Declension, National Salvation, and Other Discontents

Here’s an excerpt of my most recent post at RiAH:

At the end of June, the Huffington Post’s Tim Suttle queried “Why are evangelicals losing influence?” This claim of decline emerged from a Pew Research Center survey of evangelical leaders globally, in which 82% claimed that evangelicals were losing influence over culture. The blame, of course, landed firmly on the “rising tide of secularism.” Suttle disagrees with the causation, and instead he notes, “If evangelical influence is nose-diving we have no one to blame but ourselves.” The jeremiad of declension remains alive, well, and likely weary, and it seems fly in the face of presence of evangelicals in American culture. Is evangelicalism on the decline? Or it this a method to chastise evangelicals into action as well as reflection?

Declension and its sister narrative secularization ebb and flow in public discourse and historiography with assertions in both that this moment (“no, not that one!”) is certainly a moment of decline. The crucial time when religion might not be present in public life but rather avoidable, contained, and private. Declension narratives seem to hinge on the abject hope that certain religious voices will lose presence and popularity (the question of which voices becomes very, very important). Religion is in decline, isn’t it? What is meant exactly by religion generally seems to be an association with mainline Christianity. As one might imagine, I am not terribly interested in mapping out this statistically (though the statistics are alluring). Yet the fervor that emerges anytime new survey data suggests decline is a different story. Just this morning, a group of my summer students presented the recent findings of Barna Group study of religious change to discuss the religious character of the American nation. The study reports that 40% of all adults in the U.S. fit the moniker “born again”, which is not a self-identification by survey respondents, but rather Barna’s label. Does this data suggest decline?

While reading Suttle’s article on declining evangelicals, I couldn’t help but wonder how political figures like Rick Perry and Michelle Bachmann trouble this self-reported decline.Perry, after all, hosted “The Response” this weekend, and Rolling Stone imaged Bachmann as a Christian crusader (Janine already covered this here). The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza profiled Bachmann’s religious roots. Religion Dispatches’ Sarah Posner puts Perry and Bachmann head to head in a discussion of who would win the conservative Christian vote.

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