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GUEST COMMENTARY: Evangelical power not all its cracked up to be

c. 2008 Religion News Service (UNDATED) The idea that Christian evangelicals are flourishing and could take over America is the biggest publicity scam in the country’s history. Put forth by evangelicals and politicians seeking power, unquestioningly accepted by most of the media, this idea has caused the real majority of America’s Christians to be almost […]

c. 2008 Religion News Service

(UNDATED) The idea that Christian evangelicals are flourishing and could take over America is the biggest publicity scam in the country’s history.

Put forth by evangelicals and politicians seeking power, unquestioningly accepted by most of the media, this idea has caused the real majority of America’s Christians to be almost totally shut out of the public square. Their faith has been so often disparaged as weak and ineffective that some have even come to believe those lies.

By anointing themselves the big winners in American Christianity, the country’s most conservative evangelicals have distorted the image of faith in this country and abroad. They have done incalculable damage to the cause of Christianity.

All of this has resulted from distortion, power mongering and puffery. Let’s talk about what is actually true.

The truth is that the number of people who say they are evangelical has been dropping in the United States for more than 100 years. Evangelicals have gone from 42 percent of the population in 1900 to 15 percent in 2005, according to a 2006 report by the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Other recent studies say evangelical Protestants now make up 26 percent U.S. religious landscape _ a less steep but still notable drop.

The truth is that the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation’s largest evangelical Protestant church, has seen its growth ebb. The convention recently announced its total membership declined by 40,000 in 2007. The number of baptisms has fallen for the seventh year out of eight. Every year more and more of the 16 million members listed on Baptist rolls don’t actually attend Baptist churches. As one Southern Baptist leader put it, “The reality is, the FBI couldn’t find half those members if they had to.”

The truth is that evangelical Christianity has had almost no influence on the country at large. Fifty years ago, the moral stances taken by evangelicals that now seem so reactionary were then commonly accepted. Abortion was abhorred. Children were rarely born out of wedlock. Homosexual behavior was hidden and considered not only morally wrong but also an indication of mental illness. Unmarried couples rarely lived together.

All that has changed.

The truth is that after more than 20 years of political action and many electoral victories, the so-called religious right has achieved few of its objectives. Abortion is still legal. The idea that gays and lesbians are normal people, behaving normally and entitled to equal rights is widely accepted.

So how did it happen? How did evangelicals come to seem so numerous and so powerful?

First, conservative evangelicals organized politically. They picked their issues well. They maintained discipline. They got out the vote. They took over the Republican Party, which doesn’t take huge numbers to do. Their political prowess meant they could set much of the agenda for what the country talked about and voted on.

Second, they infiltrated and intimidated other Christian groups. In planned campaigns, they divided and disrupted non-evangelical denominations about biblical inerrancy, gay rights, gender issues and abortion. Those issues began to dominate media coverage of non-evangelical Christian groups and to dominate mainline leaders’ time.

Because mainline Protestants were rising in income and educational levels, mainline churches were losing adherents _ a pattern that holds across religious lines and is now affecting evangelicals.

Religious right evangelicals convinced the world that they were flourishing because of their hardline faith. They disparaged the faith of other Christians, called them ineffective and weak, so their opinions and good works began to seem insignificant.

Evangelical growth was invariably compared to that of mainline Christian denominations. Mainliners were losing members. Evangelicals were gaining.

But the truly important growth comparison was with the population as a whole, where evangelicals were losing ground. Hardly anyone noticed that.

As a result, American politics has become needlessly sanctimonious, divisive and bitter. Christians of mature spirituality and great wisdom have been harried into silence during a time when humans desperately need to hear them. And many people who might have gained much through Christian faith have been shut out of it.

America will recover. Christianity may not.

(Christine Wicker is the author of “The Fall of the Evangelical Nation: The Surprising Crisis Inside the Church.”)

DB/CM END WICKER

A photo of Christine Wicker is available via https://religionnews.com.<