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White Evangelicals are Going Moderate. How Will Conservative Churches Respond?

Political and social justice movements have contributed to the decline of American evangelicalism and the rise of more moderate Protestant sects.

(CN) — On Independence Day, Belinda Kleeberger finally broke free.

The 66-year-old grandmother had only ever known her American Baptist church in small-town Maine. She had attended services there for six decades and was a leader in the church.

Kleeberger saw right-leaning political rhetoric grow there for the last few years, but the Fourth of July service was too much.

“Now it seems Jesus sat down with the Founding Fathers and helped them write the Constitution,” Kleeberger said. “I need a Jesus that transcends all that.”

She told her pastor that she needed to find another way. The conversation wasn’t easy, considering the pastor is Kleeberger’s sister-in-law.

Carolyn Wilkinson departed from her Southern Baptist Convention church in 2016.

Wilkinson had worshipped and studied many Western and Eastern disciplines; she was once a practicing Wiccan. Her fellow churchgoers wouldn’t let go of her past.

“No matter what, I was always going to be Carolyn the Witch,” the 54-year-old Maryland resident said.

Kleeberger and Wilkinson are part of a growing exodus from white evangelicalism.

White mainline Protestants now outnumber white Evangelicals, according to an extensive survey released July 8 by the Public Religion Research Institute, a nonpartisan, nonprofit polling organization.

Mainline Protestant churches — such as the United Methodist Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Episcopal Church — do not consider themselves evangelical or “born-again.” These groups tend to be more liberal and moderate in their doctrinal interpretations, and especially on social justice topics including same-sex marriage and abortion, compared to their evangelical counterparts, which include the Southern Baptist Convention, the Salvation Army and the Wesleyan Church.

“I don’t know when this would have last been the case, at least 70 or 80 years, the percentage of Americans who are white Evangelicals is smaller than the percentage of Americans who are white and more moderate to liberal Protestants,” said Diana Butler Bass, historian of Christianity and author of the 2021 book “Freeing Jesus: Rediscovering Jesus as Friend, Teacher, Savior, Lord, Way, and Presence.”

While many factors politically and socially may be fueling this shift, the ramifications for faith and politics may be profound.

MORAL MINORITY?

Fueled by Jerry Falwell Sr.’s “Moral Majority” organization, the U.S. evangelical movement boomed in the 1980s, tying many American Protestants to the Republican Party. The Christian Right sprang up and became a vital voting base behind conservatives’ political successes.

At the same time, the number of mainline Protestants dipped, leading to many church closures.

Butler Bass, who has a doctorate in religious studies from Duke University, said the numbers started reversing shortly after 9/11. She believes the conservative evangelicals’ rejection of LGBTQ rights and a growing political disconnect, especially with young people, has fueled the shift.

“You can see that it’s true, because of the way evangelicalism have been acting,” Butler Bass said. “They’ll say, ‘Oh, we’re the biggest group around. Liberals are declining. We’re true so you know our churches grow. God blesses us.’ But then, on the other hand, they’re acting in this really paranoid and persecuted way. And they know, internally, and they talk about it, how people are not joining churches anymore. How people are leaving. How young adults are leaving.”

But not all are convinced that there has been a complete flip.

Daniel Williams, author of “The Politics of the Cross: A Christian Alternative to Partisanship” and a historian at the University of West Georgia, noted that other studies have shown that, while a significant number has left evangelism, enough new members have joined to keep the numbers relatively stable. He holds that many evangelicals are hesitant to be identified as such because of the “objectional politics that they see in Evangelicalism.”

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Williams also said statistics can be skewed depending on how the terms “evangelical” and “mainline Protestant” are defined, and also said PRRI’s CEO, Robert Jones, has been arguing for years that evangelicalism is trending downward.

But Williams agreed that evangelical churches are facing new challenges.

“I see evangelicalism experiencing significant divisions,” the professors said. “So, regardless of whether the numbers are shrinking or whether the numbers are holding steady, it’s certainly the case I think that that Evangelicalism is fragmenting to a greater degree than it has in decades.”

POLITICS AND THE PULPIT

Political polarization had surged in the past four years. That was extended to the pulpit as evangelical leaders such as Franklin Graham and Jim Bakker blindly threw their faith behind former President Donald Trump.

