The Erosion of the Religious Right By Divorce

by Matthew Raley

The political organizations of the religious right are dependent on evangelical churches, but many churches close every year without enough new ones to replace them. Regardless of whether the alliance between evangelicals and conservatives should continue, I question whether it will.

As we have seen, churches are now financially entangled in a secular way of life, their programming increasingly dependent upon the multi-billion dollar parachurch sector. The smaller the church, the more it focuses on surviving the steep overhead increase. The larger the church, the more it has gamed the marketplace to grow.

But there are deeper indicators of trouble. The condition of evangelical families is symptomatic of a broad cultural decline in churches.

The Barna Group has repeatedly found that evangelicals divorce at high rates. In its most recent study of this problem, published March 31, 2008, 33% of the American adult population has had at least one divorce, and the same is true of 26% of evangelical adults. While the evangelical divorce rate is lower than the national average, it still shows that more than a quarter of people who profess a conservative view of Christian doctrine have broken homes.

This statistic is more than a public relations black eye.

Dr. Gil Stieglitz, superintendent of the Western District of the Evangelical Free Churches of America, says, “The family in evangelical Christianity has unfortunately allowed itself to be boiled in the cultural milieu. No family dinners, no family devotions, too much TV, little fatherhood, over-commitment to sports and materialism.” The high divorce rate reflects the disappearing Christian ethic of family life.

When we consider what the divorce rate means in practical terms, the cultural weakness of evangelicalism becomes alarming.

Divorced people with children are automatically under the thumb of the family legal system. They no longer control their schedules, their practice of parenting, or even, in extreme cases, their most basic interactions with their children. They are vulnerable to inspection by county officials, restraining orders, and a stream of court dates.

Nor is divorce the end of the entanglements.

Illegitimate births are common among evangelicals, as any pastor can attest. While I haven’t been able to find specific studies of evangelicals in this regard, I do not lack stories. The trials of Sarah Palin’s family are common among regular church-goers, and Palin’s handling of her daughter’s pregnancy won her strong identification from grass roots conservatives for this very reason. But a child born out of wedlock is likely to end up under the indirect supervision of social workers, with a young parent, grandparents, and pastors often struggling to safeguard a Christian parenting ethic from official intrusion.

A hidden impact of these problems on churches is on the grandparenting role, that key informal link in the transmission of values from one generation to the next.

Evangelicals in their fifties and sixties, who would normally be entering a period of comparative freedom with their time and money, are frequently raising their grandchildren instead. Thus, the resources grandparents would otherwise put into their churches, they devote to their families in crisis. Further, they struggle to demonstrate godliness to grandchildren growing up amid the moral chaos of a wayward adult and the psychologized ethics of social workers.

All this leaves people in the prime of life discouraged and heartsick.

For all practical purposes, then, a sizable proportion of evangelical families and their children are under the management of the state. Evangelicals in this system are no longer as free to pass on their ethics, even when they might otherwise be capable of doing so.

Here’s the reality of leading a church.

If you have 400 people in your congregation, figure that 100 of them are (or have been) in the family court system. Their finances are almost entirely devoted to maintaining two households where there used to be one. And unless they have an unusually high personal income, they are not keeping up. Their emotional strength is spent trying to survive the strife and the loneliness. They have little time or energy to devote to their walk with the Lord.

100 people. Even when the economy is good. And the ripple effect spreads the weakness.

Yet the business plan of churches, as they struggle to survive the slow liquidation, is to attract more such people, betting that staff can disciple them cost-effectively by sending them to conferences and showing them Focus on the Family videos. The bet that this plan nurtures strong Christians is not paying off. (More in a couple of weeks on why Orland EFC has not followed that business plan, and on what plan we are following.)

The first problem here is the hypocrisy of pushing “values” on secular people while tolerating divorce in churches. The loss of integrity has deepened the cynicism not just of secular people toward churches, but of the people in churches themselves.

The second problem is even worse. Systemically and culturally, not in their finances alone but in their family lives, many evangelicals are living like non-Christians.

T. S. Eliot predicted the future of British politics by analyzing “the substratum of collective temperament, ways of behaviour and unconscious values” that provide the material for a nation’s political philosophy. In the 1930s, he found that substratum to be pagan. Six decades later, the last prime minister to represent a biblical worldview, Margaret Thatcher, left office without a traditionalist successor. The pagan culture of Britain is no longer implicit.

If American evangelical culture is intoxicated with anti-biblical ways of life, there is no mystery why its churches are closing. The political results must follow.

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