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Southern Evangelicals: Leaving the Fold vs. the Power of Community

August 9, 2022

What happens when Southern white Evangelicals leave their churches? Do they become more politically progressive? Less literalist about the Bible? More inclined to the “common good” than their church-going friends?

According to a new study, apparently not. It has some interesting, important findings.

The article is by Daniel K. Williams, published by Christianity Today, here (thus not biased against Christians or churches).

Back to the opening questions: Williams’ analysis of extensive data finds that a significant percentage of white Evangelicals in the South rarely if ever attend church anymore. But they tend to remain Republican. They don’t become more progressive except on marijuana use and premarital sex (but remain anti-abortion).

They continue to view the Bible as the inspired Word of God, if not to be taken literally as well.

Their individualism seems to be accentuated relative to their churched counterparts (whether as cause or effect of leaving is not discussed). With this is a suspicion or distrust of virtually all institutions. However, trust in the military remains high. As one would expect, the media is on the distrust list.

I recommend you read the article for its deeper analysis and specifics of data. But from my very brief overview here, what might we glean as helpful information? For one thing, the effort to stay in and contribute to the kind of community that most churches represent is good for both the individual and society. That’s not to say that churches are necessarily the strongest or best type of community. (And the sticky issue of beliefs and their effects is a vital but separate concern for my purpose here.) Many clearly are not great communities, but rather are toxic. They are thus often guilty of inflicting trauma and scattering the flock, even when members have not made a change of beliefs. (The latter is my addition… Williams does not discuss church toxicity.)

Corollary to the benefits of being part of a community is that it appears many “leavers” either are uninterested in finding another type of formalized community or perhaps find it difficult to do so.

Something short of community life that can still contribute to growth and positive social interaction is participation in one form or another of structured, “safe” dialog about polarized issues of culture or public policy. One growing organization which organizes and runs such dialogs-across-difference across the country is Braver Angels, one of some 400 groups affiliated with the Listen First Coalition doing such work.

I also participate in an endeavor to bring further collaboration among these kinds of projects and advance the cause of broad-based, serious deliberation to empower more effective democracy in America,

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