Evangelicals: Then and Now
It’s easy to get the impression (especially for those of us in the secular humanist community) that the long-term trend of dwindling congregations in mainline Protestant churches is being compensated by increasing attendance in evangelical Protestant churches. If not matched person for person, at least as notable in the increasing volume coming from the arrogant snake-oil-selling leaders. Historically, fundamentalist evangelicals began to assert themselves into the cultural wars and political debate in the early 1970s, mostly coming from a reaction to the upheavals in the 1960s, including the Second Wave feminist movement; civil rights reform; and challenges to the overall political and economic structures of the country and its relation to war and poverty; and the beginnings of the open drug culture.
But the fact is those identifying as evangelical Protestants is decreasing. Not only is its growth in decline, it is most glaring in the demographic of age. In 2006, 23% of the population surveyed identified as evangelicals; in 2017, this had decreased to 17%. A Pew survey shows that in 1987, 20% of of those 18-29 years old claimed to be evangelicals, and by 2016 that number had fallen to 11%.
The numbers show that what Robert P. Jones, CEO of Public Religion Research Institute, has called the “2nd wave of Christian decline” is, in fact, underway. (Never mind the Catholics: they made sure their ride on the down escalator to irrelevance and to its lore’s favorite place— Hell— was ensured by methodically resisting change to 1000-year-old doctrine and tradition— a tradition which, unfortunately, included rampant sexual abuse by its clergy and centuries of hiding and coverups by its bishops.)
Probably contributing to the fall off interest from the youngest group might better be called put off. The inevitability of changing attitudes toward sex and the acceptance that biological and psychological realities about people’s sexuality do not necessarily match is now becoming evident to even the most bigoted. Most younger people know (and like) at least one gay or non-cisgender person, and really have a hard time reconciling the draconian doctrines of the church of their parents with their own more tolerant understanding. Nor do they tend to be as obsessed as their elders about immigration, and their elders’ insecurity about losing influence in an increasingly brown America.
The cover story of the October edition of The New Republic gives the account of another direction a few evangelicals have taken. “The Struggle for a New American Gospel” is the story of how two late thirty-ish former evangelicals made the full circle from conservative evangelical upbringing to disaffected atheists, and back again to Christianity (mostly)—this time, with an enlightened liberal understanding of the Christian message highly preferable to the hardline fire and brimstone, racist, and homophobic religion American evangelicalism is known for. The Liturgists was the brainchild of Michael Gugnor, musician and recording artist recognized best for contributing to the Christian music scene, and “Science Mike” McHargue, author, podcaster, former advertising representative, and current afficionado of popular science. The two co-host The Liturgist Podcast along with contributors Hillary and William, as well as plan and host “gatherings” throughout America and beyond, and have put together a couple of online courses which they sell on their website.
The author of the article, Bryan Mealer, inserts parallels to his own story of a similar spiritual transition he passed through; and at times has trouble at times tempering his giddiness over this openly liberal new group and its founders. “At Trinity [an Austin church building where the The Liturgists held a gathering] I realized I could be both liberal and Christian—that the church could be an affirming and reconciling place for gay and transgender people, along with advocating for the poor and oppressed. It was liberating….Somewhere within me, beneath the scar tissue, was a child who’d once believed that Sunday school lesson of universal love and was waiting for it to be true….He clung to the verse about seeking justice ….I followed that child, running.”
McHargue and Gugnor borrow the term “deconstruction” from philosopher Jacques Derrida and which, very loosely, describes the processes of breaking down something into its parts to understand its meaning “through the workings of language and conceptual systems.” As applied by The Liturgists, it is the next step after first having experienced so much of the bullshit from your religion that you have to escape. Somewhere out of the ashes the hunch that, if one was seriously committed to Christianity, focusing on the actual message charity, love, empathy, and forgiveness taught by Christ himself would be a good place to start. As it turned out, it was an excellent place to start, because the founders had, in the process, tuned in to a niche that was looking for a place to happen; where the intersection of political lefties, social justice warriors, skeptics, mainline Protestants, the “I’m spiritual, not religious” crowd, mystics, meditators, and a place where even those to whom speaking in tongues is a legitimate religious experience worthy of discussion are welcome at the table. After that, Science Mike and Music Michael let their talent take over—the former as the loquacious hipster directing (more or less) the discussion, and the latter filling in the conversation and plugging in self-composed music clips to set and heighten the mood of the segment. Both they and sidekicks Hillary and William are not strangers to the idea that in order to really connect with their targeted demographic a light peppering of the otherwise deep thoughts discourse with some well-placed potty language and sexual innuendo is the order of the day.
So…credit given where credit is due: the podcast has survived four years and is among iTunes’ “What’s Hot” in the spirituality and religion podcast category; they have produced a slick webpage and web-based tutorials; and they round off this year’s events with gatherings in London, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, and Nashville. The social message is near and dear to the humanist heart, so why not take your friends where you find them? Can the pseudo-science and the mysticism, the advice on Enneagram interpretation, and the sentimental reflections on tongues be overlooked as quirky holdovers from a previous delusional world view if they are sincerely committed to working toward righting social injustices? Do they understand current hateful roots of racism and misogyny and xenophobia in world literature can be traced to the Bible, and are they willing to speak out on the subject with fellow Christians? Or, since rational thinking and true scientific understanding are hard, will this end up being another podcast with lots of talk and little action centered on nurturing feel-goodness among fickle listeners by a couple of two very cool L.A. dudes?
The Humanist Advocate
reported by Marty Bankson