But it’s what you need to know despite them because the political implications of this are significant. The secret that is being talked about in the Evangelical world is that the estimate of how many evangelical, fundamentalist, and conservative Christian “values” voters out there has been significantly overestimated by pollsters and pundits.
Christine Wicker, former religion writer for the Dallas Morning News, has written a new book, The Fall of the Evangelical Nation, and she stumbled upon this startling fact quite by accident. Indeed, she calls it the story all the religion writers, including herself, had missed.
Wicker, who grew up a Southern Baptist, originally set out to write about the phenomena of the seeker friendly mega church movement. But as she was researching her story, she began to hear the mumbling of those she was interviewing about the real story, which was the stagnant growth and dwindling membership of all these churches.
The reason for this, as Wicker soon discovered, is that many churches cook their books, or at least their membership rolls. They’re not doing this intentionally but, as one example, it’s not uncommon for many Baptists to be baptized more than once. So, with each baptism counted as a conversion, the Southern Baptist Church has been over estimating its growth. It isn’t making new converts so much as recycling back sliders. Add to this that all the evangelical churches, not just Southern Baptists, often keep members on their rolls who have stopped attending church or moved away. And many regular churchgoers attend more than one church so they are counted on multiple church rosters. In other words, the inflated membership may be caused by the same people being counted multiple times.
Another reason that conservative Christians are over counted is that secular pollsters often confuse terms. This is something pollster George Barna, himself an Evangelical, discovered.
Secular pollsters and pundits don’t recognize the difference between a fundamentalist, which is a specific type of evangelical, and a born again non-fundamentalist. Then there are Pentecostals, who don’t belong in the same category as fundamentalists. In addition, people, when polled, often claim to be “born again,” or evangelical, but they don’t actually subscribe to the beliefs of conservative Christians. This was another discovery made by George Barna, who claims that only one in ten self-described evangelicals has what he would term a "biblically based world view."
Because of his own religious background, he thought to poll his subject’s actual beliefs, not their self-description. When asked specific questions about their beliefs, many of those who called themselves evangelical picked answers at variance with evangelical tenets, especially when asked if they believed that the only way to be saved and go to heaven was to have a personal relationship with Jesus. A majority actually said they thought it was possible for a good person to go to heaven even without being a Christian. While a laudable idea (I certainly agree with it), it is a direct contradiction of a core evangelical teaching.
Besides the fact that Barna and Wicker make a convincing case that institutional evangelicalism is not only stagnant but may be in decline, the religious right is also taking another hit to its political prominence because even within the community of faithful, there is a nascent religious left challenging its political hegemony.
The media have already noted a new brand of progressive evangelical, led by innovators like Jim Wallis, Tony Campolo, Philip Yancey, and Brian McLaren. There is also a group called the Emerging Church movement, which is composed of younger, urban and suburban evangelicals, who have specifically rejected both the angry tone and the focus on politically divisive wedge issues that mark the traditional Christian right. This group may be anti-abortion and may consider homosexuality to be sinful, but they prefer to focus on God’s love and inclusivity. They also favor concentrating on issues such as good environmental stewardship and economic justice for the poor, which puts them in the camp of political progressives.
Although they consider Scripture authoritative and historically accurate, they are by no means inerrantists, and they are willing to experiment with a more liturgical and sacramental approach to worship and theology than one typically finds in the reformed Protestant churches, which puts them at odds with older, more conservative Evangelicals. In other words, they are presenting challenges to the old guard on both political and theological grounds. But when asked by pollsters, many of them would still describe themselves as born again or Evangelical.
So, while most pollsters would estimate that the Christian right is a steady 25% of the population, Wicker estimates that it may be as low as 7%. In addition, Wicker argues that the fastest growing group, according to Pew Research’s latest study of religious trends, would be non believers, who have grown from 8 to over 16%.
Indeed, Wicker comments on the recent spate of best sellers by atheist authors like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, which has spawned a bunch of books by less known atheist authors, including a tome on atheist spirituality, as further proof of the growth of non believers as an audience for this message.
So, what does all this have to do with politics?
For starters, it may be time for politicians who really are secular to stop pandering to religious people and to be honest. Perhaps, we can actually have a dialogue on issues and values that is inclusive of both the religious and the secular – those who don’t belong to churches and have no belief in God are not without moral values.
It may be time to recognize that people can arrive at a set of universal values including compassion, integrity, honesty, concern for the earth, for poor people, for strangers, and a desire for peace without belonging to an organized religion.
Religion provides comfort and purpose in life for many. Some of the greatest movements to improve social conditions, including the abolitionists; women’s suffragists; and the later civil rights and peace movements, have been inspired by religious beliefs. But non believers also have laid down their lives for love of country and for their commitment to freedom and justice. It just may be that a certain type of narrow religiosity needs to be challenged in order for there to be genuine respect for the faithful and the skeptical alike.
Certainly, the very least conclusion that can be drawn from Wicker’s book and Barna’s work is that the religious right no longer calls all the shots, if they ever did. They have simply been an extremely well organized, dedicated group who managed to gain an influence out of all proportion to their actual numbers and it’s time to end their domination of politics. My one disclaimer is they have a role to play and deserve a place at the table, but so do others with differing philosophies. In other words, it’s time to respectfully end their control of American politics and to listen to other voices.