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DALLAS – Noted religion historian Diana Butler Bass says she spent nearly two years saturated in the same kind of depressing statistics that now confront The United Methodist Church. Indeed, she told her audiences at 2012 Ministers' Week event at Perkins School of Theology, the rate and magnitude of decline among Christian denominations in the first decade of the 21st century proved so oppressive that they nearly robbed her of her nickname, "the Mainline Church Hope Lady."
Then the author of such popular books as Christianity for the Rest of Us and A People's History of Christianity discovered that the turmoil facing the UMC and its sister denominations might not be the "death tsunami" claimed by some. Instead, says Dr. Butler Bass, she found evidence that the decline may actually fertilize a fourth "great awakening" in American religion.
Out of that realization, Dr. Butler Bass crafted her latest book, Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening (HarperOne),scheduled for release Feb. 14. She based her two lectures for Ministers' Week on her findings, and gave United Methodist Insight permission to quote from her presentations for the benefit of General Conference decision-makers.
Four major religion shocks
Dr. Butler Bass told participants at the Perkins event that despite the hopeful outlook for religion at the beginning of the 21st century, all Christian denominations, with four exceptions, had declined precipitously since 2000. The only denominations that have shown numerical growth are the Church of Latter-day Saints (Mormon), Jehovah's Witnesses, and two small Pentecostal denominations. All other Christian churches, including such prominently evangelical denominations as the Southern Baptist Convention, have declined in both membership and resources.
The author said she traces this universal decline to four major events that have tainted public perception of religion in America:
- The Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, in which religion fueled violence on many sides;
- The 2002 child abuse scandals in the Roman Catholic Church, in which "the worst scandal of the church in 700 years" showed institutional religion abused the most vulnerable;
- The 2003 election of an openly gay, partnered cleric, the Rev. Gene Robinson, as a bishop in the Episcopal Church, in which religious adherents were shown to be mean-spirited;
- The 2004 presidential election, in which George W. Bush, the candidate with the lowest approval rating of any sitting president, was re-elected by an evangelical Christian bloc of whom 87 percent voted for Bush.
"Evangelicals won the 2004 election, but they lost their souls and their children," Dr. Butler Bass said. "Religion became identified with a particular political agenda. Evangelicals under the age of 40 now radically disagree with their parents on all issues except abortion."