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The Evangelical Crisis

MAGA Christian leaders pray over the president in January (NBC News screenshot)
Over at my Substack newsletter this weekend, I wrote about a man who came to a speech I gave, and in the Q&A session said that even though he and his wife raised their three children in the Evangelical church, two of them have left it in adulthood, and the third — age 32, married, with kids — is barely hanging on. The reason? Trump. The Trump years crystallized their anger at what they consider to be the church’s hypocrisy.
After saying that obviously I don’t know his children and what motivated them, I suggested to the man that Trump might be an excuse, and that they wanted to leave the church anyway. I said that I don’t blame them at all for being alienated from a church that is essentially MAGA At Prayer, but the idea that white conservative American Evangelicalism represents the fullness of Christianity is simply bizarre — so strange that I find it hard to accept that MAGA is why they have left the faith.
I received the following excellent letter from an Evangelical reader explaining better where that man’s children might be coming from. It strikes me as a little more culture-war and-politics-focused than I like for my Substack newsletter (which I’m trying to make more personal and less polemical; it’s free for now, so sign up), but it was too good not to share. So, here it is below:
I just wanted to write you an email regarding your recent MAGA/Christianity substack about the “kids” leaving church. As a non-evangelical, this is probably (admittedly) hard for you to understand. I will try to shed some light on this as a lifelong evangelical. Southern, conservative evangelicalism has a very distinct culture and I will do my best to shed some light on this (I am not sociologist, and this is not an exhaustive list). I am using to term “Evangelical Conservative Churches” as a general descriptor – mainly aimed at the large, mega church, SBC/non-denominational churches (my experience is primarily in the large SBC world) that dominate in both numbers and influence.
In no particular order:
  1. First, kids growing up in evangelical conservative churches, graduating from high school, and then never setting foot in church again is a very real and very common thing. If you held a gun to my head and made me guess percentages, I would say 10%-20% of these kids graduate high school and go to college and still remain active, believing, church members. The remaining 80-90% either remain “conservative” in their politics but quit church or head left and really turn on the church and their conservative, Christian parents. All that to say that the guy who said 2 of his 3 kids left the church is by no means an outlier.

 

2. Evangelical conservative (EC) churches have long had a consumer first type attitude. You will hear things like “we need to run the church like a business”, “seeker sensitive”, “felt needs”, “attractional church”, etc. This essentially boils down to “find out what the people want, and give it to them”. Once we get them in the door, then we will give them the Gospel. This is why many EC churches do things like helicopter Easter egg drops on Easter, have entertainment heavy youth group activities, pastors “dress cool” (this is so embarrassing and desperate), have the “black box style of worship music” (lights down, heavy focus on good looking “praise team”, super loud music, etc), coffee shop in the atrium, entertaining sermons with stories, movie references (or outright movie clips shown in church), etc. This often leads to an arms race of sorts where churches are competing to have the coolest, “funnest”, most cutting edge church services. This, much like Amazon crushing the local mom & pop, often ends with the bigger and wealthier churches pulling congregants (especially the highly desired “young family” demographic) from the smaller churches. Sadly, instead of remaining “traditional” and actually setting themselves apart, the smaller churches often try to emulate the latest and greatest fads but they can’t pull it off because they don’t have the money and the talent.

3. Because of the above (#2), many kids have never known anything other than churches that essentially preach (and I use this term loosely) a very weak and diluted gospel. It’s not that they are preaching heresy, it’s just that they preach just the “fun” stuff. A lot of “God loves you and has a plan for your life” sermons buffered on both sides with movie clips and funny stories. These churches often have a culture of very weak teaching combined with a “fun” atmosphere. It takes little imagination to see how this leaves kids woefully unprepared for a world that is very hostile to their beliefs. Not to mention, it leaves them with a faith that is poorly suited to sustain them in times of difficulty and persecution (more on this in a minute).

