We’ve all heard this: liberal churches are shrinking and conservative churches are growing. It’s because – don’t you know? – churches that stand for something attract followers, but churches forever chasing after passing fads do not. People want substance, not gimmicks.
Not so fast. At The American Conservative, of all places, George Hawley cites several studies to argue against all that. “As plausible as this theory may have appeared a decade ago, recent trends in American religious life suggest it is incomplete, if not entirely wrong,” he writes. “[T]he Religious Right was, overall, a detriment to Christianity in the United States.” And this: “[T]hat it [The Religious Right] expedited the decline of Christian identification and affiliation is a damning indictment of the movement.”
The long and short of it is that conservative figures with a large media footprint – think Jerry Falwell – gave Christianity a bad name and made many people no longer want to be associated with it.
To be sure, Hawley’s argument is nuanced and understated. He acknowledges that there are many other possibles reasons for the institutional decline of Christianity along with the declines caused by the Religious Right.
And he states an important truth at the outset: “To lay my own cards on the table, I am persuaded that fertility rates are one of the best predictors of a Christian denomination’s long-term health.” Everyone, please read that again. Liberals (who tend to be better educated) have fewer kids, which accounts for a good bit of the numerical decline of liberal denominations.
Hawley’s references and citations seem to refer mostly to Protestantism. But I’m sure much of what he writes applies to all religious traditions, including Catholicism. It makes me wonder: how many people are driven away from the Catholic Church by our version of loud-mouthed Religious Right folks, mitered or not, in the media?