America’s Cultural Decline And The Evangelical Response

Mar 5th, 2022 | By | Category: Culture & Wordview, Featured Issues

The mission of Issues in Perspective is to provide thoughtful, historical and biblically-centered perspectives on current ethical and cultural issues.

In a recent article, columnist David Brooks reports on the increase of disturbing behavior within American culture: “. . . reckless driving is on the rise, the number of altercations on airplanes has exploded, the murder rate is surging in cities, drug overdoses are increasing, Americans are drinking more, nurses say patients are getting more abusive . . . Teachers are facing a rising tide of disruptive behavior. The Wall Street Journal reported in December: ‘Schools have seen an increase in both minor incidents, like students talking in class, and more serious issues, such as fights and gun possession. In Dallas, disruptive classroom incidents have tripled this year compared with prepandemic levels, school officials said.’  He cites other alarming examples:

  • This month, the Institute for Family Studies published an essay called “The Drug Epidemic Just Keeps Getting Worse.” The essay noted that drug deaths had risen almost continuously for more than 20 years, but “overdoses shot up especially during the pandemic.” For much of this time the overdose crisis has been heavily concentrated among whites, but in 2020, the essay observed, “the Black rate exceeded the white rate for the first time.”
  • In October, CNN ran a story titled, “Hate Crime Reports in U.S. Surge to the Highest Level in 12 Years, F.B.I. Says.” The F.B.I. found that between 2019 and 2020 the number of attacks targeting Black people, for example, rose to 2,871 from 1,972.
  • The number of gun purchases has soared. In January 2021, more than two million firearms were bought, The Washington Post reported, “an 80 percent year-over-year spike and the third-highest one-month total on record.”
  • As Americans’ hostility toward one another seems to be growing, their care for one another seems to be falling. A study from Indiana University’s Lilly Family School of Philanthropy found that the share of Americans who give to charity is steadily declining. In 2000, 66.2 percent of households made a charitable donation. But by 2018 only 49.6 percent did. The share who gave to religious causes dropped as worship service attendance did. But the share of households who gave to secular causes also hit a new low, 42 percent, in 2018.
  • “. . . something darker and deeper seems to be happening as well — a long-term loss of solidarity, a long-term rise in estrangement and hostility. This is what it feels like to live in a society that is dissolving from the bottom up as much as from the top down . . . what’s causing the high rates of depression, suicide and loneliness that dogged Americans even before the pandemic and that are the sad flip side of all the hostility and recklessness I’ve just described . . . Some of our poisons must be sociological — the fraying of the social fabric. Last year, Gallup had a report titled, ‘U.S. Church Membership Falls Below Majority for First Time.’  In 2019, the Pew Research Center had a report, ‘U.S. Has World’s Highest Rate of Children Living in Single Parent Households.’”

Here is the conclusion to Brooks’s editorial: “But there must also be some spiritual or moral problem at the core of this. Over the past several years, and over a wide range of different behaviors, Americans have been acting in fewer pro-social and relational ways and in more antisocial and self-destructive ways. But why?”


David Brooks has the hit the nail with his head.  The cultural crisis within American civilization is at its core profoundly spiritual.  Analysts blame Donald Trump; other analysts blame President Biden.  Political partisanship looks Congress and places the blame there.  It is even common to often hear analysts even blame the Supreme Court.  But the cause of this cultural decline is spiritual—a downward spiral of self-destructive evil.  Listen to the Apostle Paul’s analysis in Romans 1:25-32:

25 because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.

26 For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; 27 and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.

28 And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. 29 They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, 30 slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, 31 foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. 32 Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.

So, given the spiritual bankruptcy of American culture, how have evangelicals responded?  Aaron M. Renn, former Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute, offers an important overview of American evangelicalism and the secularization of American culture:  “American evangelicalism is deeply divided. Some evangelicals have embraced the secular turn toward social justice activism, particularly around race and immigration, accusing others of failing to reckon with the church’s racist past. Others charge evangelical elites with going ‘woke’ and having failed their flocks. Some elites are denounced for abandoning historic Christian teachings on sexuality. Others face claims of hypocrisy for supporting the serial adulterer Donald Trump. Old alliances are dissolving . . . Where once there was a culture war between Christianity and secular society, today there is a culture war within evangelicalism itself.”

“These divisions do not only represent theological differences. They also result from particular strategies of public engagement that developed over the last few decades, as the standing of Christianity has gradually eroded. Within the story of American secularization, there have been three distinct stages:

  • Positive World (Pre-1994): Society at large retains a mostly positive view of Christianity. To be known as a good, churchgoing man remains part of being an upstanding citizen. Publicly being a Christian is a status-enhancer. Christian moral norms are the basic moral norms of society and violating them can bring negative consequences.
  • Neutral World (1994–2014): Society takes a neutral stance toward Christianity. Christianity no longer has privileged status but is not disfavored. Being publicly known as a Christian has neither a positive nor a negative impact on one’s social status. Christianity is a valid option within a pluralistic public square. Christian moral norms retain some residual effect.
  • Negative World (2014–Present): Society has come to have a negative view of Christianity. Being known as a Christian is a social negative, particularly in the elite domains of society. Christian morality is expressly repudiated and seen as a threat to the public good and the new public moral order. Subscribing to Christian moral views or violating the secular moral order brings negative consequences.”

