Evangelical movement is in danger of being usurped by a hostile Christian nationalism
As Americans leave organized religion, $1 billion ad campaign seeks to rebrand Jesus
Americans’ attendance and membership in all houses of worship declined in 2020 to less that 50 percent for the first time, according to Gallup. (Photo by Getty Images)
The 16-day outpouring of spiritual fervor at Asbury University in Wilmore was a welcome reminder that religion should be a search for peace and purpose rather than a strategy for divisiveness and dominance.
Christianity is too often used to force others — especially women, minorities, and LGBTQ persons — into narrow thinking and proscribed paths. The nondenominational Christian college wisely kept the event from being taken over by grandstanders seeking national media attention.
While working as a religion reporter, I met followers of many faith traditions — all seeking answers to eternal questions about life and death. I also documented the discord and schisms routine in most organized religions.
The Asbury event reminded me of the enthusiasm and promise of Christian evangelism when it surged in the late 1970s. What remains of it is in danger of being usurped by a hostile Christian nationalism, which seeks dominance in a multi-cultural country.
The good news is that 73 percent of Americans reject that idea of a Christian-only nation, according to a new survey from the Public Religion Research Institute and the Brookings Institution. What’s troubling is that 50 percent of Republicans and two-thirds of white Protestants do support such thinking.
In fact, the survey reports that half of Christian nationalism adherents, and nearly 4 in 10 sympathizers, support having an authoritarian leader to keep Christian values in society.
“Christian nationalism is a new term for a worldview that has been with us since the founding of our country — the idea that America is destined to be a promised land for European Christians,” said Robert P. Jones, president and founder of the research institute. “While most Americans today embrace pluralism and reject this anti-democratic claim, majorities of white evangelical Protestants and Republicans remain animated by this vision of a white Christian America.”
The evangelical movement disrupted mainline denominations, demanding personal “born again” relationships with Jesus through expressive worship, including spiritual healing and speaking in tongues. Still socially conservative, many followers left their churches to form interdenominational ones focused on spreading the faith and engaging in community service.
Soon televangelists turned evangelical religious practices into big business. That was followed by the “prosperity gospel” trend, insisting that followers deserved earthly fortunes. Then activists organized them into grassroots forces for the rich and politically ambitious.
Now, aided by spreading conspiracy theories, strategists attempt to recast evangelicals as warriors against evil “others.” In the survey, Christian nationalists agreed with the statement: “True patriots might have to resort to violence to save our country.”
Christian nationalists say discrimination against whites is as big a problem as it is against Blacks, the survey shows, and that immigrants are invading our country and replacing our cultural and ethnic values.
This is all happening as U.S. attendance and membership in all houses of worship declined in 2020 to less that 50 percent for the first time, according to a survey by Gallup, which has measured church membership for 80 years.
More adults say they have no religious preference. Those with preferences are increasingly shunning organized religion. That’s happening in all generations, but especially among young adults.
So, groups and individuals promoting Christian nationalism decided Jesus had to be rebranded to appeal to the young.
A new three-year $1 billion ad campaign, “He Gets Us,” portrays Jesus as a refugee, a social-justice advocate and even a victim of cancel culture. One major campaign funder is Hobby Lobby owner David Green, a supporter of anti-gay laws. He also won the legal fight allowing companies to declare their religious rights justify denying employee contraception benefits.
The media campaign is unlikely to make much difference because digital-savvy young people can see through slick marketing, Kevin M. Young, a pastor and biblical scholar on social media, told CNN.
“Jesus doesn’t have an image problem, but Christians and their churches do,” he said. “Young people are savvy. One of their primary issues with evangelicalism, and the modern church in America, is the amount of money spent on itself.”
Whether momentum from Asbury students’ spontaneous worship reflects some form of religious revival remains to be seen, especially on the campus. The college has been criticized in recent years for not supporting LGBTQ-affirming teachers and students.
As Asbury theology professor Thomas H. McCall wrote in Christianity Today, during the event: “The worship we are experiencing in the chapel must have real-life implications for our fellowship outside of it. This is especially important as we are currently working through difficult issues around race and ethnicity.”
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