During my years in the pews, I’ve witnessed a moral collapse — and a corresponding collapse in positive influence over the real lives not just of our fellow congregants but also of our fellow citizens in need. Of course it’s difficult to present a compelling witness when our own practices and lifestyle are often indistinguishable from the larger culture, but the problems get more specific.
I think the truth is a little more complicated than that.
The biggest source of the retreat in Christianity in the U.S. isn’t due to evangelical decline, but in the collapse of Main Line churches. Evangelicals like to think that the world revolves around them, but that isn’t the case. Main Line churches, for all of their shortcomings, have had more social influence on American life than Evangelicals, particularly in the years between World War I and the 1970’s, when Evangelicalism “went into hiding” in the wake of the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy. Ever since those turbulent times Main Line membership–and, to some extent, that of Roman Catholicism–has been siphoned off in two directions: towards Evangelical churches (and that obviously includes Pentecostal and Charismatic ones) on the one side, and into secuarlism on the other.
Main Line churches, by and large (the Methodists being an important exception) are the progeny of state churches in Europe. Thus they were better equipped to be more of a general social influence. Evangelicals jeered at “cultural Christianity” and the pedobaptism of Main Line denominations, but to get to a Christian culture you have to have some kind of cultural Christianity. When Main Line churches blew retreat, Evangelicals were and are unprepared to fill the void, and that shows in the results we have today. (That’s also why the left’s obsession with an Evangelical takeover is absurd.)
The one place where this pattern had serious modification was the South, where prominent Evangelical denominations–most notably the Southern Baptists–dominate the scene. But the South always marches to the beat of its own drummer, and in any case many of these churches are products of another collapse, namely the Confederacy. When the Lost Cause became lost, the best place to retreat was church, and that explains a lot of what many Southern churches were about in the century after Appomattox. And the Baptists had their own critics, most notably the Pentecostals, who felt (and many still feel) that Baptist churches are no better than any other Main Line church.
Although French’s criticisms of Evangelical churches following culture are valid, the root of the problem we have in receding Christianity is primarily with Main Line Christianity. But, became of their nature, Evangelical churches are poorly positioned to fill that void. But we should be thankful for what we have: without a strong Evangelical presence, Christianity would be in no better shape on these shores than it is in Europe.