How Evangelicals Won a Culture War and Lost a Generation

EvansAn evangelical humanitarian organization with credibility in the secular non-profit world, World Vision made news when it announced it would not discriminate against employees in same-sex marriage.  It made even more news when, a few days later, it caved to pressure from conservative evangelicals and reversed course.  There’s been a fair amount of ink spilled on the case, but Rachel Held Evans puts the issue in broader context as well as anyone at CNN’s Belief Blog.  A former evangelical, she starts with her dismay at evangelicals who pulled their support for their sponsor children, then reversed course:

Stearns told The New York Times that some people, satisfied with the reversal, have called World Vision headquarters to ask, “Can I have my child back?” as though needy children are expendable bargaining chips in the culture war against gay and lesbian people.

Many of us who grew up evangelical watched with horror as these events unfolded.

As a longtime supporter of World Vision, I encouraged readers of my blog to pick up some of the dropped sponsorships after the initial decision. I then felt betrayed when World Vision backtracked, though I urged my readers not to play the same game but to keep supporting their sponsored children, who are of course at no fault in any of this.

But most of all, the situation put into stark, unsettling relief just how misaligned evangelical priorities have become.

When Christians declare that they would rather withhold aid from people who need it than serve alongside gays and lesbians helping to provide that aid, something is wrong.

But in addition to being immoral and wrong-headed, it’s simply bad strategy,  Evans argues:

As I grieved with my (mostly 20- and 30-something) readers over this ugly and embarrassing situation, I heard a similar refrain over and over again: “I don’t think I’m an evangelical anymore. I want to follow Jesus, but I can’t be a part of this.”

I feel the same way.

Whether it’s over the denial of evolutionary science, continued opposition to gender equality in the church, an unhealthy alliance between religion and politics or the obsession with opposing gay marriage, evangelicalism is losing a generation to the culture wars.

A recent survey from Public Religion Research Institute revealed that nearly one-third of millennials who left their childhood faith did so because of“negative teachings” or “negative treatment” of gay and lesbian people.

Christians can disagree about what the Bible says (or doesn’t say) about same-sex marriage. This is not an issue of orthodoxy. But when we begin using child sponsorships as bargaining tools in our debates, we’ve lost the way of Jesus.

So my question for those evangelicals is this: Is it worth it?

For all the energy of the Religious Right, it now seems possible that the near identity that evangelicals have forged with right-wing politics might play a roll in their decline – and in the rise of the “nones,” the nearly one-fifth of Americans who no longer affiliate with any religious tradition.   Certainly, their are progressive evangelical voices.  The class associated with this blog just read Shane Claiborne, who is certainly a different face of evangelicalism.  Still, history suggests that Held could be right.  By many accounts, popular reaction against alliances between crown and cross — between governing aristocracies and state-affiliated churches — played a roll in the secularization of Europe. The United States has seemed set on a different course.  But it’s worth asking: Is the Religious Right actually helping to produce a more secular America?


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