Religion in the United States is a declining business these days. People are less likely to identify with an organized religion and membership in many churches is declining. My own church likes to say it is keeping its numbers steady in an era when other churches are declining. Personally, I don’t think that is something to brag about, given our above-average birth rates and impressive proselytizing efforts.
Conservative Americans have said for some time that liberal churches have declined because they don’t demand enough of their members and have loosened the moral code that Christianity represented. They used to point to their own growing numbers and claim them as evidence that their preachers were speaking deep truths that liberal preachers were ignoring or denying. I, myself, once believed this was true.
It seems clear now that such an analysis was a mistake, and a rather unfair judgment of liberal churches. Now that major conservative Protestant churches, like the Southern Baptist Church, are also in decline, and my own conservative church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, can only hang on by having more children than average and sending out tens of thousands of missionaries, it seems that we may have been greatly and unkindly mistaken. I would like to offer my apologies to Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Lutherans and others for ever believing their brand of Christianity was somehow weaker or less appealing.
I would, however, like to offer a different analysis, and one that still takes liberal churches to task, along with conservative ones. I would submit that the problem with religion today is politics. Not the politics in Washington, D.C., but the politics in the pulpit.
There was a time when evangelical churches avoided politics. They apparently saw the whole business as corrupt. They woke up in the 1970’s and 1980’s when they decided that this necessary evil offered a way of saving the country’s moral soul. Today, we are told they are declining because they are out of step with society and are preaching hate. I, myself, had relatively recently accepted such a viewpoint…until I actually sat down and thought about it. (Perhaps, just perhaps, I have been too willing to believe conventional wisdom.)
Liberal churches, in contrast, heard their calling to politics during the civil rights movement, a generation or so before conservative churches heard their calling to save the country’s political soul. Liberal churches saw themselves as called to protect the weak and helpless. They did so, and they helped carry the day, but even though they were in step with society and preached love, their churches still declined.
I am convinced that the problem is not what politics a church preaches, the problem is being involved in major political issues at all. My church famously led the charge against gay marriage in California. Even though it stopped telling us how to vote on the issue or what position to take on it, at least one of our leaders manages to remind us during every semi-annual General Conferences that gay marriage is a horrible, awful development. And this is what leads the news reports about the 12 hours of talks, hymns and prayers that make up the meetings: the one talk or one comment about gay marriage.
When the church began its high-profile fight against gay marriage, a friend of mine from college who had already abandoned the church posted on Facebook that the church would lose members for involving itself in gay marriage, comparing it to the loss of members the church experienced when it adopted polygamy, which, as he pointed out, also involved the legal definition of marriage. It seems now that he was at least partly right. The church seems to have lost members in the United States since he posted that comment. The church is not saying how many have left, but it is clear to everyone that active members of the church have been leaving it in numbers not seen in generations.
I do not claim to know the will of God concerning gay marriage, or what he would want the church leaders to do or not do, but I am quite certain that some loss of members was inevitable once they decided to get involved in a high-profile political issue. I believe there is simply no way around it.
I don’t think it matters what kind of politics churches embrace; once they jump into the pit, they are going to get dirty. The involvement of the Roman church in the affairs of empires and kingdoms did nothing for its reputation, even if it did give the church protection and influence. The involvement of modern churches in the affairs of nations is not going to aid their reputations, either, whether they help carry the day or whether they only postpone the inevitable.
My advice to all religious leaders is this: pick your issues carefully, because even if you win, you will lose.