Evangelical leaders see their influence falling

June 22, 2011

Are U.S. evangelicals losing their influence on America? A new poll
from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life seems to say just that,
with the vast majority—82 percent—of U.S. evangelical leaders saying
their influence on the country is declining.

At the same time,
their counterparts in Africa, Asia and Latin America are far more
optimistic. "There's both a huge optimism gap and a huge influence gap
in terms of the way these folks perceive things," said Luis Lugo,
director of the Pew Forum.

Researchers surveyed more than 2,000
leaders invited to attend the Lausanne Congress on World Evan­gelization
in Cape Town, South Africa, last year. Find­ings were released June 22.

S.
Douglas Birdsall, a minister and executive chair of the Lausanne
Movement, which worked with Pew on the survey, said the U.S. pessimism
is rooted in a changed culture in which Billy Graham has retreated from
public life and government-sponsored prayer has been banned from public
schools for more than a generation.

"So having gone from that
position of considerable influence, even though we might actually have
more influence than churches in . . . other parts of the world, the
sense is that it's slipping from our hands," said Birdsall.

The
perception of declining influence comes as the nation has become both
more pluralistic and more secular. The vast majority of those
surveyed—92 percent—called secularism a major threat to evangelical
Christianity.

Some evangelical denominations are starting to
acknowledge pluralism in hopes of increasing their numbers. The Southern
Baptist Convention, which drew its smallest attendance since World War
II at its recent annual meeting held in Phoenix and is grappling with
declining baptism rates, has launched a plan to diversify its
leadership.

Researchers also found that evangelicals are far more
pessimistic than their Global South counterparts about the current and
future state of evangelicalism. About half (53 percent) of U.S. leaders
said the state of evangelicalism is worse than it was five years ago,
and nearly as many (48 percent) said they expect it to grow worse in the
next five years.

Birdsall met with some 150 Lausanne Movement
leaders in Boston in late June to map out steps to take during the next
decade. He said topics were to include a focus on the authenticity and
integrity of evangelicals' image, which sometimes has been besmirched by
the moral failures of its leaders and overly influenced by a
consumer-oriented culture.

"What can happen is that the minister
becomes the communications marketing guru who knows how to appeal to
various markets and so you attract people," he said. "When you do that,
you lose your prophetic voice of what it means to challenge people to be
in the world but not of the world."

Randall Balmer, a historian
of American evangelicals who teaches at Barnard College, said leaders of
the religious right—from the late Jerry Falwell to broadcaster Pat
Robertson—promoted a "cult of victimization among evangelicals" that may
have worked at the voting booth but hurt them in the larger culture.

"I
think there is some waning of cultural influence," he said, pointing to
the politicizing of the movement as the reason for greater visibility
but also cultural decline.

"Like it or not, when you become
politically active, you become associated with the politicians you
support," Balmer said, alluding to many evangelicals' embrace of the
GOP. "Once you begin to covet political power and influence, you lose
the prophetic voice."

Researchers found that just 18 percent of
U.S. Lausanne representatives surveyed said religious leaders should
stay out of political issues, compared to 78 percent who said they
should express their political views.

Historian Mark Noll said a
certain level of influence was taken for granted by evangelicals in past
decades, with Graham's prominence and fewer concerns about political
involvement.  Noll, a historian of American religion at the University
of Notre Dame, said successful congregations and ministries continue to
thrive in parts of the country, especially locally, but "that local and
individual strength doesn't show up on the evening news."

Birdsall agreed that evangelical influence may have changed but said it still exists, although perhaps in a different form.

"Though
we are losing influence, it doesn't mean that we are pessimistic about
our churches and their role in society," he said. "They're having
influence in homes. They're having influence in caring for those who are
marginalized, those who are the poor, the oppressed. It may not be as
public."  —RNS