But Butler Bass said the numbers first began tilting towards mainline Protestants during George W. Bush’s administration, notably between 2004 and 2006. She Bass believes that U.S. military involvement in the Middle East, coupled with Bush’s anti-LGBTQ policies, sparked the shift.

“I think that really does point to the fact that the priorities of the Republican Party have been out of step for about 20 years with where most younger adults are,” she said. “And so, younger evangelicals have a very hard time putting together their parents’ support for the war in Iraq, the war on terror, the rejection of their gay friends with being Christian.”

The PRRI study indicates a notable average age difference between older white evangelicals (56) and younger white mainline Protestants (50). The previous president’s harsh rhetoric may also have added fuel to the shift.

“Beginning in 2016, a number of people who might have been somewhat uncomfortable with the Republican Party, but before that perhaps thought they could live within a movement that that leans toward conservatism, felt that President Trump was so objectionable, that the people who supported Trump and saw no moral problem with what he was what he was doing and what he stood for, were not people that they wanted to claim as a part of their movement,” Williams said. “They were not comfortable calling themselves evangelicals.”

Kleeberger, the Maine Baptist, became a member of that group on the Fourth of July.

At her former church, the children’s ministry pastor compared immigrants to rats in a speech to the kids after Joe Biden’s election. Kleeberger’s daughter even forbade her from taking the grandchildren to that church.

It was just another indicator at how her church had changed.

“It was always we should be good and pay our taxes and all that, but it’s never been like, ‘We have to stand up and make a Christian nation,’” Kleeberger said.

SOCIAL JUSTICE FRACTURES

Williams believes we are in a time of unprecedented fracturing of traditional evangelicalism. Many of those splits have come from various social justice movements such as Black Lives Matter and #MeToo.

“Trump’s election set in motion a series of events,” Williams said. “The #MeToo movement of 2017, the incident in Charlottesville in 2017 and then of course the Black Lives Matter movement. It started before Trump, but I think a particular historical context within the administration gave it perhaps greater urgency, greater visibility.”

Those splits were on display within the Southern Baptist Convention this year.

It started when a group of women refused to let the church sweep abuse allegations under the rug. It continued when a group of black pastors threatened to leave the organization if it adopted a proposed stance against critical race theory, a body of work in legal philosophy that emphasizes the social construction of race; the term has lately been used as a catchall term to refer to views that highlight and criticize white privilege.

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“As people begin to view this as a real assault on women’s lives and women’s rights, and the principles of equality that they hold so [closely] … what we are seeing already is really multifaceted fracturing,” Williams said.

Butler Bass believes misplaced fear against BLM has fueled the issue of critical race theory.

She said evangelicals see their children coming back from a secular college with a BLM T-shirt and point to that as the reason their children have stopped going to their church.

“So, critical race theory becomes what they’ve identified as this horrible anti-Christian, secular, socialist agenda, stealing their children away from church,” Butler Bass said.

Wilkinson said her experience has shown there is a deep-seated rejection of anything regarded as left-leaning in the evangelical church.

“I believe that there is a deep hatred towards liberalism, a deep hatred towards liberals, which I think was fueled from decades of propaganda,” Wilkinson said.

FEAR OVER FAITH

One of the most common phrases in the Bible is, “Do not be afraid.” But fear, experts say, often drives evangelicals to the polls and shapes their political and spiritual beliefs.

“This fear that the government is going to start persecuting Christians who don’t adopt the expected socially acceptable view on transgender issues, or something else related to the issues of same-sex marriage … was one of the things that is driving the average local support for Trump,” Williams said.

Fear also drives white evangelicals’ love for guns, which they view as a way to protect themselves and their way of life from the liberal agenda.

“If the cross is God’s victory through self-denial, through death, through self-sacrifice, then the gun is a victory through the very opposite of that,” Williams said. “And the irony of that doesn’t really seem to be something that people who’ve adopted this form of civil religion seem to recognize.”

Graham and other leaders ramped up their rhetoric to rally white evangelicals to vote Republican during Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.

“They were actually blaming the decline [of church attendance] on persecution from the Obama administration and promising that if Trump was elected that that persecution would end and people would start returning to their churches,” Butler Bass said. “Their churches would grow again because it would be legal to be Christians again.”

