For decades, evangelical Christians say they have been steadily pushed to the sidelines of American life and have even been under attack for their most deeply held beliefs, born of their reading of Scripture and their religious mandate to evangelize. For example, the 1960s ban on prayer in public schools is still a fresh wound.
Religious conservatives could once count on their neighbors to at least share their view of marriage. However those days are gone. Now, many evangelicals say liberals want to seal their cultural victory by silencing the church.
On the other hand, liberals call this paranoid but evangelicals see evidence of the threat in every new uproar over someone asserting a right to refuse recognition of same-sex marriages. For evangelicals like those at Christian Fellowship in the deeply religious swath of western Kentucky, the sense of a painful reckoning is not just imagined; their declining clout in public life can be measured.
The turnabout is astonishing and hard to grasp — for them and for other Americans — since the U.S. remains solidly religious and Christian, and evangelicals are still a formidable bloc in the Republican Party. However a series of losses in church membership and in public policy battles, along with America’s changing demographics, are weakening evangelical influence, even in some of the most conservative regions of the country.
The Protestant majority that dominated American culture through the nation’s history is now a Protestant minority. Their share of the population dropped below 50 percent after 2008.
Liberal-leaning Protestant groups, such as Presbyterians and Lutherans, started shrinking earlier, but some evangelical churches are now in decline.
Nearly a quarter of Americans say they no longer affiliate with a faith tradition. It’s the highest share ever recorded in surveys, indicating the stigma for not being religious has eased — even in heavily evangelical areas.
According to the Pew Research Center, Americans who say they have no ties to organized religion, dubbed “nones,” now make up about 23 percent of the population, just behind evangelicals, who comprise about 25 percent.
Christians who have been only nominally tied to a conservative church are steadily dropping out altogether. Politically, old guard religious right organizations such as the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition are greatly diminished or gone, and no broadly unifying leader or organization has replaced them.
In New Mexico and Oregon, a photographer and a baker were fined under nondiscrimination laws after refusing work for same-sex ceremonies. The problem, many religious conservatives say, is that government is growing more coercive in many areas bearing on their beliefs.
Many say some colleges — citing a 2010 Supreme Court ruling that required school groups to accept all comers — are revoking recognition for Christian student clubs because they require their leaders to hold certain beliefs. And religious leaders worry that Christian schools and colleges will lose accreditation or tax-exempt status over their codes of conduct barring same-sex relationships.
It has come to this: Many conservative Christians just don’t feel welcome in their own country. They say they are either mocked or erased in popular culture.
How to navigate this new reality? Most conservative Christians fall into one of three broad camps. There are those who are determined to even more fiercely wage the culture wars, demanding the broadest possible religious exemptions from recognizing same-sex marriage.
There are those who plan to withdraw as much as possible into their own communities to preserve their faith. There is, however, a segment that advocates living as a “prophetic minority,” confidently upholding their beliefs but in a gentler way that rejects the aggressive tone of the old religious right and takes up other issues, such as ending human trafficking, that can cross ideological lines.
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