(The LAST) Part of a Series on Christianity in Present-Day America
Update: As I was writing this, Gallup released a brand new poll showing that – for the first time since polling began in 1937, the percentage of Americans that belong to any sort of house of worship has fallen below 50% (specifically 47%, down from 70% in 1999).
Also of major note, this is the first poll that I have seen that addresses members of Generation Z (the ‘Zoomers’) who have reached adulthood. As one might expect given the trends that we have seen, they are even less likely than millennials to have any religious preference at all (33% of them claim no religious preference, against Millennials’ 31%).
The poll also shows that there are plenty of people who still identify as Christian or another religion, but do not belong to a house of worship or organized religious institution.
I haven’t had time to fully read and unpack this new polling data, but felt that it needed to be mentioned.
As the song says ‘The Futures not Ours to See; Que Sera Sera’. I don’t know what will happen going forward, but I do believe that some general assumptions can be made. First, however, we need to acknowledge a few things.
First, Christianity has a long reach, and is inextricably tied to American culture, politics, entertainment, and all of the institutions that allow us a somewhat functional society, in ways both overt and invisible.
Second, one statistic that I have yet to mention is that the churches that are shrinking the most right now are the Protestant churches, mostly the mainline Protestant churches. The ones with more moderate views and doctrine. Most of them weren’t very large to begin with, and it is pretty easy to walk away from a Protestant church without fuss.
You can go on YouTube, and see videos made by young-adults (by which I mean people ages 25 or so down to 18) share their ‘deconstruction’ and ‘deconversion’ stories. You can listen to what they say made them start to question and research the validity of the faith in which they were raised. You can hear their absolutely heartbreaking accounts of the cognitive dissonance they faced, being (in some cases) disowned by family. And the thing is, you hear these things from those who were some of the most devout young Evangelicals. The ones who went to church, Sunday school, and youth group every single week. The ones who went to Evangelical colleges and universities. Even former Evangelical PASTORS.. And yet, with a tear in their eye, they walked away. I can’t imagine that it’s easy to come to the conclusion that the very nature of your universe is diametrically opposed to everything you have been taught to believe since you were a toddler. For someone that devout to leave their faith …. I can only imagine that the cognitive dissonance is almost unbearable.
The Evangelical movement is so large, however, that I suspect the exodus they are enduring hasn’t made a big enough impact on their balance sheets for it to be an existential problem for them, yet. In fact, many Evangelical leaders are quite pleased at the more moderate denominations’ impending downfall.
We’ve established that Millennials are leaving the church and – contrary to conventional wisdom – are not returning as they get older, get married, have children, etc. There is absolutely nothing that leads me to believe that the trend we are seeing will not continue on with the Zoomers, or even amplify.
The Millennials who have left the church aren’t taking their children to church or – presumably – providing a Christian upbringing. Christianity has a fairly large barrier-to-entry if you want to join up as an adult. So, it stands to reason that the trend of each generation being less religious will – over the next 50-100 years – not only continue, but will increase exponentially with each successive generation.
Altering this trajectory would require massive systemic change from the most fundamentalist of churches, and fundamentalist type churches aren’t exactly quick to embrace change. I don’t necessarily mean in terms of belief structure, or even doctrine, but in terms of the culture wars and identity politics which have caused our nation so much discord. Church should be a place for anybody, regardless of political ideology. What matters is what is in someone’s heart, right?
The problem is, the church has become so entangled with the Republican Party that one can no longer thrive without the other. Identity politics brings the church members to vote for people with an ‘R’ behind their name, and it brings people with an ‘R’ behind their name – if not into church – to at least embrace the will of the Evangelical voting bloc. Without the Christian Right, the Republican party would never again win a national election. Without the Republican Party, the Christian Right would have no culture war to use to pack the seats and bring in the Benjamins.
During the time I’ve been alive, some or most churches have – at one time or another – been strongly against the following (either due to biblical issues that they would like to impose on others, due to the ever-churning ‘Satanic Panic’, or just for kicks) – please bear in mind that this list is in no particular order and is by no means complete:
- Gay rights
- Gay people in the military
- Women in the military
- Pregnant Women in the military
- Dungeons and Dragons
- Pretty much anything that involves dice with more or fewer than 6 sides, really.
- Divorce (even in cases of physical abuse)
- Public schools (in favor of voucher programs that would ghettoize and defund public schools)
- The teaching of Evolution
- Comprehensive sex education
- The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution
- Partial-birth Abortion
- Second-trimester abortion (save for the case of the pregnancy causing a severe threat to the mother’s life)
- Any sort of Abortion (even if not having an abortion will kill the mother)
- Alcohol consumption
- Letting Terri Schiavo die naturally, in accordance with her own living will
- Non-traditional gender roles (stay-at-home dads, etc)
- Same-Sex Civil Unions
- Same-Sex Marriages
- The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (the United States joins Somalia as the only two nations not to ratify this – The UN convention says that you can’t beat your children, and some sects of Christianity believe that the bible says that you can).
