Pew Research Indicates Evangelical Denominations Are Seeing Signs of Decline Suffered by Mainline Protestants Over Past Few Decades

For Andrew Walker, the current “post-Christian” state of American culture has posed a serious challenge to the faithful.

For a variety of reasons, fewer and fewer Americans now have a grasp of the fundamentals of orthodox, biblical teachings, says Mr. Walker, director of policy studies for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. Like many who keep attuned to the country’s religious landscape, he notes, too, the dramatic rise of the so-called “nones,” especially among the young, who may believe in God, but have begun to refuse to identify with a particular religious group.

“They grew up in a nominal Christian culture, where it’s no longer of a cultural or social benefit to identify as a Christian,” he says. “To add to that is, there’s often not only no social prestige to gain, there’s also social prestige to lose, if you say you are a Christian in our society.”

It’s one piece of a cultural shift that has begun to affect even the nation’s most vibrant religious groups. The Southern Baptist Convention, one of the more conservative evangelical Protestant denominations, has lost more than a million members over the past decade. Still the largest single Protestant group in the nation with more than 15 million members, its network of churches nevertheless haven’t baptized so few a number of people in 70 years, the denomination’s research shows.

Over the past few decades, most scholars have recognized one indisputable trend within American Christianity: The country’s more liberal Protestant denominations were losing millions of members. Conservative and evangelical churches, by contrast, were holding steady if not flourishing.

For years, it was more or less conventional thinking, especially among Evangelicals, that “churches that stay with a clear-cut theological orientation will not go the way of the mainlines,” notes Bill Leonard, professor of Baptist studies at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., citing the influential 1972 study, “Why Conservative Churches are Growing” by the sociologist Dean Kelley. “Liberal mainline churches were then castigated for giving up the true faith and deserving what they got.”

As recently as 2007 to 2014, in fact, mainline Protestant denominations, including Presbyterians, Lutherans, Episcopalians, and Methodists, lost nearly 5 million adult members, according to Pew Research.

Today, however, there are signs that many of the same trends that decimated mainline Protestantism over the past few decades are now at work among evangelical denominations as well. According to a massive study by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) released in September, the number of white evangelical Protestants fell from about 23 percent of the US population in 2006 to 17 percent in 2016.

The finding, based on a survey of more than 100,000 Americans, “provides solid evidence of a new, second wave of white Christian decline that is occurring among white evangelical Protestants just over the last decade in the US,” said Robert Jones, head of the PRRI, after the study was released. “Prior to 2008, white evangelical Protestants seemed to be exempt from the waves of demographic change and disaffiliation that were eroding the membership bases of white mainline Protestants and white Catholics.”

Perhaps more than anything else, conservative Christians like Walker, an ethicist whose book “God and the Transgender Debate” explores the biblical teachings relevant to gender identity, have had to confront the shock of the country’s evolving sexual mores. This includes the legalization of same-sex marriage, which dramatically upended the traditional moral teaching of monogamous, pre-sexual marriage between a man and a woman.

As many Evangelicals now say they are living in a “post-Christian” era, there has been a sense of urgency to both reassert the fundamentals of Christian orthodoxy – the key to vibrancy and growth, many believe – as well as ratchet up their political efforts to bolster religious liberty in the public square.

Last Friday, the Trump administration expanded the rights of employers to claim religious exemptions to the federal mandate to include contraception coverage in employer-provided health plans. And the for the past few years, conservative Evangelicals, who support President Trump in overwhelming numbers, have been working to carve out religious liberty exemptions for wedding vendors, who object to offering services for same-sex wedding ceremonies.

Quoting the president, Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Friday said that “we will not allow people of faith to be targeted, bullied, or silenced anymore.”

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Christian Science Monitor