March 17, 2009
The coming Christian collapse
A provocative screed by Michael Spencer argues that "We are on the verge of a major collapse of Evangelical Christianity." Frankly, in a lot of places in his essay, you could substitute "Mormon" for "Evangelical" and hit the nail right on the head. For example:
The [Mormon] investment in moral, social, and political issues has depleted our resources and exposed our weaknesses. Being against gay marriage and being rhetorically pro-life will not make up for the fact that massive majorities of [Mormons] can't articulate the Gospel with any coherence. We fell for the trap of believing in a cause more than a faith.
Though I think Spencer underestimates the ability of organizations to sustain themselves through "churn" (any missionary who went through a "baptism bubble" understands that), and to maintain themselves primarily as social clubs and welfare organizations (very 19th century, that).
Religion isn't the opiate of the masses. It's "all you really need to know about philosophy and psychology and child-rearing" for the masses. This is why New Age gurus like Wayne Dyer are such hits on Utah PBS stations, including KBYU. They celebrate the transcendental aspects of religion people are looking for better than most adherents.
What Spencer is detecting rather is the equivalent of a traffic jam "wave function" moving down a highway long after the original obstruction has been cleared. With a belief system centered around "orthodoxy," he foresees that this tide of excitement will move on, leaving him and his theological allies again in the shallows.
But if your only interest in orthodoxy is in disciplinary terms (you need it to determine who can belong to the club), then your overriding concern will be to stay on top of the wave, making sure that wherever the wave is, you are.
Consider how both sides of the abortion debate need each other to keep the issue alive and the wave centered on them. A reasonable accommodation like Scalia's Heller decision--that there is a "right" but it's up to states to determine exactly what it is--and the wave would move on, leaving only the mud flats behind (have I exhausted this metaphor yet?).
Still, I don't think this is a totally egocentric concern. When the waters get too shallow, as in Europe, the next arriving tide of true believers may sweep them all away. The question is how fast the secular holes in the dike will drain away the fervor. Fortunately, like first-world population collapse, the U.S. won't be first in line. Or last.
Though as the latest American Religious Identification Survey shows, over almost two decades, not even the once much-heralded Mormons are growing relative to the U.S. population. (This survey doesn't count butts in pews and the numbers are still only half "officially reported.") Granted, in this environment, minimally holding your own is at least par for the course.
Asian Times columnist Spengler argues that China will be the next Evangelical beachhead. During the 16th century (until the Tokugawa regime brutally repressed it), Catholicism was remarkably successful in Japan. The Jesuits had no army backing them up, except through alliances they forged with local warlords (some of whom became stalwart converts).
Of course, the Jesuits had the intellectual chops to go toe-to-toe with equally well-educated Buddhists priests, something Spencer persuasively argues is lacking among today's Evangelicals, and this applies equally well to Mormons.
One of the sadly funny things about Evangelical anti-Mormon sites is that they assume--based on the tiny sample of Mormon apologists they tussle with--that everybody else knows and cares about "heretical" Mormon theology as much as they do. But practically nobody knows or cares about Mormon theology as much as they do! Including Mormons!
That, I'm afraid, is the church's future. When both sides get tired of offending each other--and when Mormons win the "respect" they so desperately crave--the wave will have already moved on.