Writing at The Atlantic, Jonathan Merritt reminds us that the Religious Right turns 33 this month. I am not sure why this anniversary is worth celebrating apart from the fact that Merritt has a book on the subject to promote, but he does make some astute observations about how the Jerry Falwell and his colleagues (and followers) have affected American evangelicalism. Merritt concludes:
First, partisan religion is killing American Christianity. The American church is declining by nearly every data point. Christians are exerting less influence over the culture than even a few years ago, organized religion no longer garners the respect of the masses, and two in three young non-Christians claim they perceive the Christian church as “too political.” Church attendance is declining, and the percentage of Americans claiming no religious affiliation is rising.
As sociologists Robert Putnam and David Campbell argue, the church’s partisan political alignment is at least partly to blame. In a recent article in Foreign Affairs they write, “In effect, Americans (especially young Americans) who might otherwise attend religious services are saying, ‘Well, if religion is just about conservative politics, then I’m outta here.'”
The question we must now answer is not, “Can we save this nation?” but “Can we save our faith?” And the only way it seems we will be able to do the latter is through abandoning the partisan, divisive strategies adopted by the Christian right and begin engaging the public again in more prudent ways.
Second, we learned that partisan Christianity cannot effectively change our culture. When the religious right formed, conservative Christians were energized around restricting abortion and same-sex marriage, reducing the size of government, and protecting religious freedom. More than a quarter-century later, these same debates innervate the movement. Little progress has been made despite their best efforts, and an increasing number of individuals now recognize the religious right strategy has largely been a failure. The irony of this turn of events is that Christians above all others know that true change must occur in hearts — not just the halls of power.