Evangelism dies once again

A new survey by the Public Religion Research Institute has revealed that there are less and less conservative Christians with each successive generation, and that the number of religious progressives in America is growing.

As the above graph shows, amongst America’s oldest generations (silent generation, Baby Boomer), religious conservatives make up a significant portion of the population. Amongst younger generation (Generation X, Millennial), religious conservatives make up a small minority – and amongst Millennials, religious conservatives are outnumbered both by religious progressives and the non-religious.

Not only that, but the PRRI survey also shows us that the ol’ Protestant Ethic and Spirit of Capitalism may be on its way out, as more Americans now believe that Christianity and Capitalism are inconsistent (44%) than consistent (41%).

Interestingly, the biggest ideological divide between the conservative and liberal religious was not on a social issue but on a religious issue. 82% of religious conservatives said that if everyone had a personal relationship with God, social problems would disappear, as opposed to 31% of liberals. I could talk about this specific fact for about a decade, but in brief, this is the reason religious conservatives think that stopping gay marriage is a good way to remedy social problems.

Anyway, this survey seems like a pretty good thing. And us liberals have been very happy to report that the numbers are in our favor. Liberal religion reporters like myself do love to proclaim that conservative evangelism is dead, so much so that we do so about every three months.

And here lies the problem: the PRRI survey is just telling us what we want to hear: that conservative, dogmatic religion is slowly on its way out. We draw a graph showing a downward trend in religious conservatives and assume that trend will continue. Although the religious right is running scared now, this is mainly because they haven’t been willing to make any ideological compromises in order to gain more supporters. As long as the religious right stays on the homophobia train, they’re going to continue to dwindle. But when the religious right finally faces up to its past and starts to plot a new way forward – an act that will probably be steered by the growing bloc of Hispanic Evangelicals – they could be a political force to be reckoned with again. After all, two-party democratic politics tends to be cyclical – one party governs for a while until Americans get sick of them, and then the other party gets a turn.

The thing is, even though evangelicals are a demographic minority in terms of total Americans, and they’re still living in a world in which opposing gay marriage is a viable electoral strategy, they’re still the most unified and best organized political bloc in America. Evangelicals help win elections because they commit to a candidate. In doing so, they amplify their political presence beyond mere numbers.

The bottom line? I’ll believe evangelism is dead when I see its cold body washed up on the Jersey Shore with all its fingerprints sanded off. Until then, I think it’d be unwise for liberals to get too optimistic.



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