If At First You Don’t Succeed?: Religious Right Calls For Revival As Number Of U.S. Christians Declines

Here’s an important question the fundamentalists failed to consider: Why are people leaving their churches?

With the number of religiously unaffiliated Americans on the rise, the Religious Right is searching for a magic formula that will convert more people to fundamentalism. As far as two organizations are concerned, the solution lies in doubling down on the same old fiery, hateful rhetoric the Religious Right has employed for years.

As reported last week, the Pew Research Center’s latest Religious Landscape Study found that roughly 56 million Americans now identify as agnostic, atheist or “nothing in particular.” That’s more than 22 percent of the population, and represents a jump of almost 7 percent from Pew’s last survey.

While the “nones” recently gained in number, Christianity has mostly seen a decline in the United States over the same period. The faith still comprises 70 percent of the population, but mainline traditions – including the United Methodist Church, the Episcopal Church and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) – are down sharply. According to Pew, these churches lost anywhere from 3 million to 7.3 million members from 2007-2014.

Some conservative churches are seeing a drop too. The Religious Right is understandably disturbed by these developments, and is already hard at work to reverse this trend. But instead of developing any sort of innovative ideas, or attempting to understand the reasons behind changing times, fundamentalists are doubling down on the same talking points they’ve employed for decades.

The American Family Association, classified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, blames the media and says more of the same is answer.

“While these numbers are discouraging, they’re unfortunately not surprising,” AFA President Tim Wildmon said in a statement. “We can point to our social hot-button issues and where they are heading in terms of morality and a biblical worldview. Likewise, our mainstream media and entertainment reflect a culture in which faith has taken a back seat, if it’s not thrown from the bus completely. And our nation’s laws and public policies – including those pertaining to abortion, religious liberties and the protection of marriage between one man and one woman – are skewed to a relativistic bent.

“Christians around the country must pray that America will return to God’s Word for leadership and guidance,” Wildmon added, “rather than relying on our own cultural wants, needs and agendas.”

The Pennsylvania-based American Pastors Network (APA), which refreshingly claims to be non-partisan, but sadly wants policy decisions to be informed by its interpretation of the Bible, said pastors must dial up their rhetoric to stem the rising tide of religious indifference.

“These statistics should alarm every Christian in America, yet they should serve to motivate every pastor and Christian to greater biblical obedience,” APA head Sam Rohrer said in a press release. “In the early Church, Christians ‘turned the world upside down’ because their faith in Jesus Christ had been put to the test and they experienced firsthand the transformative impacts of the Gospel and unconquerable power of the truth of God’s Word. Our nation is in desperate need of pastors and Christians with the early Church’s passion.” 

Here’s an important question the fundamentalists failed to consider: Why are people leaving their churches?

Many observers believe that the Religious Right efforts to politicize churches have resulted in backlash, led by young people. Fundamentalist attempts to push one narrow brand of faith in public institutions consistently draw mixed reviews. And when it comes to same-sex marriage, Americans increasingly support it despite the stiff resistance employed by the far right.

The fundamentalist message has not changed in decades. Americans have heard it loud and clear because, frankly, it was pretty hard to miss. And the result is millions of people have turned away from organized religion because they’re tired of being force-fed ideas that they don’t support. 

Make no mistake, the Religious Right is not dead. In fact, Pew reported that Evangelical Protestants have added approximately 2 million members (though groups like the Southern Baptist Convention have declined). We can expect that the more public opinion conflicts with fundamentalist dogma, the harder the Religious Right will fight back. Even if the Religious Right were in its death throes, history shows this is not the sort of group that will exit the field quietly.