Former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson says white evangelicals are tidying up the kitchen while the house burns down. Why would he say that?
Michael Gerson is a leader that evangelicals ought to pay attention to. He’s evangelical. Graduated from a flaghip evangelical college (Wheaton). And he has cultural capital. Gerson is a former senior fellow at the Council of Foreign Affairs and speechwriter for President George W. Bush (2001-2006). He knows what he’s talking about.
So what’s Gerson talking about? In a recent op-ed piece for the Washington Post (“Why evangelicals should panic”), he describes “the largest problem evangelicals face.” Gerson defines it as the massive sell-off of evangelicalism among the young.
It is indeed massive. About 26 percent of Americans 65 and older identify as white evangelical Protestants. But among those ages 18 to 29, the figure is 8 percent.
You read that right. Eight percent. White evangelical Protestantism is disappearing. Yet few white evangelicals seem to take notice. Instead, Gerson writes, they’re “tidying up the kitchen while the house burns down around them.” Why does he say this?
For starters, few evangelicals pay attention to trends. Since 2000, according to Gallup, the percentage of Americans with no religious affiliation has more than doubled, from 8 percent to 19 percent. The percentage of millennials with no religion has averaged 33 percent in recent surveys. The percentage of no religion GenZ is even higher.
Second, most evangelicals have embraced a fallacy. They assume millennials and GenZ will return to the faith just as Boomers and GenX returned when starting families. Unlikely to happen says David Campbell of the University of Notre Dame. Young people “are starting at a much, much lower point” than Boomers and GenX. Millennials and GenZ don’t know the faith, so what’s there to return to?
Camille Paglia knows this firsthand. She’s a professor of humanities and media studies at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. A few years ago, Paglia was teaching “Go Down, Moses,” the famous Negro spiritual. Then it suddenly hit her with horror (her words) that none of the students recognized the name “Moses.” None. Zero.
So, what’s the solution? Gerson urges evangelicals “to consult their past.” This includes “late-18th-century and early-19th-century Britain,” a period when the Clapham Sect recognized the faith was in decline. They didn’t waste time tidying up the kitchen. They got out in the wider world, achieving 60+ societal reforms over the course of four decades, including the abolition of the English Slave Trade.
The Clapham Sect reminds us of a second solution. William Wilberforce was one of Clapham’s leaders. In a loving letter to his 13-year-old daughter Elizabeth (dated 1815), he hoped that Elizabeth, at her age, would have “accustomed herself to friendly reproofs.” Wilberforce trusted she had developed a habit of welcoming critique.
Wilberforce based this on Jeremiah 17:8,9. “Our hearts are deceitful above all things.” Wilberforce knew heart is a metaphor for conscience. Our conscience is “prone to flatter ourselves, to form too high an estimate of our own good qualities, and too low an idea of our bad ones.” Translated, the easiest person for you to dupe is you.
This applies to white evangelicals (I’m one of them). In Good To Great, Jim Collins writes that great companies exhibit “the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality.” I’ve found that few white evangelicals have developed a habit of welcoming critique. They lack the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of our current reality. They ignore trends. They forget our history of cultural impact.
The result, as Michael Gerson correctly notes, is we’re tidying up the kitchen while the house burns down around us. I don’t mean to offend, but it’s time to stop this nonsense.
 “Private Papers of William Wilberforce” published by Burt Franklin (New York), 165-68.