Recent comments made by Christian conservatives appear to blame non-believers for everything from school shootings to the downfall of civilization. As younger Americans increasingly identify as “post-Christian”, the Far Right is ratcheting up their attacks on those they consider godless and immoral.
Referring to the school shootings in Parkland, Florida during a March 1st Oklahoma Senate invocation, pastor Bill Ledbetter of the Fairview Baptist Church asked senators, “Do we really believe we can create immorality in our laws, do we really believe that we can redefine marriage from the word of God to something in our own mind, and there not be a response?”
Ledbetter added, “What if this is God’s way of letting us know he doesn’t approve of our behavior?” Of course, this is not the first time that members of the Far Right have cast blame for tragedies like the Parkland shootings on those who do not share their views of God: televangelist Pat Robertson has a long history of attributing everything from the last stock market dive to tornadoes on those who teach evolution, believe in reproductive rights, or support marriage equality.
But now, even politicians are making similar, inflammatory remarks. In a February 17th speech to the Ave Maria School of Law, Former House Speaker and perennial presidential candidate Newt Gingrich stated, “The rise of a secular, atheist philosophy” in the West is “an equally or even more dangerous threat” to Christianity than Muslim terrorist organizations that will kill Christians if “they don’t submit.” In claiming there are “two horrendous wars underway against Christianity,” (Muslim and Atheist) and that “secular philosophy dominates universities and is embraced by newspaper editors and Hollywood”, Gingrich seems to be equating religious terrorism with the simple act of non-belief.
In a March 2, 2018 Politico article, a newly unearthed series of Oklahoma talk radio shows from 2005 has revealed that the current Environmental Protection Agency Administrator, Scott Pruitt, dismissed evolution as an unproven theory, and lamented that “minority religions” were pushing Christianity out of “the public square.” He also advocated for an amendment to the Constitution to ban abortion, prohibit same-sex marriage and protect the Pledge of Allegiance and the Ten Commandments.
Nor is the fighting rhetoric limited to political and religious leaders. After it was initially reported that Devin Patrick Kelley, the shooter in the Texas Baptist Church massacre had “liked” the Friendly Atheist, a Facebook page for non-believers, Christian social media users were quick to place the blame on godlessness:
Such incendiary rhetoric may be a reflexive reaction to the dwindling numbers of those who share their ideology. A January 24, 2018 study conducted by the Barna Group shows the percentage of Generation Z (people born between 1999 and 2015) who identify as atheist is double that of the general U.S. adult population. Conducted in partnership with the Impact 360 Institute, the study found that 6 percent of the adult population identifies as atheist, compared to 13 percent of these teens.
Baylor sociology professor Dr. Paul Froese, a specialist in the sociology of religion, culture and politics, said there are many variables encouraging this trend, but citied a few factors as the most likely cause: First, younger generations are normally less religious than their older counterparts. Froese also cites the pace of modern society: he believes we are becoming too busy for organized religion. “One thing that it often comes down to is that there is less time to be religious in the modern world…With all kinds of activities and groups to belong to and internet to search, people are finding that they don’t have the time or they don’t think it’s important to put the time into organized religion,” Froese said.
Others attribute the decrease in youthful religiosity to the increase in answers available through technology. Where once God was the sole resource for answers to medical and other hardships, science now provides solutions. An increase in public discourse and academic reports on atheism may also be a factor in the diminished religious affiliation of younger generations.
But the decline is not exclusive to Generation Z. According to the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), a polling organization based in Washington, D.C., white Christians, who were once predominant in the country’s religious life, now comprise only 43 percent of the American population. Those who identify as white evangelicals are an even smaller group, having shrunk from about 23% of the population a decade ago, to just 17% today. The study goes on to say that nearly a quarter of all Americans now do not identify with any faith group.
Whatever the cause for these declines, the Christian Right is treating it as a four-alarm fire. Newt Gingrich claims that if “radical secularists” take over the government, they will “impose radical values” on everyone. But as history teaches us over and over, the true radical is born of threatening circumstances. Recent news shows that dwindling numbers of “true believers” can lead to some very radical responses.