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Evangelicals’ Advantage Over Catholics

Evangelical leader Chuck Colson. Does his tradition have advantages that Catholics do not? Zondervan screengrab)

A reader sends in this fascinating e-mail. I post it with his permission, though I removed a paragraph that identifies him, at his request. Let me just say that he’s a PhD and college instructor who has studied religion and spirituality among Millennials and Post-Millennials. He writes:

I read with great interest your recent piece Evangelicals and Catholics Apart. In the piece, you posed a question to Evangelical readers as to whether Spencer’s prediction about the coming collapse of Evangelicalism merely got the dates wrong or whether his thesis is in fact entirely wrong.

I’m someone who made the switch from Catholicism to Evangelicalism principally based on my wife and I deciding that the Catholic Church wasn’t going to do anything to support us in raising our children in the faith. Aside from doing some fairly tepid sacramental prep, the Church offers nothing to children at least not where we live. So with both my professional and personal background in mind, I feel like I have a somewhat unique perspective.

I’ve been deeply affected in my thinking on this by the work of Rodney Stark and his thinking on religious free markets as being very important to driving engagement. Stark generally means this on a very macro level. He uses the idea of religious markets as a way of describing why America is more religious than Europe. Europe, categorized by religious monopolies, never allowed people to find a religious expression that appeals to them. Religious monopolies in places like France, Sweden, England meant that religious leaders got very lazy and never really bothered to compete for the participation of people in religion. Basically, if the state is paying your salary as a priest why bother to go out and actually evangelize people. You can be lazy and still get your daily bread. This a bit reductive in terms of the argument, but hopefully it gets the point across.

America with its religious free market always meant that there was more competition among churches for believers, hence American churches developed ways of being religious that appealed to people, where they were. The competition could get pretty vicious but also led to some quite inventive ways of doing church.

I feel like this free market vs monopoly dynamic on a more micro level also explains why the Catholic Church has faltered more quickly than evangelicals. I think the Roman Church, so convinced that it is the Bride of Christ and that the gates of hell will not prevail against it, is really lazy about believers. By the assumption that they are the only authentic source of grace they just sit back and expect people to want Jesus and come to them. They don’t really work for it or get out there. The history has also been that since much of Catholic identity was bound in ethnicity and ethnic identity was very important. So people just kept identifying as Catholic because being Quebecois, Italian, Irish, Filipino meant being Catholic. The Church never bothered to build institutions to really build that identity based on the principals of the Church outside of Catholic schools. Catholic schools eventually ended up getting corrupted by the emphasis on academic achievement not passing on the gospel (probably because parents wanted their kids to get good jobs.) Additionally, if you wanted to start a ministry or a program or something to combat secularism or people leaving the church, you have to go through the magisterium. I can’t imagine how many efforts at creating great Catholic responses to the problems of post-modernity have been stymied by the church hierarchy.

So Catholics were basically naked out in the world, poorly formed in faith and very easy to pick off with seductive secular ideas This is backed up by Christian Smith’s work. In a report he and Nicolette Manglos-Weber put together last year [I’m guessing it’s this one — RD] they noted that Catholics despite making up only 20-25% of the U.S population contribute 50% of the “nones” mostly due to what they call marginal peel off.

So why haven’t evangelicals been affected in the same way? My read of the situation is that the decentralized and competitive nature of evangelicalism has given it more room to respond to post-modernity. For example, when Evangelicals want to set up a ministry they don’t need permission from a bishop. They just do it and if people respond they succeed. If people don’t like it they fail. Focus on the Family is probably one of the most interesting examples of this. James Dobson saw a need and filled it. People responded and Focus became one of the most important institutions for Evangelicals. Other things like AWANA and other programs for building faith in kids were created and offered for congregations to buy. Campuses were seen as a place where Christians were losing their faith so ministries like CRU (formerly Campus Crusade) and Intervarsity Christian Fellowship were formed to respond to that need. When secular rock music was seen as a threat Christians started making their own music. Enough people bought into it to make it successful. All these things are independent of an ecclesial structure so they respond to the actual needs and desires of believers. They are also relatively independent of each other, so liberal ideas spreading to one of them doesn’t affect the whole of evangelical subculture.

All these factors have created an Evangelical subculture that is relatively resistant to the liberal pathogen. Christian Smith wrote in 1999 that Evangelicalism is a subculture that is embattled and thriving. It sees itself as fighting the world and resisting the world. But it does so in a way that meets people’s actual spiritual needs. So it gives them rock music that engages their sensibilities. It gives them evangelical kids shows like Adventures in Odyssey and Veggie Tales that keeps them from having to expose their kids to cartoons like Arthur (whose recent episodes featured a gay wedding). And honestly the longer you can keep kids from being exposed to the culture the better.

There are definitely dark clouds on the horizon. I sense a bit of culture war weariness in Evangelicals. Having lost so many culture war battles I think a lot of them and their kids just want to be accepted in society. You see it in the popularity of people like Rachel Held Evans, Sarah Bessy, and Peter Enns.

Evangelicals who want to be part of the culture are being drawn to those figures and there is a real danger that they will bring that contagion into their churches. But it might also be that the subculture is strong enough to keep people in the safe Christian bubble for long enough to safeguard their faith and that the heterodox will be cut off. The nice thing about Evangelicalism is if your church goes liberal you can just leave and find a conservative one.

Evangelicals do need to do more to instill more theology in their kids than is currently happening. But in my experience, the evangelical kids are still miles ahead of Catholic kids most of whom couldn’t give you a clear Christology to save their lives. The Evangelicals that take my class are embattled and struggling with their faith but I have much more faith that they will find their way than the Catholics.

Comments are welcome. Be respectful.

UPDATE: From a really interesting comment by Matt in VA:

There is also, I think, something approaching very quickly, that I wonder how evangelicalism will respond to. I mean a coming *forcing* of the issue of the gap or gulf between the United States itself and evangelical Christians. I believe that many are in denial about how completely anti-Christian or at least anti-orthodox Christian the ruling class and establishment has already become; and I do not believe it is true that evangelicals largely understand this. To say that evangelicals have kept themselves separate from the secular culture via Christian rock and VeggieTales does not really cover it — they still, mostly, think that they are only separating themselves from certain degenerate parts of America that don’t really represent the whole. For example, what is going to happen when evangelicals understand that the US military are themselves shock troops for liberalism (note the way gay rights has been turned into a tool for punishing other countries and stirring up s*** in them; this is only going to increase)? The military is not going to be an exception to the general phenomenon; nor are the police. I do not think it is true that evangelicals are prepared, at this time, for that level of dissociation or distance from the secular authority. Many people (like our good friend David French) have criticized evangelicalism for being willing to stick with and even praise a figure like Donald Trump. What will happen if the Right actually genuinely becomes in some striking sense post-Christian (I do not predict this, but I think it’s conceivable, especially if left-liberalism badly falters or screws up in a big way)? Are evangelicals prepared to be completely cut off from not just Hollywood and media but the very institutions of the US government, all of it? What will they be able to draw on in place of that? Will a church that appeared only (historically speaking) yesterday be enough, particularly for those who already depend to a greater or lesser extent on the public square because they aren’t rich or upper middle class?

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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