4. There is most definitely an unwritten and (usually) unspoken idea in EC churches that a good Christian votes for Republicans. You will usually not hear it said from the pulpit like this, but it is made very clear. It will usually sound like this (from the pulpit) – “make sure you vote. I’m not going to tell you how to vote, but get your Bible out and see what it says about abortion/murder and vote with the candidate that most closely lines up with this”. I’m paraphrasing, but you get the point.  I have heard many people I know literally say “you cannot be a Christian and vote for a democrat”. You can’t gain your salvation based on your vote, but you can certainly lose it if you vote for a Democrat, or so goes the thinking. This line of thinking is especially true of the older Gen X and Baby Boomers. Basically you can vote for any party or candidate as long as they are anti-abortion. Nothing else really matters. Also, there is the idea of “family values” that we are led to believe that the Republicans are for. I would defer to Matt in VA to go off on a rant about how the Republicans have not delivered on any of these for Christians (and he is totally right) but  EC christians would never not vote for the GOP because the “Democrats are worse”.

5. I don’t know how to say this next point in a way that makes sense. There is a huge fear in EC churches of Democrats/Liberals/Progressives being in control. While I get the apprehension (for the reasons you frequently write about), it is embarrassing to me that people of the Christian faith, who have been persecuted many times and in terrible ways all throughout history, are terrified about living in America with Biden as president. Worried or concerned, I understand, but listening to many evangelicals talk, you would think that their true faith is in the Republican party. At the heart of it, it is the concern that they will lose status (not realizing it was lost long ago) and they might have to experience discomfort. The craving for status and the middle class comfort that is present in so many Christian churches have created a group of Christians that are soft and weak. When a Republican wins the White House there is almost a palpable, audible sigh of relief in EC churches and when Obama (and now Biden) wins, there is a sense of hopelessness and despair that you can feel among EC Christians. They often say the right things “God is control” but their actual attitude is totally dependent on who wins/loses the White House/Congress.

So, with that backdrop, here are the issues that “kids” are dealing with as they come out of EC churches and navigate early adulthood:

