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From High Prestige to Low

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As religion fades relentlessly in America, evangelical leaders are fighting back. Fundamentalist writers deny that Christianity is in retreat. Instead, they say, only weak believers are quitting Catholic and mainline Protestant churches, while hard-core, true-blue, devout adherents remain as firm as ever.

The Myth of the Dying Church, a new book by Glen Stanton of Focus on the Family, claims that supernatural-oriented "born-again" folks retain all their fire and presumably all their fervor for narrow-minded "religious-right" political causes.

"The percentage of Americans who attend church more than once a week, pray daily, and accept the Bible as wholly reliable and deeply instructive to their lives has remained absolutely, steel-bar constant for the last 50 years or more, right up to today," he wrote in The Federalist.

Stanton admitted that "liberal Protestant churches" have suffered enormous losses. "People are leaving those churches as if the buildings are on fire." He said it happened because the mainline ceased believing miracle tales and other divine claims of the Bible. "They might as well become Unitarians or something like that," he said in an interview.

Well, I suppose it's true that "intense" religion remains strong in America. After all, reports say that about one-fourth of all Christians now are Pentecostals who "speak in tongues." That's pretty intense.

But I think there's a deeper message in the culture shift that is occurring: Religion isn't just losing members; it's also losing social status and public prestige. Here's why:

When I was young in the 1950s, America felt high respect for "tall-steeple" mainline Protestant churches with seminary-educated clergy, many with doctorate degrees. Back then, the most respectable community leaders belonged to the most highbrow congregations.

Far less respected were arm-waving, whoop-and-holler, fundamentalist churches with amateur, self-proclaimed, jackleg preachers. Bottom status went to "holy rollers," those pitiable emotional religious basket cases. It's a realm notorious for Elmer Gantry-type charlatans.

When America's secular tidal wave began a half-century ago, it eroded mostly the high-prestige elite churches. Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Methodists, etc., lost millions of members, while the nation's population climbed. In other words, educated, reputable faith disintegrated but lower-I.Q., lower-status, less-respected religion held firmer. (In fact, it became a wing of the Republican Party.)

Younger Americans especially quit religion, leaving mostly gray heads in pews. A societal transformation is in progress. The ratio of Americans who belong to church has fallen 20 percent in the past two decades. The share of adults who say their faith is "none" has climbed to one-fourth and one-third among adults under thirty. Soon, "nones" may outstrip all other categories.

Shrinkage of respected churches leaves more low-respect ones behind. Thus religion itself loses prestige in America's eyes. After all, it's difficult for educated people to admire believers who spout "the unknown tongue" or croon in church.

Someday, I hope, our culture will look upon religion as something unsuited for bright, successful people. For anyone to become "saved" may be an embarrassment among enlightened families, something not to be mentioned in sophisticated circles.

I hope American values continue evolving until it's assumed that intelligent, science-minded people naturally disbelieve supernatural claims. They will want little to do with citadels of the supernatural.

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James A. Haught is editor emeritus of West Virginia's largest newspaper, The Charleston Gazette-Mail.  Mr. Haught has won two dozen national news writing awards. He has written 12 books and hundreds of magazine essays and blog posts. Around 450 of his essays are online. He is a senior editor of Free Inquiry magazine, a weekly blogger at Daylight Atheism, (more...)

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