THIS ARTICLE is about a book that discusses the numerical strength of US evangelicals. We usually don’t write about religion, because that’s not our purpose here. Therefore we need to begin by placing this topic in the context of our customary concerns.
Religion inevitably permeates the arguments of creationists, and even those of their allegedly secular front organization, the Discovery Institute. They’re the outfit with the Wedge strategy, which literally aims to destroy rationality and cast us down into the pit of theocracy. (For more by us on them, see: Discovery Institute: Enemies of the Enlightenment.)
Although we don’t focus on religion, we’ve certainly mentioned it in connection with anti-science movements, for example: Conservatives and Intelligent Design, always pointing out that creationism (including the Intelligent Design version thereof) isn’t unique to — or an essential component of — Christianity. (Creationists strenuously insist on the “essential” aspect of creationism, which indicates how little they know about even that which they claim to know best.) But there’s no getting away from the fact that in the United States, the political thrust of creationism is a project of certain Christian denominations, and is often associated with the Republican party (with exceptions, like Louisiana).
The Republican connection is a new development, because that party only recently became dominant in several Southern states, after those states felt betrayed by Lyndon Johnson’s support of civil rights legislation. (By the way, we know that “Southern” isn’t a synonym for “creationist,” but creationists are common in the South, so we’ll sometimes use those terms interchangeably.)
Previously, the creationist sections of the US population were mostly associated with the Democrat party, as exemplified by William Jennings Bryan. The traditional creationist-Democrat alliance began with the Compromise of 1877, ending Reconstruction and leaving the Southern states free to run their own affairs, which was the foundation of the Solid South — a key factor in many Democrat Presidential successes.
Now that civil rights is no longer an issue, the politically “homeless” creationists have been more or less inherited by the Republicans, a factor in that party’s recent Presidential successes.
There is always a price to be paid for political realignments. Previously, in return for support of their national ticket, the Democrats allowed the South to run their internal affairs their own way. The South was satisfied with the arrangement, and the national Democrat party was indifferent how the Southern states governed themselves.
The Republicans don’t offer that option, so the creationists are pressing their remaining “social concerns” to be the national policies of their newly-adopted party. Creationism in the science classes of state-run schools is one of those concerns. (Constitutional objections ought to be a constraint here, but are too often ignored in the business of practical politics.)
This awkward situation raises an essential political question: How numerous are these newly-Republican creationists? If the answer is “not very,” or “less than before,” then their more exotic demands upon Republicans can be treated with — to borrow Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s phrase — benign neglect.
Therefore, we read with much interest this article in Australia’s Sydney Morning Herald: Strength of US evangelicals is one of the big myths of our time. Here are some excerpts, with bold added for emphasis:
We have been told often that a quarter of all Americans are evangelicals, and that the support of this enormous number of ultra conservatives has kept George Bush in office.
Yes, that’s what we’re told. But is it true? We read on:
A book recently published in America casts doubt on both claims, particularly the first, suggesting that they comprise one of the big myths of our time. It’s a myth that has flourished because it suits the interests of both evangelical leaders and those on the political left who have been so worried about evangelicalism.
Okay, what’s the book and what does it say?
Christine Wicker is a former religious reporter for the Dallas Morning News. … In The Fall Of The Evangelical Nation (HarperOne), she set out to count America’s evangelicals. What she found surprised even her.
The book can be found here: The Fall of the Evangelical Nation. Continuing with the article:
The standard story is that there are 54 million adult and 21 million child evangelicals.
But once you dig further you find the figure has little significance, either religiously or politically. The respected pollster George Barna found that when you start to ask these people if they agree with specific evangelical beliefs (such as the literal accuracy of the Bible), the numbers drop away. A large proportion of evangelicals are not conservative or fundamentalist. They’re so-called “progressive” evangelicals such as Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Al Gore.
Wicker says attendance at some sort of prayer group is necessary before a person can be categorised as a fervent conservative of the sort conjured up in the lurid stories of the evangelical dominance of politics. After many pages of searching and calculating, she concludes this number makes up just 7 per cent of Americans.
A big part of the myth has been that the number of evangelicals has been growing. In fact, the movement is in decline. That figure of 7 per cent is down from 12 per cent in 1991.
In other words, while the media have been telling us that core evangelicalism has been booming, it has actually shrunk almost by half.
That’s quite a story. And there’s one more interesting bit of information in the article, found in the final paragraph:
In truth, Wicker points out, the fastest-growing belief category in America is not evangelicalism, but the group to which so many on the left belong: non-believers. From 1990 to 2001 in America, their numbers increased from 14 million to 29 million.
So maybe it’s time to treat the creationists with benign neglect. They certainly deserve it.
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