Where Did Evangelicals Go Wrong?

Things got a little heated during the presidential campaign, and several factors discouraged me from pursuing this blog for several months.  First and foremost, the depressing reality that while the predominately Christian religious right came together to try to elect a Mormon president, they were largely uninterested in any in-depth examination of their candidate’s religion.  Conservatives weren’t ready to accept a textual analysis on the Book of Mormon as anything other than an arm of the Obama re-election campaign but the Left wasn’t a viable market either, as they were only interested in anti-Mormon polemics until election day.  It was doomed to be forgotten the very next day like all opposition movements.  I had been anticipating an explosion of Mormon interest similar to the rise of Islamic awareness following 9/11, but it turned out to be a dud.  The project I envisioned would ultimately have a very limited audience; obviously devout Mormons weren’t going to read it, and if Christians weren’t interested either, then that pretty much left only questioning or ex-Mormons, as if those who’ve already left the LDS church would care to read the reasons why theology they no longer believe is wrong.

But ex-Mormons or even practicing Mormons were never my target audience anyway, this was always a project aimed at fellow Christians, and their resistance discouraged me the most.  Now that Protestants are no longer the majority in the U.S.; with no Protestant Supreme Court Justices on the bench; disproportionate under-representation in congress (compared to Mormons, Jews, and Catholics, who have greater representation in both houses than in the population at large); and finally, no Protestants on the Republican presidential ticket for the first time in history, there’s no denying that evangelicals are in steady decline.  Catholics and Mormons are the new religious right, as evangelicals willingly vote themselves out of office.  Where did evangelicals go wrong, and what, if anything can be done to change it?

Christianity Has Become Self-Absorbed

The reason I first felt a Christian-perspective primer on the Book of Mormon was needed was because I noticed Christians are usually handicapped in the inter-religious debate.  Mormon missionaries must, by necessity, familiarize themselves with Christian theology, whereas Christians are more often ignorant of any essential information on Mormonism; quite often the case is that the Mormon missionaries are more knowledgable about Christianity, too.  But the issue isn’t just with Mormons, American Christianity has become increasingly ghettoized, and evangelicals don’t really know how to win converts anymore.  The illusion of any growth in the last decade has mostly been congregants shifting from one church to another, but not necessarily bringing in outsiders, and worse, failing to prevent attrition.  The rise of New Atheists like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris has been especially disastrous, as the largest demographic increase in the last few years has been among the nonreligious.  Like Mormons, atheists have become adept at talking to Christians, meanwhile Christians have not seemed to learn how to communicate effectively to atheists (or anybody else outside of a Christian position).  Since most atheists are converts from Christianity, they know the predictable evangelical cliches and how to counter them.  Cloistered in self-affirming gospel-speak, evangelicals in particular seem to have become as cultic as Mormons, reading from a script and hopelessly lost when anybody takes them off script.

Evangelicals Have Become Know-nothing Know-it-alls

The text of the evangelical’s script isn’t necessarily the problem, but an inevitable flaw of any belief system is that it is a fully developed system, but the average lay follower is not fully developed in that system.  Religious people often feel great pressure to be, or at least appear, knowledgable about their faith, and even when they know little or nothing about their own religion or the topic at hand, Christians may still feel that their religion should have all the answers, and by extension, they should have all the answers as well.  Politically, this has manifested in inept candidates like Todd Akin, who clearly knew little about female physiology through his infamous “legitimate rape” comment, yet still felt an entitlement to be able to write abortion laws solely by the virtues of his pro-life stance.  This was not a gaffe, an unintended blunder, that cost him the election, he simply showed himself to be unqualified, and regrettably did irreparable damage to the pro-life movement in the process.   Christians need to stop being content at just holding certain positions on a short list of wedge issues like abortion and gay marriage, they must also be prepared to defend their positions or face justified ridicule.  Perhaps even harder to do for less educated evangelicals who may rely on their faith to compensate for their academic shortcomings, they need to be able to admit they don’t always have all the answers, and–God forbid–be able to stand down when their positions prove indefensible.

Conservative Identity Politics Outweigh Christian Identity

Identity politics played a huge part in the last election, but this time it exposed the misguided identity at the heart of the Republican party.  Their claims of Biblical values, regardless of how right or wrong they were, held some modicum of credibility in previous elections when candidates at least professed to be conventional Christians.  This time, however, Billy Graham’s attempt to mobilize Christian voters behind a Mormon candidate with the Biblical values card seemed incongruent.  Evangelicals aren’t really trying to save the world, America, or even their neighbor in this mindset, the objective has instead become to preserve an evangelical way of life which, ironically, is utterly irrelevant if the majority of the country no longer even identifies as evangelical.  Conservative politics and evangelicalism have become so intertwined that many evangelicals can’t distinguish between the two, even when that means remaining tied to a party candidate that doesn’t identity with them theologically.  It seems most of them refuse to seek out any other political identity at the risk of losing the consolidated Republican base, because winning elections and trying to hold onto power (or as it is now, opposing those in power) has become the all-important end in their culture war.

As evangelical influence wanes and they stubbornly refuse to change course, the real question is whether the movement even deserves saving.  In their compromises to try to win culture battles, evangelicals sided with the GOP and lost the war.  Gone are the days–and good riddance–that a popular majority vote could win a gay marriage ban, these were never really moral victories to begin with, since they could have just as well been interchangeable Mormon or Muslim statutes.  Demographics will continue to shift, and America may reclaim a new Christian identity, but it won’t necessarily be an evangelical resurgence, in fact that’s rather doubtful with today’s evangelicals.  But, Lord willing, it would have to be a movement that knows how to engage the lost , that understands that just having faith isn’t a good enough qualification, and how to do more than just grumble bitterly if their candidate doesn’t win.  In short, it would have to be a more Christian movement.

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