One-on-One with Scholar and Researcher Mark Silk on the Future of Religion, Especially Evangelicalism, in America (Part Two)
In Part One of this interview, Mark began to answer the following question. Today, he discusses Evangelicals.
Ed: So the generational cohort replacement idea—that we will see them become more religious over time as they get older—seems to be breaking down in a lot of traditions. When we take the four big traditions—Catholic, mainline, Evangelical, historic African-American—what does the next generation (and the future) look like?
Mark: As for Evangelicals, I would say that it’s pretty good. But as with all American religious behavior these days, you put an asterisk and wonder about the younger generation which, across the board, seems to be checking out.
The large theme of our project, which I’ll take a moment to explain, is that over the past several decades, religious identity has moved from being less of an ascribed identity, one that you’re born into unless you make a very affirmative change, and more towards one of choice.
Thirty years ago, if somebody calls you up and asks, “What’s your religion?” you said, “Well, my parents sent me to a Methodist Sunday School.” You would have said you were Methodist, even though you hadn’t darkened the door of a church in 30 years.
Nowadays, you’re more likely to say, “Well, my parents sent me to a Methodist Sunday School, but I haven’t darkened the door of a church in 30 years. Put me down as None.”
What this suggests is that some of this rise of the Nones is less about changes of belief and behavior religiously than it is about a different way in which the question is understood. So, the question once was understood, “Well, I’ve got to be in some religion, so I’d better pick the one that is sort of in my past,” and now it’s “what’s in my present practice.”
It doesn’t mean that things haven’t changed, but I think that they’ve only changed half as much as the amount of the rise of the Nones suggests. What this means is that if you’re in a tradition that, in its sense of itself, emphasizes choice, then you’re in a stronger position in terms of American society than if you’re in a tradition that tends to emphasize ascribed identity. Choice works for Evangelicals because of longstanding belief in adult baptism, etc.
In this sense, Evangelicalism is more in tune with the larger trend in American society to see religion as something that’s chosen. I think various people, leaders and certainly the entrepreneurial types in the megachurch world, have taken advantage of that. Seeker services and the like have sought to offer something in terms of ‘choices’. We ease into things. If people come in and we have to initially talk about the meaning of life and not hit someone over the head with Jesus, that’s okay because we know we will eventually get there. In that sense, Evangelicalism is well positioned.
Ed: What about the challenges for Evangelicalism?
Mark: Its great challenge, however, is the politicizing of Evangelicalism, at least in the public square.
This has turned a lot of people off. It’s not just if you staked a lot of your identity on opposing same-sex marriage and opposing transsexual bathrooms, pushing the envelope wherever possible on abortion and the finally embracing the likes of Donald Trump. There are going to be a lot of people, particularly young people, who are not in any of those places and who will say, “That’s not for me.”
This has been an interesting year. People have predicted the collapse of the religious right ever since it arose in the 1980s and it keeps not collapsing. At the moment, it’s not collapsing with a vengeance, at least when it comes to the locality of the White House.
Ed: For decades, people have been saying Evangelicals’ reputation is going to suffer because of their connection to the religious right. Is it?
Mark: If what you want to do is hang on to 25 or 30 percent of the population, maybe that’s just fine. It may limit your ability to exercise the Great Commission, but if you want just one large chunk of the pie, it might be good enough.
On any of the issues people point to, there’s always strategic adjustments based on what’s happening in society and nobody does a better job at strategic adjusting than Evangelicals over time. Once upon a time, dancing was out, and going to anything other than church on Sunday was out, and divorce was out. But then we recalculated. So today we may be fighting about transgender people in the military or same-sex marriage or abortion. Some changes on the larger issues don’t seem to be budging, but we know that Evangelicals are going to find a way to keep going.
I do wonder about the extent to which culturally oppositional leadership in the Evangelical Church really helps, but if we don’t have anything to differentiate ourselves from the culture, then we don’t have any way of saying we’ve actually got some answers that are different from everybody else’s. The trade-offs, I believe, are actually critically important.
Ed Stetzer holds the Billy Graham Distinguished Chair of Church, Mission, and Evangelism at Wheaton College, is Executive Director of the Billy Graham Center, and publishes church leadership resources through Mission Group.