ARMS OUTSTRETCHED, the congregation at Hyde Park Baptist Church welcomed the Holy Spirit into their two-storey, stained-glass sanctuary. Along with the spirit came their pastor, Kie Bowman, accompanied by a full jazz orchestra. He summed up his sermon as: “to impact culture, love the Bible”. But interspersed with this joyful invitation to share the Gospel were some spiky remarks, such his assertion that “you have to be convinced by the media that God does not exist.” Such has been the transformation of white evangelical Christianity over the past half-century. But conservative politics in church have also caused a backlash.
Mr Bowman’s statements reflect the battle that evangelical denominations have been fighting since the 1980s, when evangelical leaders began to move past discussions about morality and embraced conservative rhetoric about individual rights. Andrew Lewis, author of a book about this phenomenon called “The Rights Turn”, says that Republicans and conservative Christians now have a shared approach to the law. As examples, he points to the use of free-speech rights to defend anti-abortion legislation and to argue against regulating campaign finance. That fusion seemed complete in 2016, when 81% of white born-again Christians voted for Donald Trump, according to data from the Democracy Fund Voter Study Group.
Yet this coupling seems to be hurting membership of evangelical churches. Several polling firms have detected a decline in the share of Americans who describe themselves as white evangelicals over the past decade. The Pew Research Centre found a two-percentage-point drop from 2007 to 2012. PRRI found a six-percentage-point drop in the share of the population that identify as white evangelicals, from 23% in 2006 to 17% in 2016. ABC and the Washington Post found a still larger decline of eight percentage points, larger than the drop among mainline white Protestants. The problem is partly generational: in the PRRI data just 8% of young Americans aged 18-29 say they are white evangelicals, while 26% of those aged 65 or older are white evangelical Protestants. Together with the decline in the share of whites who identify as Catholics, this has caused anxiety among some of the faithful that white Christian America is under threat.
The argument about how to restore lost greatness has been running for 40 years. In the late 1970s the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), an umbrella organisation for evangelical churches, was roiled by a confrontation between modernisers, who were in charge of the organisation, and traditionalists, who blamed them for presiding over a levelling-off in church attendance. The traditionalists won, but on their watch the malaise has worsened. Nor are falling numbers the only problem: an exhaustive investigation by the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News identified more than 250 church leaders who have been accused of sexually abusing people who worshipped at SBC churches.
Many churches remain committed to preaching conservative politics from the pulpit on Sundays. The SBC’s leadership, however, has been critical of Mr Trump. Russell Moore, a theologian who heads its work on public policy, is among the president’s most eloquent critics.
This may be too little, too late for a group of former evangelicals who are trying to organise “ex-vangelicals”—or “exvies”—into a nascent political movement. Christopher Stroop, a journalist, has emerged as a leader among the exvies. Mr Stroop was raised in a fundamentalist evangelical household, where he went to non-denominational Christian schools and was surrounded mostly by friends who shared his beliefs. In high-school, biology lessons about DNA would be interspersed with preaching from the teacher, and sometimes with documentaries on “flood geology” and the search for Noah’s ark. “There was strong pressure to be a young-Earth creationist,” Mr Stroop says. He also recalls a class field-trip during school hours to a prototype Tea Party convention. Mr Stroop says his education was “all about isolating children in the subculture so they’ll grow up to be the culture warriors the church wants them to be.”
He typifies a larger pattern. In a paper published in 2017 Paul Djupe, Jacob Neiheisel and Anand Sokhey, all political scientists, found that people stop attending church when they have intellectual disagreements with their religion and when they lose social attachments to their congregations. Since Americans have become yoked to their political tribe with an intensity that often rivals religious fervour, those with moderate political disagreements frequently find their faith hard to reconcile with their politics and end up leaving their churches.