The rise and fall of the conservative religious movement
Learn about the American evangelical movement’s heyday in the nineties and understand why it has gone from a period of unprecedented growth to the current one of decline.
(Salt Lake City) THE WIDESPREAD INTERNATIONAL exportation of the social and political reality in the United States is due to Hollywood. During its lifetime, American cinema’s incessant film production has left no stone unturned when describing the country’s current events. The evangelical religious movement, a group associated with a particularly fervent form of Christianity, is no exception.
In the movie The Apostle (1997), Robert Duvall masterfully portrays an evangelical pastor from the American South. Gesticulating wildly and sweating incessantly, Duvall puts a human face on a central component of the movement: the preachers. Making use of a wide range of emotional and psychological resources, they proclaim themselves to be true Saint Pauls of the twenty-first century. With recurrent biblical invocations, public confessions of sin and the suggestive use of their hands, they snap the faithful out of the spiritual lethargy that the current consumer society has plunged them into.
Starting in the nineties, the evangelical movement reached unheard of heights. Throughout the country (and with particular strength in the South) the evangelicals raised some unprecedented structures. Astronomical fundraising, imposing “mega-churches” and the appearance of pastors with exceptional oratory skills made this possible. In turn, its arrival in the mass media catapulted the message beyond the strictly church ambit. Here is an example of this evangelical “mediazation”: in 2005, there were four books on The New York Times’ best-seller list written by renowned pastors.
THE EVANGELICAL BOOM
Naturally, the movement was exported to the political arena, and once it was there, it became necessary for an evangelical voice to be included in the discussion of social, cultural, moral and political issues. What’s more, this growing influence was strengthened by the Christian voters’ great ability to mobilize. In a society marked by electoral apathy, the evangelicals’ commitment to elections and referendums turned them into a factor to keep in mind.
Supporting conservative candidates, they came to have a notable influence in key districts and elections, and in the particular case of the Republican party, to weigh heavily on its internal affairs. In this manner, they have affected the arduous primary elections, which lead to the selection of presidential and vice-presidential candidates. And even more important, they have exerted an undeniable influence on the formation of a partisan message to the nation.
In the last presidential election, the nomination of governor Sarah Palin as McCain’s running mate was seen as an unmistakable gesture to obtain the support of the attentive conservative religious groups. Up until that point, they had been inspired very little by senator McCain’s candidacy. Likewise, the 2000 presidential elections laid bare the strength of the evangelical vote, providing the then Republican candidate George W. Bush with the extra little push needed to emerge victorious from the close battle. In 2004, they assured Bush his reelection, this time with some more breathing room.
In 2006, the Southern Baptist Convention (the biggest group in the movement) launched a massive conversion campaign. The baptists aimed to “harvest” (such was the expression used) a million souls in only twelve months. Even if this goal was not reached, the effort bluntly revealed both the ambitious evangelical agenda and the enormous operative machinery with which it is sustained.
TIMELINE OF A DECLINE
But today, it looks like that heyday has given way to a pronounced decline. In her book The Fall of the Evangelical Nation, the American journalist Christine Wicker paints a bleak outlook.
Thoroughly studying the current situation of the movement, visiting its churches and conversing with pastors, parishioners and former members, Wicker reveals a movement that is clearly in decline, and consequently, losing influence in the public arena.
The obligatory question is: what are the reasons for this decline? It looks like several factors have converged, some being internal in nature and others associated with external circumstances. It appears that the fall of evangelicalism is taking place in a context in which the concept of Christianity as an undeniable cultural and social pillar of the nation is being put to test. In a recent issue, the weekly Newsweek made reference to this very trend.
According to Newsweek, the United States is today a much more culturally complex and diverse society. In the past few decades, the impact of the waves of immigration (in many cases, coming from non-Christian regions of the planet) has managed to broaden its cultural horizon. The result of this process is a much less homogeneous country, whose roots spread out in multiple directions.
Other factors should be added to this, such as the growing religious indifference of the younger generations, depriving churches of a new batch of faithfuls and due-paying members. According to Wicker, we are looking at a less religious country, or at least a country less committed to regular, formal and institutionalized worship, in this case Christian.
RISE IN AGNOSTICS
In order to give this explanation some weight, the journalist drops a powerful statistic in our laps: the number of self-identified agnostics doubled from 1990 to 2001, going from 14 to 29 million.
In the case of the evangelists, the available indicators appear to confirm the worst predictions. Between 1980 and 2005, the number of baptisms carried out by the Southern Baptist Church fell by approximately 40 percent, and a demographic in which that drop is particularly notable is the white, middle and upper-middle classes. The rank and file shrinkage also has a financial impact on the mega-churches, given the costly programs that they require. In order to compensate, evangelists have stepped up their efforts directed at two communities that, up until now, have not been of great importance in their missionary work: Hispanics and African-Americans.
An effect associated with this decline, the analysts point out, is the incipient restructuring of the evangelist agenda. As such, there is a shift away from an almost exclusive focus on topics like the right to life, the promotion of sexual abstinence in young people and opposition to civil unions, among others, and towards the creation of a more “social” agenda.
Wicker is aware of some evangelical churches’ growing interest in contributing to educational, health and food projects in marginalized neighborhoods and sectors, some even outside of the country, as they also do work in developing countries.
THE NEW TIMES
In some evangelical communities, there is even a nascent openness to holding dialogues with liberal political exponents. Such was the case with the then senator Barack Obama. When he was invited by the pastor Rick Warren to speak to his congregation, an enormous controversy was unleashed. Not a single soul in the community was unaware of the fact that Obama was one of the most important leaders of the Democrats, who generally believe in a woman’s right to choose. However, they listened to him attentively, and he was applauded at the end of his speech. Undoubtedly, something highly unusual, which would have been practically impossible during any another time period.
It is difficult to predict the future of these trends, and particularly difficult during times like these, with all of the turmoil. The profound economic crisis is making its effects felt in all facets of American society, and one aspect that cannot escape it is the way in which the distinct groups, sectors and interest act in the “public view” and relate to each other. Bearing this in mind, we should not be surprised to see that the models and ideas up until now espoused by the principal evangelical figures are adjusting to the times.