In my previous post (part one of this mini-series), I made the argument that when empires decline (as opposed to when empires collapse), the people at the center of the empire are the last to know it. It’s true for geopolitics, and I even found examples from sports and religion as well. In today’s post, meanwhile, I want to take a look at two such ‘empires’ that may be in decline in present day America.
The first of the decaying empires is one that many people have already suggested is in decline: the Republican empire in American politics. The assumption that it is in decline after another loss in presidential elections is normal; lose one election and you’re on the verge of crisis, lose two and the media immediately begins arbitrarily attributing fatal flaws to the party in question. What’s slightly different this time – as opposed to autopsies of the Democrats during the George W. Bush years or during the Reagan-Bush years – is the media using statistics and demographic trends to assert that unless the GOP reaches voters who are either young, non-white, or both the party is doomed. For once there’s every reason to assume the media naysayers are correct.
But you already knew that, because the news that growing numbers of educated or urban voters, as well as African Americans, Latinos, and Asian Americans find the Republican Party distasteful has been shouted from every rooftop by this point. The counter-claim, of course, is that many of the aforementioned voters are young, and young people never vote Republican; it’s an American tradition that the young become more conservative as they age, start families, and begin to worry about mortgages and IRAs. Remember our thesis however, and the problem is obvious: the spokespersons for empires in denial about decline always have rationalizations, so how do we know whether the naysayers or the Republican apologists are telling the truth? Is the Republican Party a decaying empire or not?
Before answering, note that there’s a second and parallel American empire struggling to attract young people. In fact, the list of people reluctant to affiliate with this empire matches perfectly with that of the Republican empire: the young, the non-white, the educated, the urban, and many immigrants. This empire has no formal affiliation with the Republican Party, but it will surprise no one to learn that many of the constituents of this second empire are also Republican, and that some are suggesting that the two declines are linked and may require identical solutions. I’m talking, of course, about the white American evangelical church.
You may have heard that the white evangelical church isn’t attracting new members like it should, but I’ll wager that you haven’t heard it expressed as the harbinger of (white) evangelicalism’s end in the same way we hear about Republicans. One reason for this is that many assume God will preserve the evangelical church so long as it remains faithful to Him, but there’s at least one other reason. Politics has elections, so there are regular points on a calendar at which everyone stops to assess which empire is decaying, and the underlying problems are analyzed and addressed. The church has no such elections, so evangelicalism has no regularly scheduled introspection. As a result, political declines are usually checked whereas an evangelical decline could conceivably proceed to the bitter end.
At this point I should also clarify that the global evangelical church is doing fine. I’m not saying evangelicalism is at an end as such, but evangelicalism within the United States is in jeopardy. As for the American church, we all know that American evangelicalism is essentially split into the African American church and the white church; I’m focusing on the white branch because that’s what I know best. Even so, be aware that the African American evangelical church does have a major demographic albatross of its own – the absence of young men. One could make an argument about the coming decline of the African American evangelical church on that basis, but I’ll leave that to those more familiar with the matter. Instead, permit me to prod more deeply into the demographic problems of the white evangelical church.
Make no mistake about it: my contention is that the inability of evangelical churches to attract young people will have fatal ramifications if it is not reversed. People do not join churches or come to faith because of a marketing program, of course, but people do both because of the influence of their peers. Eventually, however, a tipping point occurs at which the church is so far removed from entire peer groups that none of the people in them will ever be exposed to the merits of evangelical faith. Take it from a young person: the evangelical church is far nearer this point with people under 40 than anyone seems willing to admit.
As I write, the Republican Party is having a vigorous debate about its future, and the path forward will emerge both through power struggles within the party and by how the party navigates negotiations – like the one over the ‘Fiscal Cliff’ – with Democrats. With a role ceded to them by over 150 years of American tradition, you have to like Republicans’ odds of reforming and surviving; at this point Americans expect a 2-party system that simplifies every question into a yes/no dichotomy of positions. While Republicans may be on the wrong side of a lot of policies today (from a demographic perspective), since tomorrow’s issues will also be reduced to simplistic yes/no questions the GOP will find themselves on the right side (demographically speaking) of at least some of those issues. Add in the fact that the GOP will undoubtedly take actions in the short-term to avert demographic catastrophe (i.e. immigration reform), and I’m comfortable saying the Republican Party is definitely an empire in decline, but that decline will be arrested, even if the powers-that-be never admit their current predicament.
You’ll notice that none of the reasons for Republicans to believe in the survival of their empire apply to the parallel evangelical empire. Religious questions permit more nuance in the United States than political questions, so unlike Republicans, the evangelical church won’t survive by virtue of being one of only two options. Also, unlike Republicans and immigration, there are no major issues on which the church can eat crow and plead for a second chance – some would argue gay marriage as such an issue, but even if evangelicals could reverse the standard position on gay marriage, other tenets of the faith would remain equally inflammatory (the concept of hell for non-Christians, to name just one). The evangelical demographic problem may look the same as the Republican one, but options to reverse the decline of the evangelical empire are vastly more complicated, and will require more than patience and minor adjustments.
As for what may be done to fight against the decline of the white evangelical empire, I have some thoughts, but you’ll have to wait for part 3 of this post series (posting next week) to read them.