- Immigrants and Asylum Seekers
- No, really, immigrants and Asylum Seekers
- The Scientific Method
- SNAP benefits
- Unemployment insurance (more specifically, allowing the utilization thereof)
- Poor people
- Insurance of any sort, seeing it as a form of:
- Contraception (either medically based or barrier based)
- Not requiring students of all faiths to recite a Christian Prayer before school
- Transgender rights (they REALLY don’t care for Trans folks)
- Allowing the Bridal Chorus from Lohengrin by Richard Wagner to be played at weddings (as a musician, I can’t really blame them on this one)
- Removing ‘under God’ from the Pledge of Allegiance, even though it is purely a product of the 1950s Red Scare.
- Tinky Winky (the purple Telletubby) – and no, I’m never letting this go
- The Simpsons
- Ouija Boards
- Rock Music Lyrics (congressional hearing held in 1985)
- Acknowledging that hurricanes, earthquakes, tornados, and Autism are acts of nature and are not caused by “the gays”.
- Wearing masks during a pandemic
- Vaccines to protect against said pandemic
- Strawberry Quik
- The appreciation that situations are usually nuanced
- Non-gender-conforming individuals
- Comet Ping Pong
- Bill Nye the Science Guy
If you grew up in the late ’80s or early ’90s, it is difficult to not see the church as something that just opposes things (sometimes important things, sometimes trivial things), usually just for the absolute heck of it. See, when people think you speak for God, and you point out things all around us that are ‘evil’ or ‘satanic’ or – worst of all – poisoning the fragile minds of our children, and present yourself as their leader against all of this ….. satan stuff, I guess? Well, then old people send you more of their life savings, write you into their will, etc.
And it seems like, more and more, younger people who know the Bible are seeing these things, along with some of the things that I’ve mentioned in previous writings ,and that a growing number of them are just not having it. It’s easy to be homophobic when you don’t have any friends who are gay. It’s easy to be transphobic until you get to know some trans people and realize that they are otherwise normal, decent people who happen to have gender dysphoria and are doing their best to deal with that. It’s easy to be Islamophobic until you come to know somebody who practices Islam, and you find them to be a kind, intelligent, and peaceful person. When one of your features is stoking hatred for these people, and your young people are eventually going to have to do things like go to university or get a job, they’re bound to notice that a lot of what you taught is complete and total BS. They will then start to question the doctrine itself and scripture itself, and bit-by-bit, the tapestry unravels.
So, it would seem that most of what will soon be all that is left of Christianity is at what will ultimately turn into the wrong side of the culture wars (when your hatred becomes a load-bearing part of your faith and culture, you have some weak building material, indeed.) Throughout it’s run to date, Christianity has virtually always had a gripe against someone or something – or, failing that, just a series of gripes among each other (griping between Christian sects has taken place since the 1st century A.D., with the Apostle Paul opposing the apocalyptic Jewish Christians, and then that sort of inter-denominational griping just continued on in perpetuity). I think that it is just in the DNA of both Christianity and the United States alike.
As an aside, I can’t help but picture some salt of the earth type farmer in 1700s New England – “Morning doth break, my wife, and verily it is right and salutary that I must feed all the animals, milk the chickens, gather eggs from the cows, before my daily late-morning piss and moan sesh with Farmer Blake”.
Problem is – as this exodus goes on over then next 50, 100, 150 years, I don’t see Christianity going quietly into that good night. Not even a little. What will THAT look like?
Yes, Jesus Loves Me,
For Pureflix Tells Me So
In 2014, Pure Flix released a movie called ‘God’s Not Dead’. It had Kevin Sorbo and Dean Cain. Like all Pure Flix productions, it portrays all Christians as being unfailingly nice and kind, and Non-Christians (Athiests, in particular) as being cartoonishly evil. It also reinforces the ridiculous Persecution Complex that the Christian Right so enjoys. I’d liken it to World War 2 propaganda films, but World War 2 propaganda films actually helped the war effort. The movie received a 12% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Nevertheless, it went on to earn $60 million domestic box and $3.9 million international for a total worldwide box office return of $64,667,874 – against a $2 million budget. As of the time of this writing, Pure Flix has released two sequels.
I spent a lot of time working at movie theaters, and I will tell you that there is a very large contingent of Christians who would never see a movie in a theater otherwise, but will pay to see any Christian movie, no matter how bad it is. But I’ve gone way off topic. The point is that members of the Christian Right are being actively conditioned to view anybody who believes differently from them as some sort of evil, satan-worshiping, baby-eating monster.
I would argue that the the God of the New Testament actually IS dead, but it was the Religious Right that killed Him, and now worship a proverbial golden idol that they have constructed in their own image.
These are the people who oppose programs to help the poor, oppose giving workers fair wages or safe working conditions, oppose a healthcare system that would allow everyone a decent level of care, want to fill for-profit prisons with non-violent offenders, who want to turn away refugees and asylum seekers, and flaunt their scientific illiteracy. This is all pretty much opposite of everything we know about the biblical Jesus Christ.
