Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Roosting Chickens, Part II

-- by Sara

I've been saying for a while now that the religious right in America finally and firmly jumped the shark over the past few years. But now that that big ol' shark's behind them, there's another bunch of critters looming ahead that may prove to be even more damning. It's that whole big flock of chickens that are finally coming home to roost.

I don't know how long they thought they were going to go on that way, all self-righteous and judgmental, blaming homosexuals and feminists for everything from 9/11 to the price of gas, ignoring the interests of the poor in favor of those of big business, and dismissing any kind of environmental stewardship as nothing more than a way to waste time until the Rapture comes. Clearly, the didn't see anything at all wrong with elevating the most spiteful and amoral among them as their national spokespeople, and rewarding them in direct proportion to the heat of their rhetoric. No, these folks were on fire (we're still not sure if it was Jesus or heartburn), and they weren't afraid to let their bilious light shine on the TV, in the streets, all the way to the White House. They did their best to set it high above the rest of the culture, where none of the rest of us could miss it if we wanted to.

And now, a new study reveals that young Americans, both inside and outside Christianity, have indeed taken note of this righteous spectacle-- and a large and growing majority of them are absolutely revolted by what they've seen.

A study released last week by the Barna Group, a reputable Evangelical research and polling firm, found that under-30s -- both Christian and non-Christian -- are strikingly more critical of Christianity than their peers were just a decade ago. According to the summary report, Barna pollster David Kinnaman found that the opinions of non-Christians, in particular, had slid like a rock in that time frame. Ten years ago, "the vast majority" of non-Christians had generally favorable views of Christianity. Now, that number stands at just 16%. When asked specifically about Evangelicals, the number are even worse: only 3% of non-Christian Millennials have positive associations with Evangelicals. Among the Boomers, it's eight times higher.

When Kinnaman asked senior pastors if they were seeing this too, half of them told him that, yes, they are finding their work to be an uphill battle -- "because people are increasingly hostile and negative toward Christianity." And his research bore this out. When he ranked young non-Christians' most common perceptions of Christianity, nine of the 12 most common attributes they named were negative ones. According to the study, "Common negative perceptions include that present-day Christianity is judgmental (87%), hypocritical (85%), old-fashioned (78%), and too involved in politics (75%)."

And this wasn't just ignorance talking. The people interviewed had an average of five Christian friends. Eighty percent of them had spent at least six months attending church themselves in the past; and half of them had considered becoming Christian, but rejected it. Familiarity with the faith, it appears, has bred quite a bit of contempt:
"As we probed why young people had come to such conclusions, I was surprised how much their perceptions were rooted in specific stories and personal interactions with Christians and in churches. When they labeled Christians as judgmental this was not merely spiritual defensiveness. It was frequently the result of truly ‘unChristian’ experiences. We discovered that the descriptions that young people offered of Christianity were more thoughtful, nuanced, and experiential than expected."
Some of the young adults' disdain for Christianity is the result of another new wrinkle that was nowhere on the scene a decade ago. The study found that 91% of non-Christians in America -- joined by 80% of the their peers in the pews -- now believe that Christianity is "anti-homosexual." (Gee. I can't imagine where they got that idea.) And no, they don't mean that in a good, God-fearing, General-JC-Christian sort of way. In the Barna summary, Kinnaman says, "Non-Christians and Christians explained that beyond their recognition that Christians oppose homosexuality, they believe that Christians show excessive contempt and unloving attitudes towards gays and lesbians. One of the most frequent criticisms of young Christians was that they believe the church has made homosexuality a "bigger sin" than anything else. Moreover, they claim that the church has not helped them apply the biblical teaching on homosexuality to their friendships with gays and lesbians."

Yeah, well, it's hard to find a practical way to apply a contradiction like "hate the sin, love the sinner" -- especially when everybody who isn't an ideologue knows that the "sin" is a pre-determined biological trait.

