Saturday, March 19, 2011

Is Evangelicalism on its Last Legs?

It's always a good idea whenever one is considering the demise of a movement or group to recall Mark Twain's famous words: "The news of my passing has been greatly exaggerated.". So it might well be with Christian Evangelicalism, a movement that is generally agreed to have been born in the mid- 1800s, in then United States. By the mid to late 19th century, as monies for Protestant overseas missions began to run low, many of the faithful questioned the reasons for their existence, a new motif emerged.

In many ways it was different from the standard Protestantism up that time, including Methodism and Episcopalianism. Its stewards sought to simplify faith rather than burden frontier, semi-literate and backward congregations with too much abstraction. It was at this time that some fortuitous events occurred to fuel that energy, including the first mention of a dream in which a Scottish girl saw the end times and faithful taken up ("rapture") which a Scottish minister then integrated into a doctrine. Though "the rapture" had no scriptural benediction whatsoever, it was tied seamlessly into the whole End times theme.

It found favor with none other than the original American Evangelical, Rev. Josiah Strong, who worked it into his own sermons along with John: 16 injunctions about believing on the Lord J.C. All that remained was to formalize it and this Strong did with his book, Our Country - Its Possible Future and Its Present Crisis.

Many of the themes sounded therein have been staples of Evangelical Protestantism ever since, including: 1) the supreme role of "expiation" (via Jesus) as the ultimate tool to remove the stain of sin and secure "salvation", 2) the concept of the "End times" - 2nd coming and the role of "rapture" as an escape hatch for the righteous before the Antichrist arrived, 3) the extolling of a supreme militancy in the nation as a whole, that it reign over all the "inferior nations" (e.g. non-white, non-Christian nations).

This arrogance reached its apotheosis in the famous speech delivered by Sen. Albert T. Beveridge before the Senate in 1899. In his own words:

"God has not been preparing the English -speaking and Teutonic peoples for nothing but vain and idle self-admiration. No! He has made us the master organizers of the world to establish system where chaos reigns..He has made us adepts that we may administer government among savages and senile peoples "

Today, this same thread permeates the underlying thought of most Evangelicals who regard the bulk of the world's population (including over 1 billion Hindus, and 1 billion Buddhists, etc.) as expendable Hell-fodder unless they accept the Lord J.C. as their personal Savior. A concept which the Yogi adept, Kevoor Behanan, opined "wouldn't be accepted by the most backward, or impoverished Indian, including of the untouchable caste".

Meanwhile, author Richard Hofstadter, in his book, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, calibrated the strong strain of anti-intellectualism that has been present in American Evangelicalism from the beginning. Much of this was directed at Darwinian Evolution, though ironically, Rev. Strong did accept (from his book) the thesis of Social Darwinian Herbert Spencer that all humans were involved in a never-ending survival of the fittest. Strong in his book even included one of his favorite quotes from Spencer:

"If they are sufficiently complete to live, they do live, and it is well that they should live. If they are not sufficiently complete to live, they die, and it is best that they should die."

In other words, the physically incapacitated, weak and poor were to be cast aside rather than receive government welfare or assistance. Strong believed, as many of his ilk do now, that their SIN caused their weakness and so there was no obligation to rescue them or provide social services (which would have been called "socialism" today). To do so was regarded as disturbing the natural selection process for humans, whereby the stronger survived. We see exactly the same mindset in play today, as so many evangelicals side with the GOP in their program to divest the poor of health care, benefits, and even union pensions.

Hiofstadter himself observed (p. 133):

"There seems to be such a thing as the generically-prejudiced mind. Studies of political tolerance and ethnic prejudice have shown that zealous church-going and rigid religious faith are among the most important correlates of political and ethnic animosity."

All this is by way of historical background, and truth be told, the evangelicals did appear to reach a peak of power by the mid-80s, even displacing Roman Catholicsm as the most converted-to religion in central and South America. By the evidence those trends are still strong there, but appear to be waning dramatically in the United States. At least according to the new book, The Fall of the Evangelical Nation, by former Dallas Morning News Religion reporter Christine Wicker.

Wicker argues in the Introduction that "Evangelical Christianity in America is dying, and nobody knows what to do about it."

Still, merely because a cult or religious sect is said to be "dying" doesn't necessarily mean it will become totally extinct. After all, remnants of religious movements that have survived thousands of years stil remain, the Gnostics are one (with churches in Barbados for example). Evangelicals won't become extinct, but from Wicker's book, it seems clear their political and other power will be curtailed.

Wicker, to her credit, documents all the indices of decline, including: fewer witnessers (to harass people on the streets), fewer conversions and Baptisms as well as fewer to the salvation altar to the tune of "Blood of the lamb". There's also continually dropping membership not to mention retention. For every evangelical that joins, two others drop out - Bart Ehrman was one (the other of Misquoting Jesus).

In addition, there is a significant drop in direct participation, and giving (fewer tithes) as well as attendance. Much of this transpired after the Rev. Ted Haggard, who had fulminated against gays in his 'New Life' megachurch, was found to be consorting with a gay and receiving "massages". This led to his banishment from the church he founded (though he's apparently started another) and the loss of thousands from the New Life church, and probably tens of thousands around the country who followed him.

No surprise then that even as evangelical forces continue to 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, but Wicker isn't sanguine about their chances at success. Moreover, contrary to what hard headed fundie deniers might allege ('It's all an atheist plot!') Wicker's sources are unimpeccably objective: Gordon Conwell, Barna, Josh McDowell, Southern Baptist Mission Board, and from some secular but neutral sources like Pew and Gallup. Wicker herself, is not neutral, but rather a lapsed Baptist who lost her faith in college, like 90% of evangelical children do, according to Josh McDowell.

The above gives those of us who are rationalists hope that the children of existing fundies will also eventually lose that millstone of a false faith, once they are out from under the roofs of their tryannical preacher parents.

Most encouraging to me is how Wicker has been able to demonstrate from her data and documents that, contrary to every fourth American being a right-wing Evangelical Christian, (as the 25 percent of 2004 ballot-casters dubbed “values voters” were supposed to be) barely 7 percent, fit that mold at most.

This means the country isn't as much hostage to these zealots (like the Afghans are to the Taliban, or the Iranians to the Mullahs) as we secularists first believed. Indeed, Wicker shows that many of those bloated stats were designed to give the right-wing more power at election time.

Of course, a much deeper and long term concern is the regressive education that most evangelical children receive compliments of their backward parents. While it might be the "righteous" thing for them to swallow whole cloth fabrications and crappola like young Earth creationism and Intelligent design, this won't get them very far in the mainstream academic or secular world. All of those students who learned creationism either at home or otherwise, will now have to compete in classrooms with those who learned evolution.

Alas, for the fundie kids, the standard university Biology tests are all on evolution not creationism.

On the greater global level, as Wicker and others note, Evangelical Christianity will increasingly lack the ability to communicate with the wider educated world because of the chasms of ignorance and irrationality it has erected for itself.

All of this is a sad commentary on the whole movement, and the untold human waste, in potential and critical thought, left behind. Even as otherwise bright fundie -evangelical scientists squander their talents and best years on "theories" that can't hold any intellectual ballast at all.

Maybe the best thing is for Evangelicalism to slip into permanent redundancy and the sooner the better.

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