When Does Real Become "Real"?
Bill Maher wonders aloud what it will take for climate deniers to take climate change as real. Hurricanes are lining up off the coast of Africa like coal cars in West Virginia. What does it take for people to become aware that disaster is looming. The Caribbean island of Barbuda is now uninhabitable after 300 years following the destruction of Hurricane Irma and may be devastated again by Cat 5 Hurricane Maria. What does it take for reality to take hold against entrenched ideology?
The same can be said about the impending demise of the American evangelical church. It is in the midst of a decade long sunset. Its decline is significant. A recent PRRI poll conducted in January 2017 found that white Christians now comprise less than half of the population: 43% of Americans identify as white and Christian down from 81% in 1976. Moreover, religiously unaffiliated young people (aged 18-29) have expanded to 38%. Almost all of this change has taken place since 1990. The church has no future without millennial participation.
All responsible social analysts conclude that the picture in the United States suggests that established religious traditions and institutions are in sharp decline. When visiting the Caribbean we would often play a game of guessing the exact time the sun would set beneath the horizon. We would sit at the end of the dock and wait breathlessly for our predictions to come true. These kind of social science predictions are far less accurate than predicting a sunset. But they are also far more consequential.
The rise of the Trump presidency, with the help of the evangelical church’s support, is frequently cited as a counter argument to predictions of impending doom. However, this complicity may serve to hasten its own demise. Damon Linker writing for The Week states, “There is abundant anecdotal evidence that the alliance [between evangelicals and the Trump administration] may well backfire, hastening the exit of young evangelicals from the faith.” The Trump presidency is weather not climate, a short-lived glow on the horizon before things turn dark.
For the evangelical church—to use the language of Game of Thrones—“winter is coming.” Statistics don’t lie. The only question is when evangelical church leaders will face the reality and act accordingly. “Mene, mene, tekel” (Daniel 5:26-27). The vision of Persian King Belshazzar should haunt evangelical leaders: “Mene: God has numbered the days of your reign and brought it to an end. Tekel: You have been weighed on the scales and found wanting.” What will it take for these realities to be taken as real?