The Death of Evangelicalism Makes News

by Matthew Raley It transpired in the media during Holy Week that evangelicalism, like Lazarus, is bound for the grave despite the earnest prayers of believers for healing. That this came to light is not cause for dismay.

The week began with a cover story by Newsweek's editor Jon Meacham, "The Decline and Fall of Christian America." Meacham gives a detailed analysis of data from, among other sources, the 2009 American Religious Identification Survey showing that the percentage of self-identified Christians has dropped by 10% over the last 20 years, and that the percentage of the religiously unaffiliated has doubled.

Meacham's thesis, that the decline of Christianity means the end of the religious right's "Christian nation" concept, is undeniable. His assessment that Christianity can benefit from a religious free market is, I think, also undeniable. Here's a quote:

The Founders' insight was that one might as well try to build a wall between economics and politics as between religion and politics, since both are about what people feel and how they see the world. Let the religious take their stand in the arena of politics and ideas on their own, and fight for their views on equal footing with all other interests. American public life is neither wholly secular nor wholly religious but an ever-fluid mix of the two. History suggests that trouble tends to come when one of these forces grows too powerful in proportion to the other.

One evangelical leader Meacham quotes extensively, Al Mohler, agreed with this assessment, while emphasizing that Christianity formed the soil in which such freedom grew. Mohler gave an endorsement to the article in comments on his blog, saying,

Mr. Meacham also suggests that this new situation is perhaps healthy for the church.  To this extent I agree -- the church gains a necessary knowledge any time the distinction between the church and the world is made more evident.  Our first concern is and must be the Gospel.  It is good that non-Christians know that they are not Christians and that Christians be reminded of that fact that what sinners need is the Gospel of Christ, not merely the lingering morality of the Christian memory.

This dialogue was provocative enough.

Then, on Good Friday, came an article in London's Daily Telegraph. The English paper, it seems, scooped the American press on a month-old speech by James Dobson. Upon leaving the board of Focus on the Family, Dobson talked to his staff about the political defeats sustained by the movement he has led for so many years. According to the Telegraph,

“We tried to defend the unborn child, the dignity of the family, but it was a holding action,” he said.

“We are awash in evil and the battle is still to be waged. We are right now in the most discouraging period of that long conflict. Humanly speaking, we can say we have lost all those battles.”

The article gave reactions from grass-roots evangelicals.

“Conservatives became so obsessed with the political process we have forgotten the gospel,” said Steve Deace, an evangelical radio talk show host in Iowa who broadcast a recording of Mr Dobson’s address, which he said had appeared on Focus on the Family’s website before disappearing.

Mr Deace added: “All that time spent trying to sit at the top table is not time well spent. Republicans say one thing and do another.”

Dobson claims to have been misquoted, though in an interview with Sean Hannity, he merely adds that he is not giving up the fight. He still acknowledges that the religious right lost in the recent elections, and he says nothing to persuade me that there is a prospect for winning politically in the future. Indeed, I found his political appraisals incoherent.

It is tempting to read these stories with a spirit of gloom. But giving in would be a mistake.

Readers of this blog will not be surprised by any of these media items. A week of bad PR has only brought to light what we have long known: Christianity is in trouble in America. Evangelicalism, as a cultural expression of faith in Christ, may well die in the sense that its institutions and ways will no longer be sustainable. I have been writing and preaching with a goal of preparing our church for this time.

But something new will emerge.

The Gospel of Jesus Christ remains the strongest force on earth. Al Mohler is right: when God's people see the distinction between the world and Christ's Kingdom sharply, they are ready to see the Gospel's power in new ways.

I am not convinced that we are in a dark time at all. To be sure, there will be ongoing cultural trauma, and much personal cost from the loss of the Judeo-Christian heritage. Still, I'm convinced that this cultural collapse has given us the biggest evangelistic opportunity in centuries. I wrote The Diversity Culture, to be released next month (excerpt in the blogroll), to show why I believe the opportunity is so large, and how we can take advantage of it by returning to the message and life of the Gospel.

America still has many people who have met the risen Christ, who know what He does, and who display Him faithfully. We have to remember why Lazarus went into that tomb: Jesus withheld healing so that he could give resurrection.