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Evangelicals see declining influence in U.S.

c. 2011 Religion News Service

(RNS) Are U.S. evangelicals losing their influence on America?

A new poll released Wednesday (June 22) from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life seems to say just that, with the vast majority — 82 percent — of U.S. evangelical leaders saying their influence on the country is declining.

At the same time, their counterparts in Africa, Asia and Latin America are far more optimistic.

“There’s both a huge optimism gap and a huge influence gap in terms of the way these folks perceive things,” said Luis Lugo, director of the Pew Forum.

Researchers surveyed more than 2,000 leaders invited to attend the Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization in Cape Town, South Africa, last year.


The Rev. S. Douglas Birdsall, executive chair of the Lausanne Movement, which worked with Pew on the survey, said the U.S. pessimism is rooted in a changed culture where Billy Graham has retreated from public life and government-sponsored prayer has been banned from public schools for more than a generation.

“There was a time when there was a Ten Commandments in every classroom, there were prayers in public places,” he said. “So having gone from that position of considerable influence, even though we might actually have more influence than churches in … other parts of the world, the sense is that it’s slipping from our hands.”

The perception of declining influence comes as the nation has become both more pluralistic and more secular. The vast majority of U.S. leaders surveyed — 92 percent — called secularism a major threat to evangelical Christianity.


Some evangelical denominations are starting to acknowledge pluralism in hopes of increasing their numbers. The Southern Baptist Convention, which drew the smallest attendance since World War II at a recent meeting in Phoenix, and is grappling with declining baptism rates, has launched a plan to diversify its leadership.

Researchers also found that evangelicals are far more pessimistic than their Global South counterparts about the current and future state of evangelicalism.

About half (53 percent ) of U.S. leaders said the state of evangelicalism is worse than it was five years ago, and nearly as many (48 percent) said they expect it to grow worse in the next five years.

Birdsall is meeting with 150 Lausanne Movement leaders in Boston this week to map out steps for the next decade. He said topics will include a focus on the authenticity and integrity of evangelicals’ image, which sometimes has been besmirched by the moral failures of its leaders and overly influenced by a consumer-oriented culture.


“What can happen is that the minister becomes the communications marketing guru who knows how to appeal to various markets and so you attract people,” he said. “When you do that, you lose your prophetic voice of what it means to challenge people to be in the world but not of the world.”

Randall Balmer, a historian of American evangelicals at Barnard College, said leaders of the religious right — from the late Rev. Jerry Falwell to broadcaster Pat Robertson — promoted a “cult of victimization among evangelicals” that may have worked at the voting booth but hurt them in the larger culture.

“I think there is some waning of cultural influence,” he said, pointing to the politicizing of the movement as the reason for both greater visibility but also cultural decline.


“Like it or not, when you become politically active, you become associated with the politicians you support,” Balmer said, alluding to many evangelicals’ embrace of the GOP. “Once you begin to covet political power and influence, you lose the prophetic voice.”

Researchers found that just 18 percent of U.S. Lausanne representatives surveyed said religious leaders should stay out of political issues, compared to 78 percent who said they should express their political views.

Historian Mark Noll said there was a certain level of influence that was taken for granted by evangelicals in past decades, with Graham’s prominence and fewer concerns about political involvement.

“Big churches in medium, small places knew that they were important,” said Noll, a historian of American religion at the University of Notre Dame. “And now big churches in big and medium and small places, they may not have that same sense.”


He said successful congregations and ministries continue to thrive in parts of the country, especially locally, but “that local and individual strength doesn’t show up on the evening news.”

Birdsall agreed evangelical influence may have changed, but said it still exists, although perhaps in a different form.

“Though we are losing influence, it doesn’t mean that we are pessimistic about our churches and their role in society,” he said. “They’re having influence in homes. They’re having influence in caring for those who are marginalized, those who are the poor, the oppressed. It may not be as public.”

