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The Evangelical Advantage

What are Evangelicals doing right? What are Catholics (and the rest) doing wrong?

Leah Libresco has been digging deep into the Pew data sets, and has discovered that when Americans change religions, Evangelical Christianity is the religion most of them embrace. Excerpts:

If conversions went on as they do today and all other factors were held steady, America would wind up with the religious demographics of the stable distribution.

Unaffiliateds would wind up modestly gaining ground (from 23 percent at present to 29 percent).1 And Christian denominations would drop a little (from 69 percent at present to 62 percent at equilibrium).2

But there would be substantial redistribution among Christian groups, with evangelical Protestants gaining (26 percent at present to 32 percent) and Catholics losing more than half their current share of the population (21 percent to 8 percent).

Why do evangelicals wind up ahead of other Christian sects in this model? They’re better at holding on to the people born into their tradition (65 percent retention compared to 59 percent for Catholics and 45 percent for Mainline Protestants), and they’re a stronger attractor for people leaving other faiths. According to Pew’s data on conversion rates, 10 percent of people raised Catholic wind up as evangelicals. Just 2 percent of people born as evangelicals wind up Catholic. The flow between mainline and evangelical Protestants is also tilted in evangelicals’ favor. Twelve percent of those raised evangelical wind up in mainline congregations, but 19 percent of mainline Protestants wind up becoming evangelical.

Leah, a recent convert to Catholicism, also looked at the role fertility has on increasing (or not) the size of each religious tribe. She found that the Nones — those without a religion, or without religious affiliation — are effectively infertile, having children at below the replacement rate. The news is bad for Orthodox Christians either way: my tribe isn’t having enough babies or converting enough people to replace ourselves, and are therefore declining overall. We are already a tiny minority, and because we are neither effectively evangelizing nor having children beyond the replacement rate, we are on track to extinction. Mormons and Muslims, as it turns out, do vastly better relying on fertility to increase their numbers, rather than conversions.

But the worst news is for Leah’s own tribe:

In either model, Catholics wind up as one of the biggest losers even though their odds of retaining the children born into their faith are in the middle of the pack. They’re not a strong enough attractor of people leaving other faiths to replenish the people they lose, and so their share diminishes to the single digits.

Understand what she’s saying here. If current trends continue — and Leah cautions that this model is not predictive, but rather is meant to cast light on which churches and faiths are better today at retaining and attracting new members — Catholicism would come very close to collapsing in this country. The big gainers are the Nones and Evangelicals. If the current trajectory continues, America is on track to be significantly less Christian country, though it will still be able to claim a Christian majority, and the kind of Christian most Americans will be — by a long shot — will be either Evangelical or Mormon (who, as non-Trinitarians, are not seen as technically Christian by other Christian churches, but who are plainly within the Christian tradition).

The fact is, Evangelicals are doing an incomparably better job than other Christian traditions at evangelizing and making converts, and Mormons (and Muslims) are doing an incomparably better job at having babies.

These numbers startled me. I had no idea that the Catholic collapse was so dramatic, probably because the headspace I live in daily, online, is so strongly Catholic. Catholicism is on track to become such a minority religion in America that absent some dramatic shake-up, its numbers will in the future look like those of historically black Protestants today. Now, one in five Americans is Catholic; on current projections, only about one in ten will be in the future. (I can’t tell what the timeline is here; how far into the future does the analysis run?). Of course anything might happen to change this trajectory, which is why Leah says that you should look at the data not as a sign of what’s going to happen, but rather of what’s happening now.

So, questions to the room:

1. What are Catholics doing wrong?

2. What are Evangelicals doing right? 

I have no experience with Evangelicalism, so I’ll defer to the judgment of you readers. My sense is that whatever flaws both Evangelicals and non-Evangelicals may identify within that tradition, Evangelicals are much more successful than other Christian churches at making the encounter with God real to its people. And a lot of that has to do with their vigorous engagement with the Bible.

In Catholicism, the ethos at the parish level is, in general, more like a sacrament factory. The worship experience is a lot like Mainline Protestantism, actually, and if you’re going to do Protestantism, the Evangelicals are much, much better at it. Some intellectual Catholics of an orthodox orientation, conceding the flaws in worship, liturgical and otherwise, stand firm on the intellectual arguments for Catholicism. Despite its problems, they will say, the Roman church remains the church that Christ founded, and unlike all other churches (except the Orthodox, who are negligible in an Americn context) it has the Real Presence of the Eucharist at its center. I spoke to a frustrated but faithful Catholic recently who said that despite all the problems at the local level, he keeps going to mass because he believes that is the only place to truly experience Jesus in the Eucharist.

As an ex-Catholic turned Orthodox, I obviously don’t agree with that analysis, but it does make sense. The problem with it is that it does not make sense to most dissatisfied Catholics, as the dramatic Pew numbers show. It is the kind of thing it takes a mighty intellectual effort to hold on to, an effort that includes a significant amount of self-education in the doctrines of the Catholic faith. It’s not happening at the popular level. In her great little 2010 book Benedict XVI: A Guide for the Perplexed, the Catholic theologian Tracey Rowland contends that Joseph Ratzinger was a prophet fighting against the sacrament factory. Excerpt:

For the second half of the twentieth century (especially since 1968) and the beginning of the twenty-first he has represented Catholic theology in the face of a militant secularism and various crises internally created within the Catholic Church. With respect to the latter, Philip Blosser offered the following indictment of post-Conciliar Catholic culture:

For more than two generations now, we [Catholics] have been robbed of the fullness of Catholicism, which is our birthright. With a few thankful exceptions, our collective acquaintance with Scripture is piecemeal, our knowledge of tradition is pathetic, our hymns are embarrassing, our religious art is ugly, our churches look like UN meditation chapels, our ethics are slipshod, and our aesthetic and spiritual sensibilities are so far from being sublime that they almost look ridiculous. … For over two generations our faith formation has been shaped by a media culture that has portrayed our Church as a dinosaur that is either an impediment to social progress or simply irrelevant. 

