Evangelical Fears and the Turn Toward “Coercive Christianism”: An Essay Part 2 of 3
The Passing of the Christian Worldview in American Society
The statistics I laid out in the first part of this essay have gotten a lot of attention over the years since they were first published, and so I think we can be confident that most Evangelical leaders are aware of them. But people don’t experience statistics. What Evangelical leaders and their followers are experiencing is the increasingly clear evidence that the culture and values of the American people are less and less defined by a traditional Christian worldview. The two issues which have become lightning rods for this worldview shift are abortion and sexual orientation/gender identity.
Attitudes toward Same-Sex Relationships
Data again from the Pew Research Center show dramatic shifts in views of Americans on same-sex relationships. In 2001, they found that 57% of Americans opposed same-sex marriage, while 35% favored it. By 2019, those figures had slightly more than reversed themselves with 61% favoring same-sex marriage and 31% opposing it.
When the Pew researchers pulled those figures apart by religious affiliation, they revealed that this change has been taking place among all religious affiliations, including Roman Catholics and white Evangelicals. On the broader question of whether homosexuality should be accepted in the society, 63% of Americans say it should be, and 28% say it should not. Again, all religious segments show a shift toward greater acceptance of homosexuality in society, including Roman Catholic and white Evangelicals.
These figures represent a concrete shift in cultural mores in America. Almost two-thirds of Americans believe that traditional Christian sexual morality is wrong or at least that it should no longer guide social attitudes in America. It is this reality that is generating fear among Evangelical leaders.
Attitudes Regarding Abortion
On the issue of abortion, the shift over time that we see regarding homosexuality is less evident. The Pew Research Center’s Religious Landscape Study also looked at attitudes on abortion. They found relatively little change between 2007 and 2014, a shift of only about 2% in the direction of more support for legalized abortion. Pew found that, in 2014, 53% of those surveyed believed that abortions should be legal in all or most cases and 43% believed that it should be illegal in all or most cases.
Views on abortion varied extremely widely among religious affiliations. But it is interesting to note that Pew found that 33% of Evangelicals and 48% of Roman Catholics agreed that abortion should be legal in all or most cases, which suggests that many of the rank and file members of these groups (very many in the case of Roman Catholics) are out of step with their religious leaders.
In a 2019 study, the Pew Research Center found that five years after the Religious Landscape Study support of legal abortion had increased among Americans to 61%. The same survey found that 70% of Americans opposed overturning Roe v. Wade. The study also found that 59% of Americans believe that it is too difficult for women to get an abortion, while 39% believe that it is too easy.
A Gallup survey from 2018 demonstrates the fact that attitudes on abortion are very complex. Support for abortion drops dramatically across the American public from the first to the second and then the third trimester of pregnancy with only 13% of respondents approving of third trimester abortions.
But one particularly interesting finding of this Gallup survey is that 77% of respondents believe that it is acceptable for pregnancies resulting from rape or incest to be terminated. This statistic tells us that nearly 8 out of 10 Americans either do not believe that human life begins at conception or that they do not believe that all human lives in utero deserve protection from abortion. In other words, 8 out of 10 Americans do not accept the moral reasoning behind a principled pro-life position. For them, some unborn human beings do not have a right to life.
The survey information on these two social issues, which are at the heart of the traditional Evangelical social vision, quantify a simple fact of the contemporary American moral landscape, which is that the traditional Evangelical social vision claims the allegiance of a minority of the American public – a minority that has been steadily decreasing in size over the past decade or more. Most Americans are simply no longer in step with the traditional Evangelical social vision, and many Evangelicals are reacting to that fact with fear and outrage.
The Myth of the Silent “Moral” Majority
Social conservatives, traditional Evangelicals, and their leaders often frame their outrage as growing from the belief that progressive social policies on such issues as sexuality and abortion are being forced on an unwilling American population by progressive elites in government, media, and higher education.
But the numbers we’ve just been looking at plainly undermine that outrage. Same-sex marriage is legal in America, and almost two-thirds of Americans want it to be. Abortion is legal in America, not because some shadowy elites have forced it on us, but because a sizeable majority of Americans want abortion to be legal.
