 1996, 65 percent of Americans were non-Hispanic white Christians. By 2006, the percentage had dropped to 54 percent. Today, it’s around 43 percent. When PRRI CEO Robert P. Jones writes about “The End of White Christian America” this is the demographic landscape he is describing.

Despite what headlines like “Evangelicals Show No Decline, Despite Trump and Nones” might lead you to conclude, white Evangelicals are not immune or even especially resistant to the trends PRRI documents.

In 2006, white Evangelicals comprised 23 percent of the American population. By 2016, that number had dropped to 17 percent. What is more, only eight percent of Americans under the age of 30 are white Evangelicals.

How can the data in the “no decline” article and in PRRI’s report can be true at the same time? The obvious answer is that the decline in white Evangelicals was made up for by a corresponding increase in non-white ones.

And that’s what the data shows. According to PRRI, “Only half (50%) of evangelical Protestants under the age of 30 are white, compared to more than three-quarters (77%) of evangelical Protestant seniors (age 65 or older). Twenty-two percent of young evangelical Protestants are black, 18% are Hispanic, and nine percent identify as some other race or mixed race.”

This makes the title of one of the Christianity Today articles Shane linked to — “Congrats, Billy: Stats Show Your Evangelical Movement Is Still Going Strong” — at best misleading and at worst unintentionally hilarious. Whatever American Evangelicalism is becoming, it is not what we often think of as “Billy Graham’s Evangelical Movement.”

That’s not to say that Graham would have been displeased by the increased racial and ethnic diversity. On the contrary, the man who insisted that Jim Crow would not apply to his revival meetings would have been thrilled.

Telling people that it’s still going strong is an invitation to believe that “we’re just fine, and our critics, even the ‘Evangelical’ ones are peddling fake news.”

And while it may be true that anecdotes, and the fears they generate, about young people leaving the faith are statistically unfounded, that still leaves us with the fact that fewer young (white) people are entering the faith in the first place.

Thirty years ago, less than half (46 percent) of white Evangelicals were over the age of fifty. Today it’s 62 percent. The median age for white Evangelicals is 55. No other major religious group skews this old. What’s more, not everyone seems to be convinced about that “pretty good retention rate.”

If the kids are, if not alright, at least pretty not bad, then why are we offering as a monthly premium this book designed staunch the bleeding of young people from our churches? For that matter, why did McDowell and Wallace bother writing it? Why does search “moral therapeutic deism ‘Breakpoint’” return nearly five thousand hits?

This may be hard to believe but I’m in substantial agreement with Shane. And I’m especially grateful for his insistence that if we are going to be spoken badly of, at least let it be for the right reasons.

It makes me thrilled to call him more than a colleague: a friend.


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