So, Mr. Smartypants, What is going to happen?
Usually for this, you would want to gather some really smart people – political scientists, sociologists, historians, futurologists, demographers, statisticians, military intelligence officers, and experts on emerging technologies, and they MIGHT come up with some type of conjecture. At any rate, I don’t have access to those.
It is one of those cruel twists of fate that we can know some future events well in advance. We know when every eclipse will be and where on Earth it will be visible. We know that Venus will pass the Earth at 0.2658 AU on January 8th. We know that Haley’s Comet will pass within 13.9 million km of Earth on May 7th, 2134. And we know that our galaxy (The Milky Way) will collide with the Andromeda Galaxy in about 4.5 billion years (they will merge to form a new galaxy called ‘Milkdromeda’). Meanwhile, we don’t know what the weather will be like 10 days from now, what will be in the news 3 weeks from now, if we will ever all be riding around in autonomous, electric vehicles, etc.
We live in a time where predicting what society will be like more than 20 years out is a fool’s errand, anyhow. 50 years ago, nobody could have predicted the fall of the Soviet Union, German Reunification, the emergence of the internet, that cell phones (working with said internet) would place the totality of public human knowledge in our pockets to be accessed on demand, GPS, that China would have the fastest-growing economy for 30 years running, that social media would turn each of us into a neurotic mess, that we would have a helicopter on Mars, that we would STILL not be using the metric system, or that VPNs and VOIP phones would allow people to work from home when needed.
50 (or even 20) years ago, if you had something that you wanted to say to a lot of people, you had – for most intents and purposes – no platform from which to do so. I’m not sure that – in general – people more than a few years younger than I am truly understand that none of this existed (in any real practical form, anyhow) prior to the mid-to-late 1990s. There were no influencers, youtubers, tik tokers, twitch streamers, Instagram models, streaming services, DEFINITELY no twitter, etc. You could write a ‘letter to the editor’ of your local newspaper that – if they felt was fit to publish – would be read by 10s of people, but otherwise, there was no way for the average person to say something to the world. Our world is still figuring out how to handle the fact that everybody now has that ability, as well as why that ability has our country so dangerously divided.
Remember that I said that it was the Mainline Protestant – the more moderate – churches that are dying fastest. Once those are gone, all you have left are the extreme elements. You could say that ‘The trends we have seen will continue until Christianity is no longer politically relevant’, or ‘The trends will reverse and Christianity will be fine’, or even ‘The culture wars and identity politics will continue to become inflamed to the point that widespread violence is inevitable’, and each of those predictions would be – at this point and in my estimation – equally valid.
The truth is that we don’t know what societal trends, demographic shifts, and disruptive technologies will come to bear. Will this great nation endure, as it has endured, will we will tear ourselves apart, or will we end up somewhere in the middle? A failed state either unable or unwilling to carry out the basic functions of governing?
Que Sera Sera, indeed.
‘Tis grace hath seen me safe thus far;
And grace will lead me home
My best attempt at some sort of conclusion
I know that I said that this series was not intended to be a personal airing of grievances. I realize that it has probably read that way, but that was never my intent. I began with polling data that showed a decline in religiosity among younger generations, and then took a (necessarily, by my estimation) heavy-handed approach to trying to figure out why.
Personally, I make it a policy never to begrudge anyone their religious beliefs. Poke fun here or there, maybe, but never begrudge. Freedom of religion is a basic human right, both as laid out in the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights (which the United States never ratified), and the Constitution of the United States of America. Moreover, I know first-hand how important religious and spiritual beliefs can be to one’s sense-of-self and mental wellbeing. It is entirely possible to reach a point in your life where … well … those are all you have left to keep you going.
Somebody believing differently from you does not – ipso facto – make them unreasonable or Satanic or evil or anything like that. You can talk to other people. And if you are nice, and seek to understand rather than to be understood, you will likely find them to be a flesh-and-blood Human Being, doing their best, just like you are. We – all of us – are made from the same star-stuff. Everybody has the same concern for family, the same drive to learn and to grow, and the same concern for the continued prosperity of the Human species. If there is one thing – out of all things – that I want to express, it is that Americans are far stronger together – as friends – than as enemies. That a person who lived their entire life destitute on the streets of Detroit just might have a different set of experiences that inform a different worldview from someone who grew up in Regent, North Dakota, who has a different worldview from someone who grew up in Schaumburg, Illinois, who has a different worldview from someone who grew up in Queens. And we need to recognize that this is alright. Otherwise, it will be at Americans’ own hands that what two world wars tried to do, finally comes to pass, and the USA becomes a failed state.
Most of us had to read the play ‘Inherit the Wind’ in high school English Lit. I leave you with a clip from the 1999 made-for-TV film version, which contains one of my favorite lines in all of literature. I edited it so that you will notice when it comes up.
Also, a programming note – from here on out, I will be posting to this blog every-other week, to allow myself time to do all of the research and writing and editing and formatting and webmastering that needs doing.
What if the world actually did end in 2012, and we’ve all just been in hell the entire time?