Renn offers this historical summary:  “Up to and through the 1970s, evangelicals and fundamentalists had voted predominantly for the Democratic party. Jimmy Carter, a former Southern Baptist Sunday school teacher, was the first evangelical president. He won the Southern Baptist vote, 56 to 43 percent. Newsweek magazine proclaimed 1976, the year of his election, the ‘Year of the Evangelical.’ As late as 1983, sociologist James Davison Hunter found that a plurality of evangelicals continued to identify as Democrats. But under the leadership of people like Jerry Falwell, this group realigned as Republican during the 1980s and became the religious right. Evangelicals remain one of the Republican party’s most loyal voting blocs, with 80 percent supporting Donald Trump in 2016.”  Three strategies emerged during this period:


  1. “The religious right culture warriors took a highly combative stance toward the emerging secular culture. By and large, the people we associate with the religious right today were those far away from the citadels of culture. Many were in backwater locations. They tended to use their own platforms, such as direct mail and paid-for UHF television shows. They were initially funded mostly by donations from the flock, a fact that imparted an attention-grabbing, marketing-driven style. Later, groups such as the Christian Coalition began to raise money from bigger donors, having become more explicitly aligned with the GOP.  Major culture war figures include Jerry Falwell of Moral Majority (Lynchburg, Virginia), Pat Robertson of the Christian Broadcasting Network (Virginia Beach), James Dobson of Focus on the Family (Colorado Springs), Ralph Reed of the Christian Coalition (Atlanta), and televangelists Jimmy Swaggart (Baton Rouge) and Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker (Portsmouth, Virginia).”
  2. “A second strategy of the positive-world movement was seeker sensitivity, likewise pioneered in the 1970s at suburban megachurches such as Bill Hybels’s Willow Creek (Barrington, IL) and Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church (Orange County). This strategy was in a sense a prototype of the neutral-world movement to come. But the very term “seeker sensitive” shows that it was predicated on an underlying friendliness to Christianity; it’s a model that assumes that large numbers of people are actively seeking. Bill Hybels walked door to door in suburban Chicago, surveying the unchurched about why they didn’t attend. By designing a church that appealed to them stylistically, he was able to get large numbers to come through the doors.  Seeker-sensitive churches downplayed or eliminated denominational affiliations, distinctives, and traditions. They adopted informal liturgies and contemporary music. Seeker sensitivity operated in a therapeutic register, sometimes explicitly—the Christian psychologist Henry Cloud has become a familiar speaker at Willow Creek. They were approachable and non-threatening. Today, there are many large suburban megachurches of this general type in the United States, which to some extent represent the evangelical mainstream.”


  1. “In the neutral world, by contrast, the characteristic evangelical strategy was cultural engagement. The neutral-world cultural engagers were in many ways the opposite of the culture warriors: Rather than fighting against the culture, they were explicitly positive toward it. They did not denounce secular culture, but confidently engaged that culture on its own terms in a pluralistic public square. They believed that Christianity could still be articulated in a compelling way and had something to offer in that environment. In this quest they wanted to be present in the secular elite media and forums, not just on Christian media or their own platforms.  The leading lights of the cultural engagement strategy were much more urban, frequently based in major global cities or college towns. The neutral world emerged concurrently with the resurgence of America’s urban centers under the leadership of people like Giuliani. The flow of college-educated Christians into these urban centers created a different kind of evangelical social base, one shaped by urban cultural sensibilities rather than rural or suburban ones. These evangelicals tended to downplay flashpoint social issues such as abortion or homosexuality. Instead, they emphasized the gospel, often in a therapeutic register, and priorities like helping the poor and select forms of social activism. They were also much less political than the positive-world Christians—though this distinction broke down in 2016, when many in this group vociferously opposed Donald Trump. In essence, the cultural-engagement strategy is an evangelicalism that takes its cues from the secular elite consensus. Sometimes they have attracted secular elites or celebrities to their churches.  The political manifestation of the cultural-engagement approach is seen in politicians like George W. Bush, who touted ‘compassionate conservatism’ and an evangelicalism less threatening to secular society. The vitriol directed at Bush by the left should not obscure the differences in Bush’s own approach. For example, less than a week after 9/11, he made the first-ever presidential visit to a mosque to reassure Muslims that he did not blame them or their religion for that attack. He opposed gay marriage but supported civil unions and pointedly said he would not engage in anti-gay rhetoric. It is important to stress, however, that pastors and other cultural-engagement leaders within the evangelical religious world were typically studiously apolitical. They consciously did not want to be like the religious right.  Most of the urban church world and many parachurch organizations embraced the cultural engagement strategy, and some suburban megachurches have shifted in that direction. Major figures and groups include Tim Keller of Redeemer Presbyterian Church (New York City), Hillsong Church (New York City, Los Angeles, and other global cities), Christianity Todaymagazine (suburban Chicago), Veritas Forum (Boston), Sen. Ben Sasse (Washington, D.C.), contemporary artist Makoto Fujimura (New York City), and author Andy Crouch (Philadelphia).”


“These divisions are ripping churches and other evangelical institutions apart. Evangelicalism is in flux, and its future as a coherent movement is in doubt. In part, this crisis has resulted from the failure of evangelicalism to develop strategies designed for the negative world in which Christians are a moral minority and secular society is actively hostile to the faith. The previous strategies are not adequate to today’s realities and are being deformed under the pressures of the negative world.”

Putting Brooks and Renn together, we see a movement called evangelicalism in crisis.  The movement does not quite know how to respond to culture’s secularization and growing hostility to the Gospel.  As several New Testament expositors have observed, perhaps we need to see ourselves the way New Testament leaders such as Paul, Peter and John saw things:  We represent Jesus Christ as His salt and light in a hostile world.  They did not embrace politics as the answer, nor did they seek affiliation with the power centers of the Greco-Roman world.  They faithfully preached the life-changing Gospel and lived a counter-cultural lifestyle.  Perhaps we need a refresher course in New Testament Christianity.

See David Brooks, “America is Falling Apart at the Seams,” in the New York Times (13 January 2022); Aaron M. Renn, “The Three Worlds of Evangelicalism” First Things (February 2022).

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