Is the Religious Right to Blame for Christianity’s Decline?

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?

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2 comments

  1. The Religious Right in a lot of people’s minds conjures up hardline Evangelical groups and usually not a sub-set of Roman Catholics. Maybe in professional Roman circles that’s different. But would one really want to add the Religious Right nomenclature to the Roman community, especially at this point in time? Is it loud-mouthed Religious Righters that drive people away, as much as it is doctrine and practice, or lack thereof?

    My own parish, as an example, has a good number of ex-Roman Catholics, myself included, who found a home there because of un-regularized marriages (divorce and remarriage), welcoming of their sexuality and recognizing their relationships sacramentally, Roman clerical sex abuse scandals and cover-ups, married/women clerics, congregational polity and governance, quality of preaching, liturgy, and music among other reasons. OTOH, we also have a number of members from Baptist, UCC, Pentecostal, Presbyterian, and even Quaker denominations who found a home there because of the Sacraments, liturgy and music, and other similar reasons above. Two of our recent curates were Baptist and Presbyterian ministers before being received and ordained as Episcopal priests, while our current rector was raised Methodist, our curate was a RC, and our seminarian intern was received from the Baptist tradition.

    Granted our parish is more an exception than a rule, that we are an historic Anglo-Catholic “shrine” church with a reputation for high quality of music, liturgy, preaching, and outreach into the community to help the poor and marginalized, as well as being in the midst of a large secular ivy league university with two divinity schools and an institute devoted to quality sacred music. But I have yet to hear anyone say that they were actually driven out by or because of anyone–it’s more like they were searching for more and found it with us.

  2. Religious right? What does that mean anyway? It all depends on the person using the phrase. If you are talking about traditional Catholics, then, according to this article, they are not part of the religious right. Those parishes are growing. As a matter of fact, they are packed each Sunday. Why? Because they are special and different from anything else a person experiences in his or her daily life. They fulfill the need within all of us for beauty and reverence. So the blanket phrase “religious right” is far too vague a term for an article. Or did the author purposely use a blanket phrase to seemingly cover all but the most liberal organizations, and thereby, refute claims and assign blame according to his agenda? That’s it!

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