Roughly a quarter of both the Christians and non-Christians in the under-30 group also mentioned -- without being prompted -- that "Christianity has changed from what it used to be," and that it "no longer looks like Jesus." Their sheer frustration level over how far the modern Christianity had deviated from its roots took Kinnaman by surprise:
In our interviews, we kept encountering young people - both those inside the church and outside of it - who said that something was broken in the present-day expression of Christianity. Their perceptions about Christianity were not always accurate, but what surprised me was not only the severity of their frustration with Christians, but also how frequently young born again Christians expressed some of the very same comments as young non-Christians."
And, to top it all off, Kinnaman found that the American population as a whole is on a long-term trendline that's moving the country away from Christianity. "This is not a passing fad wherein young people will become 'more Christian' as they grow up," the Barna report states. "While Christianity remains the typical experience and most common faith in America, a fundamental recalibration is occurring within the spiritual allegiance of America's upcoming generations." This trendline points to a far more diverse -- and possibly more secular -- nation in the decades ahead:

This study is prompting quite a bit of soul-searching among Evangelicals. Some feel this study verifies things they've long suspected; others are just stunned. Maybe it's the way everybody's always ignored their persistent conversion efforts -- they just got so used to being tuned out by the mainstream culture that it never occurred to them that anyone might ever take anything they said seriously. And now, they're genuinely surprised to find out that yes, we were listening -- and yes, we did take it all very much to heart. And, furthermore, what we've heard has deeply damaged our opinion of them.

It seems likely that this study will trigger the persecution reflex among the more reactionary and defensive factions of the religious right. They've always felt like an embattled minority; and this report just proves what they've always intuited, which is that they're living amid a dominant culture that's increasingly hostile to their beliefs. (Some groups seem poised to honestly examine their own role in fostering that hostility; however, the more radical a group is, the less likely they are to bother with this.)

But at least it will be harder now for them to delude themselves that their efforts to drag us into theocracy are succeeding. The Barna numbers clearly show that the goal of making America a Christian nation is actually receding into the distance as successive generations turn away from the faith -- in no small part because they're gagging on the overwhelming authoritarian stench that's seeped in from the extremist edges toward the great middle.

But the study also opens the way for new developments that may prove to be very positive -- both for Christians, and for secular America.

-- There's a surprisingly unified sense between young adults, both inside and outside the faith, that the divisive, judgmental authoritarianism that's dominated Evangelical Christianity for the past 30 years has run its course. Furthermore: the "insiders" (as Barna terms Christians) see the same issues and agree with many of the criticisms as those on the outside -- and are openly talking about taking their theology in some new directions. There's an emerging sense that it's time to let go of the harsh legalism that's defined American Protestantism for the past three decades, and return to something more like the Social Gospel that demanded more of Christians than merely passing judgment on the details of other people's lives.

-- With the publication of this study, homosexuality's long, mean run as the hot-button issue that reliably rallies the faithful is probably finished. When even the next generation of Christians thinks their elders' behavior on this issue is useless and shameful, even the most die-hard culture warriors will be forced to admit that this battle is finally over -- and they lost.

As more and more Evangelical groups read the writing on the wall and back away from the issue, it may mean that full equality for gays comes considerably faster and with far less resistance than it has in the past.

-- This study gives lots of ammunition to would-be reformers within the Christian movement, and will thus hasten the demise of the old-guard leaders who built vast empires on gay-hating and abortion-baiting. Last year, Rev. Joel Hunter resigned as the head of the Christian Coalition after just three weeks after being hired because the board refused to let him back away from abortion and homosexuality as their key issues, and re-orient the group toward issues like social justice and the environment, which he argued were more interesting to younger Christians. This report gives strong support to reform-minded leaders like Hunter, so we may see more of them emerging to take the Christian right in new directions over the next few years.

-- The long-term trend toward a less Christian nation is probably good news for liberalism in general. If there are comparatively fewer Christians, there will be more people of other faiths -- though other Barna studies have found that the biggest gains of all are being made among atheist and agnostic free-thinkers, who are also the most likely to be political liberals. This, in turn, bodes well for the various scientific fields that have come under attack by the religious right; and it opens the way for Christians and non-Christians to find some fresh common ground on issues like social justice and the environment as the religious leadership changes.

Overall, the new Barna study seems to offer some hopeful prospects for a more generally liberal and diverse America in the decades ahead. Evangelical Christianity won't go away -- but there's a shift in its essential character afoot, which may even reverse the trend toward minority status over time. And it seem likely that big changes are coming that will not only make it more progressive in its view of its own mission; but will also make it a much better friend to democracy than it's been in recent years.

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