Friday, July 9, 2021

The Decline of Evangelical Christianity/Rise of QAnon

As recently as 2004, white evangelical Christians felt like they were winning in America. George W. Bush was president, speaking the language of witness. White evangelicals were one of the nation's largest demographic groups, and the new megachurches seemed to be consuming less dynamic mainline denominations. On the culture war issue of the moment, gay marriage, they seemed to be holding the line, and Republicans put anti-gay marriage amendments to the vote in a bunch of states to drive up conservative turnout. They extended their vision of a Christian America into the past, asserting that the leaders of the American Revolution were strong Christians and the nation, from its founding, a Christian state. They also imagined their power growing in the future, hoping that the growing network of Christian academies and the spread of home schooling would create a generation of Evangelical leaders.

Things have changed a lot in 17 years. Now, American Christians feel besieged, gay marriage is the law, and conservative Christians looking for a champion had to turn to a hell-bound sinner who pays hush money to porn stars.

Michelle Goldberg has a column in the Times today responding to the latest polling about American religion. New data from PRRI shows that percentage of Americans identifying as white evangelicals has dropped from 23% in 2006 to 14.5% last year. Other data also shows a decline, although the magnitude is all over the place. That's normal for a landscape in flux; as the meaning of "evangelical" shifts, the way people respond to the question becomes very sensitive to the details of how it is asked. PRRI's data showed a small increase in the mainline Protestant denominations, and their CEO thinks that is because some evangelicals have moved to stodgier denominations. White evangelicals are also the oldest denomination in America, with a median age (among adults) of 56.

(Incidentally this data shows that the percentage of "nones" has dropped a little since 2018, from 25.5% to 23%, but pollsters have found a range of numbers so this may not represent a real decline.)

To Goldberg, this decline explains a lot. She discussed the question with pollster Robert P. Jones, author of several books about the religious right:

White evangelicals once saw themselves “as the owners of mainstream American culture and morality and values,” said Jones. Now they are just another subculture.

From this fact derives much of our country’s cultural conflict. It helps explain not just the rise of Donald Trump, but also the growth of QAnon and even the escalating conflagration over critical race theory. “It’s hard to overstate the strength of this feeling, among white evangelicals in particular, of America being a white Christian country,” said Jones. “This sense of ownership of America just runs so deep in white evangelical circles.” The feeling that it’s slipping away has created an atmosphere of rage, resentment and paranoia.

QAnon is essentially a millenarian movement, with Trump taking the place of Jesus. Adherents dream of the coming of what they call the storm, when the enemies of the MAGA movement will be rounded up and executed, and Trump restored to his rightful place of leadership.

“It’s not unlike a belief in the second coming of Christ,” said Jones. “That at some point God will reorder society and set things right. I think that when a community feels itself in crisis, it does become more susceptible to conspiracy theories and other things that tell them that what they’re experiencing is not ultimately what’s going to happen.”

The notion that a nation of 300 million could belong to anyone in particular is so bizarre to me that it took me years of effort to wrap my mind around it, but I believe white Christians really used to think of the US as their nation. The presence of others had to be tolerated sometimes, but only if they recognized their place. The loss of that sense of ownership, of a sense that this is a place where they were truly at home, that was theirs, has saddened and angered millions of people.

If you want to put a positive spin on contemporary cultural and political struggles, try this: we are witnessing the collapse of the notion that the US belongs to any particular group of people and the rise of a vision of rigid inclusivity that regards ignoring, excluding or slighting anyone as the greatest sin. The weird excesses of wokeness are mostly about battering down the notion that any group has a greater claim than any other to power and belonging. 

Meanwhile the battle conservative white Christians raged to keep ownership of the nation has moved from real world politics to fantasyland, and instead of the Moral Majority we have chat rooms where people share the latest apocalyptic gossip. The assault on the Capitol freaked out a lot of people, but it was 5,000 angry losers taking advantage of a crack in the edifice. It accomplished nothing.

Young Americans are more diverse and less religious than any previous generation. It remains to be seen if wokeness can evolve into a positive, widespread coalition wielding real power. But the notion that white Christians by themselves could rule the nation is dead, and the future of conservatism rests as much with Hispanic Catholics and libertarian immigrants as with evangelical churches and grouchy old white folks.


David said...

Your remark about bizarreness of the notion that a nation of 300 million could belong to anyone is interesting to me. I've been thinking a lot lately about our discussion here (back in February, maybe?) about the relative failure of Christianity to become a unifying state ideology in the early medieval West, compared especially to Confucian China. It seems to me that, arguably, one could say China is virtually unique among very large societies in its social and cultural unity. Surely there can be no question that China belongs to the Han Chinese, in the way that some White Christians imagine the US once did to them. I'm sure Han Chinese identity is full of internal wrinkles and contradictions and disputes (especially between north and south Chinese) but overall there seems to be a deep unity there too. The really distinct minorities--Tibetans, Uighurs, etc.--are tiny by comparison. I'm not sure there is any other society on earth with a nine-figure population, other than Japan, that is so unified. I don't say this because I think it makes China scary. I just think it's remarkable.

David said...

Obviously, in the case of China, we're looking at a ten-figure population. :-)

G. Verloren said...

The assault on the Capitol freaked out a lot of people, but it was 5,000 angry losers taking advantage of a crack in the edifice. It accomplished nothing.

