March 15, 2013 |
Sometime last year, the US quietly passed a milestone demographers had long been predicting: for the first time in its history, this country is no longer majority Protestant. Fewer than 50 percent of Americans now identify as Protestant Christians of any denomination.
This change has come on surprisingly recently, and from a historical perspective, with breathtaking speed. As recently as 1993, almost two-thirds of Americans identified as Protestants, a number that had remained stable for the several preceding decades. But sometime in the 1990s, the ground started to shift, and it’s been sliding ever since. Whether it’s the “mainline” Protestant denominations like Methodists, Episcopalians, Lutherans or Presbyterians, or the independent evangelical, charismatic and fundamentalist sects, the decline is happening across the board. The rise of so-called megachurches, like Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church in California or Mark Driscoll’s Mars Hill in Seattle, represents not growth, but consolidation.
What’s happening to these vanishing Protestants? For the most part, they’re not converting to any other religion, but rather are walking away from religion entirely. They’re becoming ” nones,” as the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life puts it. It seems likely that this is the same secularizing trend being observed in Europe, as people of advanced, peaceful democracies find religion increasingly irrelevant to their daily lives.
The spokespeople of the religious right have noticed this trend as well, but it’s clear they have very little idea what to do about it. In a column from 2005, Albert Mohler, the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, declared that “theological liberalism” is at fault for Christianity’s decline, and that the only thing they need to do to reverse it is to make “a bold commitment to biblical authority.” Far from it, the evidence is clear that churches clinging to antiquated dogma are part of the problem, as young people turn away from their strident decrees about gays and women.
But the footsoldiers of fundamentalism haven’t been entirely idle these past few decades. As their power declines in America and Europe, they’re increasingly moving abroad, to developing countries not as far along the secularization curve, where they often find a more receptive audience.
The first example is Uganda, where the most despicable kind of American culture warriors have run amok with horrifying results. Since 2009, the country’s parliament has been debating an “Anti-Homosexuality Bill,” which among other things would establish a crime of “aggravated homosexuality,” punishable by life imprisonment or death.
What’s less well known is that three American evangelical preachers, Scott Lively, Caleb Lee Brundidge and Don Schmierer, visited the country a month before the bill was introduced, giving talks about how “the gay movement is an evil institution” which seeks to prey on children, destroy “the moral fiber of the people,” and abolish marriage and the family and replace it with “a culture of sexual promiscuity.” Lively boasted that their campaign was “a nuclear bomb against the gay agenda in Uganda,” and later admitted to meeting with Ugandan lawmakers to help draft the bill, although he professed ignorance of the death penalty provision. Other American evangelicals, including Kevin Swanson and Lou Engle, have also expressed their support for the so-called Kill the Gays bill.
It’s not just LGBT people in Uganda who’ve been harmed by the spread of aggressive evangelicalism. American megachurch pastor Rick Warren has a Ugandan protege, a pastor named Martin Ssempa, who has preached aggressively against contraception (in one bizarre public stunt, he burned condoms in the name of Jesus). Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni had formerly been a staunch advocate of the so-called ABC program (consisting of abstinence, monogamy and condom use) which successfully reduced HIV infection rates in Uganda; but thanks in part to Ssempa’s influence and access, the government was persuaded to stop free condom distribution, and as a result, new HIV infections spiked again. (Ssempa, too, has called for the imprisonment of gay people. President Museveni also has ties to the Washington, D.C.-based fundamentalist group ” the Family,” which has called him their ” key man” in Africa.)