Looking Back: Religion in 2015

December 2015

I spent some time looking over what I’d posted on this blog over the past 12 months in anticipation of one of those “best of” posts everyone is doing. I did learn how much the three themes of evangelicalism, higher education, and sociological theory showed up on the blog and how some of each were among my most viewed posts.

Then I thought about doing one of those “most important stories of 2014” especially after reading this post from Christianity Today. It asked four figures to list their pick for “best news” of 2014 that would shape evangelical life. Their responses were relations between evangelicals and Catholics (Geoff Tunnicliffe), WorldVision abandoning their same-sex marriage policy (Eric Teetsel), Ebola doctors and We are N awareness (Sarah Pulliam Bailey), and persecution breaking the reins of prosperity gospel (Russell Moore).

While I don’t have major quibbles with most of these (I have a hard time with the WorldVision thing), I immediately wondered what else was missing. What would others have responded? How would they articulate their choice? What sort of factors played into their perspective of what constituted “best news”?

Rather than adding my retrospective on what was important, which has the kind of safety found in Newsroom scripts retelling events long past, I thought I’d stick my neck out and write next year’s retrospective a year early. So, following in the tradition of Edward Bellamy, I pretended it was December 2015 and I could reflect on the major change stories in religion (especially American religion as it’s what I know best).

In no particular order, here’s my list:

1. The Rise of the Dones: While much of the focus in recent years has been on why millennials have fallen away from church in somewhat large numbers, this was the year when the evangelical church really woke up to those previously faithful members who just stopped participating. This was captured in research by Josh Packard and colleagues. These are individuals who are theologically orthodox and would show up as highly religious on a number of survey questions, but simply don’t attend church much anymore. They’ve heard it before and are pursuing other avenues for spiritual fulfillment. This group helps explain the significant gap between religious identification and church attendance in America as well as the increasing financial challenges for local congregations.

2. Pope Francis make life more difficult for Evangelicals:  His Holiness continued the housecleaning begun late in 2014, shaking up the internal organization of the Vatican and calling those in leadership not to see themselves as better than others in their flocks. This included some extremely strong words about the embrace of materialism and what sociologists call “conspicuous consumption”. Suddenly, the evangelical pastor asking for heightened levels of loyalty, a huge staff, lots of speaking opportunities, and large houses wound up in stark contrast to public images of what it means to be truly Christian. In addition, the pope’s openness to dialogue on the role of women, treatment of those outside the faith, and embrace of science made it increasingly difficult to take hard-line stances on social issues (even where simply quoting scripture worked in the past) unless one was willing to denounce an immensely popular spiritual leader as being an accommodationist.

3. Concerns over Race in America bridged theological barriers: As 2014 ended with sharp divisions on issues of race, it was religious figures from across the theological spectrum who began to seriously address the key questions. Prior separations between Calvinists and Arminians, between millennial bloggers and evangelical figureheads, between mainliners and evangelicals began to break down, at least for a time. There was a strong sentiment from African-American conservatives and young white progressives that one’s station in society shouldn’t be dictated by race and class. There was a dramatic increase in the number of voices willing to admit that something was wrong and that we needed intense theological and sociological conversations. This change put the evangelical church in the center of significant social change based not simply on secular values but imbued with a strong vision of God’s Kingdom at work.

4. Legalization of Same-Sex Marriage allowed real dialogue within denominations on marriage: With more states taking steps to institutionalize same-sex marriage on purely secular grounds, it created the situation where denominational groups could no longer treat the topic as an abstract proposition. Increasingly, people within local congregations were in same-sex marriages recognized by the state (and their employers). Churches held fast to self-determination on marriages within the church and there remain stark differences on the role of married, sexually active, gay clergy. But the societal shifts allow for real dialogue within major denominational groupings. While the year ended without any particular working consensus, earlier concerns about schism seemed to be avoided. One of the interesting positive outcomes of the shift was a real discussion about the role of family, commitment, fidelity, and affirmation of the image of God in all that had been sorely missed in “traditional family” discussions.

5. The splintering of the Evangelical voting block: As the pre-primary campaigns began to take shape in mid-2015 in anticipation of the 2016 presidential election, the old value-voters block of conservative evangelicals didn’t materialize to the extent that it had in the previous three presidential cycles. This was a result of three factors: more millennials involved in the political process, the inability of leading presidential candidates to speak to evangelical theological concerns, and shifts in major political issues from social concerns to economic concerns. Issues of abortion and treatment of the elderly were still highly valued, but other issues of immigration, family policy, minimum wage, and the social contract showed significant diversity of thought even among evangelicals. Candidates could no longer simply depend upon Christian voters guides carrying the day.

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Some of this may be simply pie-in-the-sky thinking on my part. On the other hand, all five of my scenarios are based on a reasonable sociological reading of things already in play in late 2014. I invite you to tag this and come back to it in twelve months — I’m sure I will.

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