Salvation through Coercion
Like it or not, the traditional Evangelical social vision is held by a small and dwindling minority of the American people. Evangelical leaders who seek and support a political strongman-protector seem to believe that the coercive power of government can somehow be the means by which some sort of Christian moral vision can be imposed upon an unwilling American populace.
But can a Christian worldview be coercively forced on a people, especially the people of a democratic society, without in the process doing fundamental damage to that Christian worldview and the integrity of the witness of the Christian Church? Can Christian witness be wedded to governmental coercion without poisoning that Christian witness in the process? I’m inclined to believe that it cannot.
In the third part of this essay, I will examine some key biblical concepts and principles and contrast them with the coercive vision being put forward by many Evangelical leaders today.
 “Attitudes on Same-Sex Marriage,” Pew Forum, https://www.pewforum.org/fact-sheet/changing-attitudes-on-gay-marriage/, posted May 14, 2019, accessed January 1, 2020. In 2001, only 41% of Roman Catholic Americans approved of same-sex marriage. In 2019, 61% did. Between 2001 and 2019, mainline Protestant support for same-sex marriage grew from 38% to 66%. Even white Evangelicals experienced a notable shift in view between 2001 and 2019 from only 13% favoring same-sex marriage to 29%.
 “Support Steady for Same-Sex Marriage and Acceptance of Homosexuality,” Pew Research Center, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/05/12/support-steady-for-same-sex-marriage-and-acceptance-of-homosexuality/, posted May12, 2016, accessed January 4, 2020. Between 2006 and 2016, support for acceptance of homosexuality in the society grew among white evangelicals from 22% to 34% and among Roman Catholics from 58% to 66%. Support among non-affiliated (“nones”) grew slightly from 77% to 80% in those years.
 “Religious Landscape Study: View about Abortion,” Pew Forum, https://www.pewforum.org/religious-landscape-study/views-about-abortion/, posting date not listed but presumably 2015, accessed January 4, 2020.
 “U.S. Public Continues to Favor Legal Abortion, Oppose Overturning Roe v. Wade,” Pew Research Center, https://www.people-press.org/2019/08/29/u-s-public-continues-to-favor-legal-abortion-oppose-overturning-roe-v-wade/, posted August 29, 2019, accessed January 4, 2020.
 “Trimester Still Key to U. S. Abortion Views,” Gallup, https://news.gallup.com/poll/235469/trimesters-key-abortion-views.aspx, posted June 13, 2018, accessed January 4, 2020.
Along with sexual orientation/gender identity and abortion, marriage represents another central area of social concern for traditional evangelicals. There too we see dramatic shifts away from traditional practices over the last several decades. The U. S. Census Bureau reported in 2018 that a higher proportion of 18-24 year-olds are living with an unmarried partner than are living with a spouse (9.4% vs. 7.3%). The drama of that shift becomes apparent when the trend is viewed over the course of the previous 40 years. In 1968 39.2% of 18-24 year-olds were living with a spouse, while 0.1% were living with an unmarried partner. Among 25-34 year-olds marriage is more common than unmarried cohabitation, but there is still a dramatic shift in marriage patterns as in the younger cohort. Between 1968 and 2018, the proportion of those living with a spouse declined from 81.5% to 40.3%, while the proportion of those living with an unmarried partner increased from 0.2% to 14.8%. See “For Young Adults, Cohabitation Is Up, Marriage Is ‘down; Living with an Unmarried Partner Now Common for Young Adults,” U. S. Census Bureau, https://www.census.gov/library/stories/2018/11/cohabitaiton-is-up-marriage-is-down-for-young-adults.html, posted November 15, 2018, accessed January 13, 2020.
©2020 Gary A. Chorpenning; all rights reserved.
See Part 1 of this essay:
Pastor Note #100: Evangelical Fears and the Turn toward Coercive “Christianism”: An Essay Part 1 of 3
See Part 3 of this Essay:
Pastor Note #102: Evangelical Fears and the Turn toward Coercive “Christianism”: An Essay Part 3 of 3