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Theophile

    “There was a time when there was a Ten Commandments in every classroom,”

    These were the watered down “politically correct” “ten commandments”, kind of like the seeker friendly social clubs, repeating mantras of cherry picked Bible verses(mostly Paul’s words), and top ten Christian Contemporary Music worship team entertainment, that’s labeled the Church today.
    How can you expect the Ten Commandments to be read, or obeyed when: “The old testament is the old covenant, it’s all done away with”, is preached to complete Bible illiterates(new believers), twisting Paul’s rhetoric in Romans, eliminating 3/4 of the Bible?
    How many “preachers admit or even know that the Sabbath Command, and the graven image command, make up 62% of the words God used when He gave those Ten Commandments? Or that Sunday is the day of the sun god Baal, whose worship was condemned in the Bible? What happens to these new believers when they actually read their Bible and find out their pastor taught them wrong? They become atheists, or believe the Bible and leave the Church. Either way the Church retains only the lukewarm in the pews.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment pagansister

    Wish I could say this is sad news, but—I can’t! :o)
    The fact that those 10 Commandments (or suggestions) aren’t in a PUBLIC classroom is just fine, and public prayer? Not necessary. Perhaps this country has gotten tired of having religion attempting to tell the secular community what to do. No tears for this news from me.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Allan

    I wonder how many people who want the Ten Commandments posted in public schools have them posted in, or in front of, their churches or their homes.

    Martin Luther said that he began his morning prayers each day by reciting the Ten Commandments, the Apostles’ Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer–a practice with many Protestants practice to this day. I believe that making these items a part of your own devotion is far more important than having them posted anywhere.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment cknuck

    agreed Allan, but when you look at what is available in schools these days and the shallow kids coming out of schools it makes one feel sorry for the kids of today.
    On the other hand in Africa we have planted thousands of small churche while in the US only hundreds, though we are optimistic because of bible prophesy.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment kenneth

    This is the best news I’ve read all week!

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Rob

    cknuck, my sense of the children I know–my daughter, her friends, classmates, neighbors–is that they are not shallow at all. They attend public schools, and they are much more thoughtful and considerate than I was at their age. In our school district, there is a lot of emphasis on respect for each other–part of a larger mission to reduce bullying–and it works. The teachers take kids’ behavior seriously; both parents and children are treated with respect and kindness, and the same is asked of the kids. Many kids also belong to a faith community, but many don’t–their parents are atheists or agnostics, and my experience with them is that they are some of the kindest, most thoughtful people around.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment cknuck

    Rob I celebrate the fact that you live in such a ideal area, but in a larger world view I am not so convinced the settings are quite so ideal. I know that what you say is true I go to a really nice town in Pa. where people are just as you describe it is a pleasure to be there I no longer live there I am in a area in where those conditions are not so; kids kill kids, bullying would be a upgrade, kids have sex so much that the act is meaningless, drugs are a daily part of their lives as well as absent parents. Atheist war with believers and believers war with atheist, not like the gangs but with non-productive rhetoric and attempts of restricting each others freedoms. Just like our country’s politicians the people are so polarized that they spend most of their time trying to find fault with each other and no good thing gets done.

  • LutheranChik

    Why is it that the same people who hate the “gommint” and want it to get out of their personal lives keep insisting that that same despised government act as the national catechism teacher?

    I’m Lutheran. When I was a young LutheranChik my parents sent me to confirmation class for two years. There we really learned to understand and live with the implications of the Ten Commandments. And as someone above noted, Luther himself reviewed the Ten Commandments daily, and told parents that instilling their kids with the values of the Ten Commandments was THEIR responsibility.

    Is there anything keeping you Evangelical folk from owning your own value system by teaching your OWN kids in the Ten Commandments and other foundational concepts in the Christian tradition as you see fit yourselves, without expecting other people to do it? Would you like some advice in doing that, from those of us who’ve been taking the responsibility for our children’s own spiritual formation for — oh, a few centuries now?

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