Amidst this general condition of cultural poverty, Ratzinger never pursued a strategy of accommodation to the culture of modernity, as was the preferred option of so many of his generation, but he did set about … to recapture the essential spirit of Christianity. … The development of a Christian personalism, in Ratzinger’s case, one heavily indebted to St. Augustine and Guardini, has been one of the positive post-Conciliar developments helping to counterbalance Blosser’s long list of humiliating failures.

Rowland goes on:

The rise of Catholic Inc. — the model of the Church as a modern corporation — has in recent times fostered this “tragedy of a starved imagination” [the phrase is the Catholic poet Paul Claudel’s]. The pneumatological dimension of the Church is constantly suppressed by people with narrow imaginations focused on figures, annual reports and mission statements. Against this contemporary sociological development Ratzinger constantly reiterates the importance of the prophetic Pauline charism and the personalist nature of Catholic welfare and community service. Ratzinger’s use of the phrase “our bureaucratized faith” and his many warnings against this tendency of the Church to ape the managerial processes of the corporate world represent an acute sociological observation about the source of pastoral problems in the contemporary Church.

Rowland quotes a French Catholic theologian saying that at the root of the most serious crises the Catholic Church has faced in the modern era have to do with “the theological significance of experience.” She says that Ratzinger, in contrast to “neo-Thomists in the pre-Conciliar mode” and liberation theologians, has a robust Augustinian theology of beauty, from which he was able to judge the postconciliar aesthetic leveling of the Catholic experience. Also, she says, Ratzinger was able to perceive something his co-generationalists within the Catholic Church could not: that the question is not, “How can Christianity plausibly co-exist with secularism?”, but rather “What is the place of Christianity within a pluralistic culture in which people may choose any number of religious options, or no option at all?”

My sense is that Rowland’s take on Benedict’s worldview tells us a lot of why Catholicism is failing in America (and highlights the tragedy of the brevity of the great man’s papacy). The leadership class of the Catholic Church — bishops, theologians, and so forth — “gave themselves up to modernity just as the real avant-garde was beginning to critique it. They came out of their bunkers with their hands in the air as the enemy was departing for a new battlefield. The Catholic elite of this generation was left to look effete and irrelevant.” In an effort to be relevant to modernity, they surrendered the Catholic distinctives that stood in contradiction to the currents of modernity. Thus while Catholic theology remains intact, the transmission of that theology in the lived experience of the parish — both in worship and in catechetics — has badly broken down. Paradoxically, in many parishes, a worshiper in this most sacramentally-oriented of the major American Christian churches may find himself having to hold on to the truths of his faith by exercising his will and his imagination to an extraordinary degree, because what he sees happening around him does not convey what the Church proclaims to be true.

If you want a vivid, tangible sense of beauty, reverence, and sacramentalism within the ancient Christian tradition, Orthodoxy gives you that far better than the Roman church (though as I’ve said, we are tiny, and we do a poor job of making converts). If you are drawn to the Protestant form of Christianity, Evangelicals evidently do a far better job of it, of making it real and relevant to the lives of ordinary people. I say “evidently” based solely on the numbers; I have little direct experience of Evangelicalism. The problem for Catholicism in America seems to be that the bureaucracy effectively embraced the Mainline Protestant ethos, casting aside Catholic distinctives, in a time in which Mainline Protestants were going into decline and losing market share to Evangelicals, with their more robust and engaged way of worshiping, and living out the Gospel. Leah Libresco’s data crunch seems to me to be another testimony to that theologian’s framing of all the big modern (= 18th century to the present) problems in Catholicism as one of the theological significance of experience.

In his First Things column today, George Weigel tears into the German Catholic bishops for their pastoral failures. He writes:

 Now comes this report for the synod, which suggests that, on matters of marriage, the family, the morality of human love, and the things that make for genuine happiness, German Catholic thinking is virtually indistinguishable from that of non-believers.

Yes, but if you poll American Catholics (not bishops alone), you’ll find that this is pretty much true for them too.

I have to say also that Catholic and Orthodox intellectuals — I am guilty of this — have a strong tendency toward self-satisfaction, resting in the beauty and the intellectual depth of our respective ancient traditions, but notably lacking in missionary zeal. This is not generally a problem for Evangelicals.

I eagerly await your comments, but I’m not going to publish comments that are crude tu quoque remarks. There is no Christian church in America that has the solution, though on evidence, the Evangelicals are doing far, far better than the rest of us. We non-Evangelical Christians should learn from them. So, let me repeat the questions I want us to talk about here:

1. What are Catholics doing wrong?

2. What are Evangelicals doing right? 

If you come from a non-Christian religious tradition, or a Christian tradition that is neither Catholic nor Evangelical, please feel free to comment on your tradition’s strengths and weaknesses in light of Leah’s analysis of Pew’s data. In my case, it’s pretty simple: Orthodoxy is so exotic in the American context that it’s hard for it to evangelize relative to other Christian churches, and it doesn’t do much evangelization anyway. The best form of Orthodox evangelism is to get someone to come to church. The experience of Orthodox worship can be overwhelming, in a good way. There’s just nothing else like it in American Christianity. Not even close. You really do have to come and see for yourself. But it’s hard to get people to do that, and I don’t think we try nearly as hard as we should.



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