30th October, 2012
Rev Dr GORDON MOYES
On our Melbourne Cup Day (the first Tuesday in November) citizens of the US will vote on who will be the 45th President. The Republican candidate and the incumbent President are drawing closer in the polls.
In the past Jimmy Carter (Democrat) Ronald Reagan (Republican) George H. W. Bush, (Republican) Bill Clinton, (Democrat), George W. Bush (Republican); Barack Obama (Democrat) has each courted the American Religious right, especially the evangelical/Pentecostal and Fundamentalist denominations, their mega churches and powerful television pastors. They came into the White House mainly because of the support of this noisy Religious Right. In terms of real policy they added little.
That will not happen this time. The Religious Right is losing its clout. They hate Obama but are suspicious of Mormon Romney. Not only that, the two most significant groups in numbers are no longer unionists and the Religious Right, but Hispanic and Afro-Americans. They will both support Obama.
PICTURE: Mark Hayes/iStockphoto.com
"(W)e should be more concerned about the loss of a Christian majority in the Protestant churches than about the loss of a Protestant majority in the United States."
It was my conviction some years ago that the era of the powerful fundamentalist/evangelical Christian right was ending and with it much of US Christian conservative values. America is becoming a more secular, multicultural country. Visiting the country to teach every year or so for 30 years has led to this growing conviction. I knew that religious TV and the rise of “mega churches” would hide this for a while, but the trends were inevitable. I was predicting the end of many denominational colleges and seminaries and with that the declining political usefulness of denominational churches for recruitment of students and funds.
According to a new (2012) study by the Pew Forum, Protestants are, for the first time in history, not a majority in the United States of America. I don't think that's anything for evangelicals to panic about.
Several years ago, I pointed out here that studies were showing a declining Protestant majority, and projections were being made for this very reality. Now, the surveys say US has a 48 per cent plurality of Protestants. The reigning cultural presence of mainline Protestantism in the past served the same purpose as the "God and country" scout badge. It would give America enough Christianity to fight the communists, give a moral gloss to the country and save the Republic. It was a nominal Christianity not to be taken too seriously.
That culture is over. Frankly, we should be more concerned about the loss of a Christian majority in the Protestant churches than about the loss of a Protestant majority in the United States.
Most of the old-line Protestant denominations are captive to every theological fad that has blown through their divinity schools in the past century - from Marxist liberation ideologies to sexual identity politics to a neo-pagan vision of God - complete with gender neutralised liturgies. The American Council of Churches on New York’s Riverside Avenue, so powerful in the 1950’s and 1960’s is now collapsing under the weight of its own bureaucracy.
In Australia, the theological liberal mainstream Protestant denominations and their theological colleges are also in their death throes and their synod bureaucracies are been financially strangled. But does anyone, inside or outside those denominations care?
What we should pay attention to instead, may be the fresh wind of orthodox Christianity whistling through the leaves - especially throughout the third world, and in some unlikely places in the older Western World. Sometimes animists, Buddhists, and body-pierced Starbucks employees are a more fertile ground for the Gospel than the confirmed liberal Protestant at the helm of the local Rotary Club.
Accordingly, evangelicals will engage the culture much like the apostles did in the first century - not primarily to "baptised" pagans on someone's church roll, but as those who are hearing something new for the first time. There may be fewer bureaucrats in denominational headquarters, but there might be more authentically Christian churches preaching an authentically Christian Gospel.
We will be pained to see idolatries springing up where churches once were. In that we will have the same experience our brother Paul did two millennia ago in Athens (Acts 17:16). But like him, sometimes it is easier to gain a hearing among people who know they are ignorant (Acts 17:17), than with those who think they know. Paul listened to the pagan poetry about Zeus, and showed the Athenian philosophers how not even they could live with the kind of god-concepts they said they believed.
Around us today we hear the father-hunger in the hip-hop lyrics blaring from every teenage radio. We see the fear of death in the plastic surgery clinics and health clubs springing up in the suburban strip-malls. We hear the despondency of sin lamented in the words of a country music song on the sound system of a rural petrol station. Against all of that, we proclaim the only message that can answer these unconscious longings and these conscious resentments: Jesus and the resurrection (Acts 17:18). The pagans won't always listen - but they will know that we are saying something new (Acts 17:32).
The American Protestant majority era is over. The influence of the religious right will not determine who will be the next president. Unless the Religious Right run a huge scare campaign to force the susceptible into going out to vote as they did last time by declaring that Obama was not an American, that he had no birth certificate, that he was a Muslim, and so on. That was all false rubbish! But it did scare some people into voting for the Republicans. I pray that there will be greater maturity this election.
Rev Dr Gordon Moyes AC is an evangelist, broadcaster, former Superintendent of the Wesley Mission and a former member of the Legislative Council in New South Wales.