    1. They have a very poor theological background. They have been trained by their churches to be entertained and pleased but not taught. Think of the Philip Reiff quote – “men used to go to church to have their misery explained to them. Now they go to church to be made happy”. They have no true basis or depth to their faith. They don’t even really understand what they believe or why they believe it. They have just gotten 20 years of “5 ways to be a better friend” sermons. If you asked them explain the basics, to explain justification or to write down 5 of the 10 commandments, you would get a lot of blank looks. And this among kids who have been in church their whole life.
    2. They have a hard time with the coldness of the Republican party/Baby Boomer Christians who have zero interest in social issues out side of abortion. Mention feeding the poor, adoption, foster care, etc. to EC christians over the age of 55 and you will get a lot of “they should pull themselves up by the bootstraps”, “I don’t want to enable them”, “what are you, a socialist?” comments. Mention that you adopt or foster to a 35 year old EC christian and they will say “that’s awesome”. Mention it to a Boomer EC Christian and they will literally say ” why would you do that?”. It is truly bizarre.
    3. Sexuality issues. I could write a book on the issues here, but I think the quickest summary would be – older EC Christians have long held (and I would too) that the traditional sexual values of celibacy outside marriage, homosexuality is wrong, and adultery is a serious sin are all important and true. Most people my age remember when we were told that “if Bill Clinton’s wife couldn’t trust him, neither could the American people”. Then, along comes Trump with his multiple marriages, porn star affairs, comments about “grabbing women by the…” etc., and low and behold what happens? All the Boomer EC christians start telling us that this stuff isn’t that important. Bill Clinton was awful and Gay marriage is terrible, but now a thrice married adulterer is now God’s man! Again, young people have a hard time wrapping their mind around this (mainly because when Democrats did this behavior it was roundly criticized by their parents).
    4. These kids have inherited their parents’ anxieties about comfort and status. They were also told by their parents that the most important thing in life was to Go To College and Get A Good Job. Well guess what? Both of those things offer comfort and status but are hostile to traditional Christianity. So guess what gets left behind?
    5. Basically, the EC Church has been hollowed out and rotted by 30 -50 years of weak teaching and a consumer capitalism mindset. Add to that a significant time of power and comfort (i.e. zero cultural challenges or persecution for Christians until a few years ago) and now these kids are the product of that. Imagine an army that hasn’t had to fight or face a serious threat for 50 years and has gotten very lax with its discipline and training. That is the church today. And these kids are paying the price. Sadly, progressivism offers a sense meaning for these kids . Obviously, it only offers a “sense’ of meaning and not true meaning. The church has been like the “fun parent” who doesn’t make their kids do chores and let’s them eat junk food in order to be their friend. What actually happens is that the kid turns out to be ill prepared for life AND resents their parent.
Caveat – I know lots of great Christians and great kids in these churches and I am obviously painting with a broad brush here. Lots of good comes from these churches and the people in them. I don’t want to crap all over God’s people so I hope you don’t take it that way. But we have a fundamental problem in the Southern evangelical conservative churches that is getting worse not better. I do think that things will/can get better but it won’t be until the Boomers are gone and we can start from scratch because we have 30 years of poor teaching and systemic problems to undo. I’m not trying to beat up on Boomers, it’s just that they are the ones who have instituted all these bad ideas and they are just incapable of seeing the last 30 years of their ideas of what has led us to this point today.
 I also think that the idpol/progressive camps are very unfulfilling and that the church has a great opportunity to step up and give these folks something that will actually give them real hope in the future once they realize that the progressive world view will still leave them unfulfilled.
Thanks, reader. I really do learn so much from y’all.
UPDATE: A reader writes:
I appreciated your article on evangelicalism…one last, unaddressed note:
You said that “the idea that white conservative American Evangelicalism represents the fullness of Christianity is simply bizarre”.  Here’s the thing: I was taught at the non-Denominational Evangelical church I was raised in that there was only one way to God, that our best friends, who were devout, adherent, Catholics, were going to Hell.  We were taught nothing at all about the practical supernatural (so everything from Pentecostalism to Orthodoxy was either verboten, dismissed out of hand, or not on our radar). And we were taught that High church wasn’t real church, writing off another expression.
If you thought that was vapid, well, college ministry is basically exactly the same thing, with the same formulas.  People who stayed with it did so because they found meaningful friendships similar to those they had in high school.
Personally, I’ve sought and found far more rich expressions of church, but it was hard and uncomfortable, and I can see how easy it’d be to write off all that other stuff, if you even do the minimal due diligence required to figure out it exists.  Much easier to walk away and get a round of golf in on Sunday morning.
UPDATE.2: A reader writes:
“Remember when we were told that “if Bill Clinton’s wife couldn’t trust him, neither could the American people”. Then, along comes Trump with his multiple marriages, porn star affairs, comments about “grabbing women by the…” etc., and lo and behold what happens?”
As a Gen-Xer convert to Catholicism, who attended evangelical and fundamentalist churches prior to that, I can tell you what happened, at least from my perspective.  When Bill Clinton was elected, it was scandal after scandal during the campaigns and after.  It did not matter to the media, the feminists, the intellectuals and on, that he engaged in sexual misbehavior, some of it possibly criminal.  I think that hurt the political process in ways people may not fully appreciate today.  As a person in my 20s, I was told this behavior did not matter, as this man was elected twice and given “mandates.”
Then, as if to cleanse our palates, we voted in George W. and Obama (many of you, anyway), who were family men, who had been married for many years, didn’t cheat on their wives, etc.  They didn’t use offensive language, and were polite in public and interviews.  What did these “nice” married men do?  Deployed spouses numerous times in pointless wars.  The reasons given for the wars were always changing and highly questionable. Many of the soldiers who came back are now broken and divorced.  I was once pulled over by a very kind police officer who had just come back from a deployment.  He had PTSD, was on anti-depressants, and although his wife just had a baby, he couldn’t wait to get back over there, because he was having a hard time adjusting to normal life.
While these men were president, our country droned countless wedding parties in the name of spreading democracy, killing innocent people who were just going about the normal business of life.
W and Obama did nothing to protect traditional marriage, and for W, he had the opportunity to do so. W did the bare minimum when it came to pro-life.  Meanwhile, Obama undermined religious liberty over and again, even exhausting the resources of a small group of Catholic nuns, who actually help the poor.
As far as the economy,  Bush and Obama were on the same page as Clinton as far as favoring the elites, and not caring about the working classes.
 I say this as an extremely traddy person when it comes to marriage:   If this is the way “nice” married men govern, then the Hell with voting for them.
Finally, I’m getting a little tired of Christians lamenting the fact that so many of us make ending abortion a priority, as if the taking of a human life is something trivial.  It’s the same impulse that shrugs at droning wedding parties or starting unjust wars in other countries, because you aren’t witnessing it personally and don’t know the people involved.

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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