What’s Causing the Decline of Religion?

Last week Doug Jones was sworn in to the Senate.  Needless to say, his win was certainly a much-needed bit of good news.  Apart from narrowly avoided the national embarrassment that sending a kid-diddler to Congress would constitute, Roy Moore’s loss demonstrates that culpability is not dead, at least not yet.  No doubt many people would conclude from a Moore victory that the best thing to do when they get caught doing something wrong is not to take responsibility, but deny everything and blame whoever is calling you out.

Still, the fact that a confirmed kid-diddler came this close to being sent to Congress speaks volumes to the moral bankruptcy of the Religious Right.  Or at least it should, as Christianity Today admitted in an editorial right before the Alabama race:

No matter the outcome of today’s special election in Alabama for a coveted US Senate seat, there is already one loser: Christian faith. When it comes to either matters of life and death or personal commitments of the human heart, no one will believe a word we say, perhaps for a generation. Christianity’s integrity is severely tarnished.

This is a fairly clear-eyed assessment of Christianity’s diminishing moral authority in the modern world.  Unfortunately, the author seems a bit confused as to who’s to blame for this collapse, and finds fault with, of all people, liberal Christians.

From moderate and liberal brothers and sisters, conservatives have received swift and decisive condemnation. They call these conservatives idolaters for seeking after political power. They call them homophobes for wanting Christian bakers to legally follow their conscience. They call them racists and Islamophobes for wanting secure borders. These moderates and liberal evangelicals are so disturbed by the political beliefs of their brothers and sisters that many say they don’t even want to be associated with them anymore; they seem to view these brothers and sisters in Christ as tax collectors and sinners.

There’s obviously truth in the final sentence.  Millennials are notoriously less religious than earlier generations, and fewer and fewer people want to identify as evangelicals nowadays.  But to suggest the blame lies with liberal Christians for not reaching out and empathizing enough with their coreligionists is absurd.  The reason why Christian moral authority is declining is not because people refuse to understand conservative Christians, but because people understand them all too well.

Fundamentalists have long insisted that only they are the true followers of Christ, and likewise that only they can faithfully represent the Christian religion.  Whether one agrees with them or not, there’s little doubt that their professions of piety have made them the chief associates of the Christian religion in the public consciousness.  If you want to know why Christianity’s public standing is in decline, we need look no further than the self-appointed vicars of the religion.  And what one finds is an unending stream of the sheer hypocrisy from conservative Christians.

Such hypocrisy is on display at all levels of society.  One can see it all the way up to the leaders who rail against gay marriage and adultery, only to get caught visiting gay prostitutes or propositioning guys in the men’s room.  Or, for that matter, the priests of the Catholic Church molesting children and being disciplined with little more than a slap on the wrist and a couple Hail Marys.  And it’s visible all the way down to the super religious girls in your heavily-evangelical town who all took abstinence pledges, and all got knocked up by the time they were sixteen (something that is exceptionally common in the small towns conservatives like to exalt for their salt-of-the-Earth morality).

If you grew up religious (as I did), and you listened attentively during Sunday School or the Sermon, you probably heard about Jesus railing against religious hypocrites who just love putting on a show of piety.  It’s kind of hard to miss—he does it a full twenty times over the course of the Gospels. And it’s hard to not eventually notice how an awful lot of the most sanctimonious “followers of Christ” do a pretty lousy job at living in accordance with the values they constantly yammer on about.  If you’re going to lay claim to superior moral character, you’d better be prepared to meet, at a minimum, the same moral standards you insist on holding everyone else to.

I’m young. Some of my friends are religious, some aren’t.  But if there’s one thing that unites them all, it’s that they absolutely hate this blatant hypocrisy.  The kids these days have noticed, and many of them see it as part of a larger problem within conservative Christianity.  The fact that evangelicals threw in with Trump and Moore is confirmation of all the worst possible assumptions one could make here, and Christianity Today is correct that this decline will not  be reversing anytime soon.  But if Christians want to cast blame, they would do well to cast it in the direction of the hollow gestures of the fundamentalists, rather than the supposed condescension of liberal Christians.

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