While I’m loath to disagree with Al Gore on anything — much less political strategy — I have a number of reservations about the environmental movement actively courting the religious demographic. Most of them are irrelevant to the larger discussion, but an article in The New York Times makes me wonder if we aren’t being overly tactical in our thinking, at the expense of a long-term strategy.
At an unusual series of leadership meetings in 44 cities this fall, more than 6,000 pastors are hearing dire forecasts from some of the biggest names in the conservative evangelical movement.
Their alarm has been stoked by a highly suspect claim that if current trends continue, only 4 percent of teenagers will be “Bible-believing Christians” as adults. That would be a sharp decline compared with 35 percent of the current generation of baby boomers, and before that, 65 percent of the World War II generation.
While some critics say the statistics are greatly exaggerated (one evangelical magazine for youth ministers dubbed it “the 4 percent panic attack”), there is widespread consensus among evangelical leaders that they risk losing their teenagers.
As the article mentions, it’s possible the numbers are bogus, and it wouldn’t be the first time there’s been a panic about the values of the nation’s youth. (Seriously — look at what that era’s Joe Liebermans were writing about adolescents, circa 1910.) But the long-term trends are pretty clear, and they show an increasingly less-Christian America. One pastor puts it this way:
“I’m looking at the data … and we’ve become post-Christian America, like post-Christian Europe. We’ve been working as hard as we know how to work — everyone in youth ministry is working hard — but we’re losing.”
I know, I know — shockingly, America could be on the way to becoming the hedonistic, valueless society of Germany or Sweden!
My inherent suspicion of Big Church naturally leads me to say that if we have to trade American Christianity and we get Europe’s environmental values and policies instead, that’s a bargain I’d be willing to make. Of course, there’s no telling which way the de-Christianization of America will play out.
The larger problem is this: Does it makes sense to pursue a shrinking demographic? Will talking to America about the environment in religious tones really help us long-term, or do we risk going down with the ship as increasing numbers of young people dismiss anything associated with the Church? Organized religion is powerful in America today, without a doubt. But nobody seriously thinks that the movement can turn America around today, and frankly I’m more comfortable talking about the green-ing of American politics in the timeframe of years. In a purely tactical sense, I think America is already turning toward greener politics, thanks largely to catastrophes like Hurricane Katrina.
The objective for any serious political consensus is to go after the youth — that’s how you build a long-term coalition, right? If we’re going after the churches, are we going to places where the young people of America increasingly aren’t?