The notable exception to the fear over faith mentality seems to come in the attitude toward Covid-19 in the evangelical community.

“Faith over fear” became the catchphrase as many churches defied health recommendations with packed services filled with unmasked and unvaccinated worshipers.

“Had the Trump administration responded differently, had he responded differently to that, maybe evangelicalism would have responded differently,” Williams said. “But because of this particular narrative that was already there in their minds, when you then had the popular conservative voices that they trusted saying this is more or less a liberal plot … it was easy to say, ‘Well, let’s resist this.’”

In many ways the blasé attitude toward the virus is a continuation of the white evangelical community’s rejection of science, Williams said. It started with a denial of evolution and of climate change, which led to disregarding pandemic health advice from medical experts.

The disconnect could be another factor in the declining numbers.

“The two straws that broke the camel’s back last year … were Trump’s second election, and COVID,” Butler Bass said. “And when all the anti-science, anti-vaccine stuff, let’s go have a big rally and invite 10,000 people out, worship Jesus with no mask and infect our town. There were a lot of smart, thoughtful, caring Evangelicals who just couldn’t take that anymore.”

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POLITICAL IMPLICATIONS

The decline in white evangelicalism may have a greater impact than packing pews on Sunday, it could have political ramifications as well.

The PRRI numbers show that the Hispanic Evangelical community is roughly the same size as the population of Black Protestants. The Hispanic population is still a swing voting bloc, with Catholics tending to be heavily Democrat and evangelicals tending to be heavily Republican.

The Hispanic vote had an impact on last year’s presidential election.

“You look at what happened in Arizona, it was Hispanic Catholics and Native Americans who were the swing votes that brought Arizona into the Biden’s camp,” Butler Bass said. “But in Texas, in the Rio Grande Valley, where there’s a huge number of very large, highly impactful evangelical Hispanic churches — those voted for Trump.”

Butler Bass said the Hispanic vote will be the key to winning Texas and Florida in the future.

She believes the days of massive white evangelical turnout for GOP candidates are numbered.

“It’s got a lot of money and big donors and institutions, and those will continue to have influence for a long time, but it’s lost the heart and soul of young white America, period,” Butler Bass said. “They can’t get it back. There’s no way they’re getting it back.”

Williams isn’t so quick to write the obituary on white evangelicalism’s political influence. He points out that 40 percent of the white population still identifies as a Christian.

“It continues to be a huge voting group,” Williams said. “So, even though the culture is becoming more pluralistic, there is still a significant voice of white Christianity to be understood.”

Williams said many political experts believed that the GOP would recalibrate its election strategy after 2008 to try and reach out to Hispanics.

That didn’t happen and doesn’t figure to happen with the seeming effectiveness of Trump’s anti-immigration rhetoric, which helped get him elected in 2016.

“At least in the short term, it’s worked reasonably well because of unusually high voter turnout among whites in conservative rural areas,” Williams said. “So, there would have to be a complete reinvention of the party, to find a way to avoid this dependence [on white evangelicals].”

FUTURE OF THE CHURCH

If the turmoil surrounding the Southern Baptist Convention this year is an indication, significant change is coming to white evangelicalism.

The pressure by women and Black pastors for change might by the first of many for the church as minorities find their voice.

“The men who have been in charge to this point will be scared enough that they will open up leadership to groups that they feel like they can be allied with,” Butler Bass said.

Williams believes the fractures will become more pronounced leading to sub-sects with different views, divided along regional values.

One wing might be more Christian nationalist. Another might be more progressive on race issues but conservative on topics concerning sexuality and gender. Another could be more progressive on LGBTQ rights.

“What we’re seeing is a division so pronounced,” Williams said. “We're already beginning to find, and will soon find more of, people not being willing to talk to each other across these dividing lines.”

Mainline Protestant sects will have their own challenges.

“They’re going to have to figure out how to redeploy resources to places where they’re reaching younger audiences,” Butler Bass said.

Kleeberger tried a new church for the first time last week. The church, a United Church of Christ in a neighboring town, described Martin Luther King Jr. and Greta Thunberg as modern-day prophets. It made quite an impression.

“I enjoyed it very much,” Kleeberger said. “They have a great children’s ministry. Hopefully, I can take my grandkids with me.”

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