Declension, National Salvation, and Other Discontents

Kelly Baker

At the end of June, the Huffington Post’s Tim Suttle queried “Why are evangelicals losing influence?” This claim of decline emerged from a Pew Research Center survey of evangelical leaders globally, in which 82% claimed that evangelicals were losing influence over culture. The blame, of course, landed firmly on the “rising tide of secularism.” Suttle disagrees with the causation, and instead he notes, “If evangelical influence is nose-diving we have no one to blame but ourselves.” The jeremiad of declension remains alive, well, and likely weary, and it seems fly in the face of presence of evangelicals in American culture. Is evangelicalism on the decline? Or it this a method to chastise evangelicals into action as well as reflection?

Declension and its sister narrative secularization ebb and flow in public discourse and historiography with assertions in both that this moment ("no, not that one!") is certainly a moment of decline. The crucial time when religion might not be present in public life but rather avoidable, contained, and private. Declension narratives seem to hinge on the abject hope that certain religious voices will lose presence and popularity (the question of which voices becomes very, very important). Religion is in decline, isn't it? What is meant exactly by religion generally seems to be an association with mainline Christianity. As one might imagine, I am not terribly interested in mapping out this statistically (though the statistics are alluring). Yet the fervor that emerges anytime new survey data suggests decline is a different story. Just this morning, a group of my summer students presented the recent findings of Barna Group study of religious change to discuss the religious character of the American nation. The study reports that 40% of all adults in the U.S. fit the moniker "born again", which is not a self-identification by survey respondents, but rather Barna's label. Does this data suggest decline?

While reading Suttle's article on declining evangelicals, I couldn't help but wonder how political figures like Rick Perry and Michelle Bachmann trouble this self-reported decline. Perry, after all, hosted "The Response" this weekend, and Rolling Stone imaged Bachmann as a Christian crusader (Janine already covered this here). The New Yorker's Ryan Lizza profiled Bachmann's religious roots. Religion Dispatches' Sarah Posner puts Perry and Bachmann head to head in a discussion of who would win the conservative Christian vote. She writes:

Bachmann, in other words, is a product of the religious right's deliberate efforts to "raise up" soldiers to exercise a "dominion mandate;" she is, organically, one of them. Perry's effort Saturday, on the other hand, was a staged attempt to convince them that he is committed to their worldview. It's not clear that he has internalized it like Bachmann has, which may make him more Zelig-like and attractive to non-religious voters in states like New Hampshire, or might make him look like a pandering interloper to everyone.

It is at least possible that Bachmann or Perry could win the Republican nomination for President, and Posner clearly places both in the trajectory of the religious right. So, how might we label both Perry and Bachmann? Are they evangelical? Conservative Christians? Fundamentalists? Born-again? Religious right? Bachmann embraces born again identity and notes that God directed her decision to marry, go to law school, and enter into politics. Perry's The Response invoked Jesus and prayer as solutions to national problems from abortion to the threats of secularism. All of those terms have been applied to them. What do we take this labeling to mean?

Clearly, both identify as Protestant Christian. Perry is a Methodist, who attends a Southern Baptist Church, and Bachmann is an Evangelical Lutheran who now attends a non-denominational church. Their affiliations could be considered mainline, though their current church attendance might tell a different story. Perhaps, they prove to be case studies for the lateral shifting of Protestants from denomination to denomination. Their language and poise "feel" evangelical to me, though Perry's relationship with the American Family Association and Bachmann's signature of the FAMiLY LEADER pledge shift them more into the territory of fundamentalism. The labels start to pile on and obscure more than they help.

To approach this in a different way, I wonder about the popularity of Bachmann and Perry. Why do these candidates appeal? Is it their religious affiliations, their invocations of the divine, or their moralism? Do they "speak Christian"? How/why does the appeal to Christianity mark them as legitimate political candidates? This combination of Protestant Christianity, conservative values, and national salvation is a potent one. Bachmann and Perry speak in a language of clear moral valence, and they offer a Christian solution to national problems. America's salvation becomes a matter of prayer, divine guidance, strong Christian values, and political prowess. God, they claim, is on their side. Declension of national sort serves them well. A nation in peril needs a savior, and Bachmann and Perry both offer themselves up on its altar. Is evangelicalism losing influence? The answer is likely no. The real question is if voters want a candidate with God on his or her side, and what that showcases about decline, declension, and attachments to cultural Christianity and American patriotism.