This is wholly wrong, and it is an extremely dangerous degree of complacency to hold.

Every coup does damage, even the failed ones. Experts in political science will tell you that; people from other countries who have lived through failed coups will tell you that. Even stupid coups are still blows against the established order, and they still have consequences, often unseen until it's too late, and often unpredictable because of the nature of chaos.

What did this coup achieve? It convinced an awful lot of Republicans that American elections are rigged and must be eliminated. It converted a worrying number of Americans to the ideal of autocratic rule rather than democratic rule. It led far too many people to begin to view chaos as a tool for pushing their agendas.


What did the use of poison gas in WWI achieve? "Nothing", one might argue - the war ground on without it ever being a real deciding or influencing factor. But it was still a breakdown of the established conduct of war - once one country broke the rules and started to use gas, the other countries did too, and countless men in the trenches paid the price for it, along with their families back home. It sent ripples throughout the Western World - every major combatant country in the war was left with an indelible cultural impression, and was changed forever by it.

People wrote bleak and sobering poetry about the gas attacks, in every language of the war. The common soldiers grew bitter and resentful toward the barbarity of the generals and politicians forcing them to face such horrors as gas, over such a stupid casus belli. This resentment fueled future politics for a generation, leading not insignificant number of people people to Anarchism, to radical Communism, to outright Fascism, all as preferable to the status quo. The chaos of the 20s and 30s, which would lead to the tragedy and inhumanity of the 40s, was born at least in part from the transgressions of the 1910s.

A failed coup still does damage, just as a failed campaign of gas warfare still does damage. It damages and destroys individual lives caught in the crossfire (the 5 dead and 140 wounded people during the Capitol Riot are not "nothing"), and it also damages society and culture at large. You may want to forget and ignore the coup, and tell yourself reassuring fables about how it achieved "nothing", but you do so only at your peril - and at the peril of everyone else as well. You don't see the damage, you think the foundations are still just as strong as ever, but subsurface cracks and wear are very much a thing, and by the time the problem becomes plainly visible on the surface, it will be far too late.

John said...

@David-I look at humanity and see a mass of strangers I know nothing about. I feel no more alienated and alone in a room full of black people or immigrants than I do in a room full of white strangers; to me they are all equally foreign. I have never, ever, felt like I belonged or fit in anywhere except within the circle of my friends. The notion that anyone could feel a sense of belonging in a vast agglomeration like a nation is almost incomprehensible to me.

Yes, China belongs to the Han Chinese, but to me the notion of belonging to or feeling any sense of shared identity with a group of 800 million is simply absurd. Han Chinese include every possible kind of person - kind, cruel, smart, stupid, curious, incurious, etc. Skin color and eye shape are far, far from enough to get me to see anyone as a kinsman.

John said...

@G- It is simply not true that any disturbance or attack threatens the established order; in fact failed attacks very often strengthen the established order. Coup attempts are scary to people in places where the government changes every decade or two, like Brazil or Haiti. The deaths of five people are not nothing, but they are also not an "accomplishment," the precise word I used.

American democracy will still exist when I die, very much the way it does now. I regard this is as certain as any statement one can make about the future.

G. Verloren said...


I fear we're going to have to agree to disagree - I just feel like you're falling into the fallacy of American Exceptionalism, thinking that certain kinds of bad things only happen in "other places" and to "other people - but fundamentally never to America.

People used to think that way about terrorism - a problem for other, lesser countries, but not exceptional America - until a very rude awakening happened just shy of two decades ago now. We were complacent then, and it cost us dearly, and continues to cost us even now. We really ought not be complacent in other areas as well, or history is liable to repeat itself.

There's an old saying "It's the strong swimmers who drown". Overconfidence and complacency lead to lapses in judgement that can result in sudden and unexpected catastrophe when someone doesn't take a threat seriously enough.

David said...


Oops. I feel bad. Here you were, making a very personal and somewhat raw revelation, and here was I, indulging in a pipe-puffing, cardigan-wearing academic observation about a country I've never been to (though I still think my observation is VAF).

I imagine you're familiar with George Carlin's nice riff on national pride, but if not:

If you're in the mood to intellectualize these issues, I highly recommend Moffett, The Human Swarm.

I want to ask: do you find your sense of not fitting in sad and lonely (alienated rather than merely isolated), or do you find those who feel they fit into large identity groups to be misguided? Are they lucky, in your view, or just kidding themselves? Or something else?

David said...

@John and G

Not surprisingly, I'm more with G than John on the Capitol riot. In itself and in a broad view, it wasn't a huge event, any more than the Boston Massacre was. But like the Boston Massacre or the Reveillon Riots or the Kapp Putsch, I can imagine it as another in a train of incidents that leads to a cataclysm. The Boston Massacre is a good example. It really wasn't much at all, but it became important because of the way patriot propagandists used it.

Much more alarming for the present is the ongoing conviction among a third of the population that the 2020 presidential election was "a steal." This isn't going away, it's proliferating and ramifying and becoming a myth in the foundational story sense of the word. It has the hallmarks of a potential Dolchstosslegende.

John's complacency on this score seems to be part of him, just as my fear is part of me (and, it seems, G.), so "agree to disagree" is probably as far as we can go. Only time will tell.