For five decades, pollsters and election forecasters like me have tried to account for changing attitudes among American Christians. It’s important work, since perhaps no other characteristic helps us better track the massive cultural shifts of our era.
But as the great David French writes, there’s evidence in a new report from the Pew Research Center that our yearning to classify and label matters of faith for political purposes is having a corrosive effect on American Christianity. Once a means to discern religious attitudes, the term “Evangelical” is now itself contributing to a shift in the church as right-wing populists and nationalists pick it up as a cudgel in the culture war. “Combine the huge, unchurched ‘Evangelical’ mass with a potent neo-fundamentalist movement that is steeped in angry Christian nationalism,” David writes, “and politics and religion can easily become a God-and-country branding exercise. And in that effort, the actual Bible can be an obstacle, not an asset.”
I could hardly improve on the insights my friend and colleague offers on the state of the church. But there are other implications of this trend. Aside from distorting the very subject pollsters and sociologists are seeking to study, the use of the term “Evangelical” isn’t particularly useful anymore and ought to go by the boards. I’ll make my case, but first, some history.
Mainline Protestant denominations began to wither in the mid-1970s. It was certainly the start of a decades-long slide into irreligiousness that cut the percentage of Americans professing at least nominal belief in Christianity to 68 percent in 2020 compared to 91 percent in 1970. But the vacant pews in Episcopal, Presbyterian, Methodist, and other mainline churches were also signs of a Christian renaissance with the growth of non-denominational sects, partly driven by the rise of television preachers.