It’s a truth universally recognized by anyone who has ever talked about the BenOp that a person who expresses concern about the church’s future is in want of a person to quote Tertullian at them.
Sorry, is that cheeky? Here’s the quote and we’ll get to why it grates on my ear so in a moment: “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” (UPDATE: An astute reader informs me that the more accurate translation from Tertullian is “the Christians’ blood is seed.”)
The problem isn’t that Tertullian is always wrong. The problem is that this quote has become a sort of truism reflexively recited by American evangelicals who can only imagine that government-sanctioned opposition to the church will be a good thing for the American church. And while there will likely be some benefits to come from opposition, it’s essential that evangelicals not be overly sanguine about the American church’s short-term prospects.
The Historical Precedent for the Death of Regional Churches
The first point we need to get clear is that, historically speaking, it is simply not true that persecution always helps to strengthen and refine the church. Sometimes persecution simply destroys a church. Once upon a time there were thriving churches in northern Africa, the Middle East, China, and Japan. Then they died. (You can read about them in this fine book by Philip Jenkins.)
Those churches were all either destroyed (in the latter cases) or driven to the very edge of society (in the case of the two former groups). Indeed, what little remained of the historic churches of the Middle East has been largely eradicated by ISIS.
Thus we need to first figure out why these churches were destroyed or simply made into permanent extreme minorities. There are a number of factors in play:
- In some cases, the church was closely tied to a ruling elite and when that elite was overthrown the church lost its standing and was crushed.
- In other cases, the faith was actually only professed by a small minority of social elites and never penetrated into the mass population.
- Finally, in still other cases, Christian identity has become conflated with a set of other characteristics or cultural values which, over time, erode the distinctly Christian characteristics of a people. So there is still a superficial Christianity, but it is badly compromised by its close ties to nationalism. Greece is a good example of this as somewhere between 88 and 98% of the population profess to be Greek Orthodox but only 27% of those people actually attend church weekly. Elsewhere in Europe the numbers are even more dire. In Denmark, 80% of the population is Lutheran but only 3% attend any kind of church service weekly. This critique also applies to cities and states in the USA that are historically Catholic, such as Chicago or Boston. The gap between those who claim to adhere to a specific faith and those who attend church weekly is enormous.
What all this means is that there are a number of conditions that have historically caused local churches to crumble and regional churches to disappear or lapse into a kind of permanent minority status. And the key thing to get clear is that this is very much a live possibility in the United States.
How would this happen in the United States?
To some extent, you can argue that it already is happening. Consider the gap in polling between evangelicals who do and do not attend church weekly and support for Donald Trump. You might also consider that the only conservative religious groups that have reliably opposed Trump are Mormons and Dutch Reformed Christians—two groups that have developed thick cultural identities in specific places that largely avoid the sort of milquetoast cultural Christianity that has so weakened the church in so many places in the contemporary west.
That suggests a kind of hollowing out of the larger American religious bodies as their adherents either leave the faith entirely or fall into a civil religion that maintains Christian trappings but is more nationalistic than Christian.
But there are other possibilities here as well. Two are worth paying special attention to because they directly impact the long-term viability of evangelical institutions in the United States.
Tax-Exempt Status for Churches
First, and most obvious, churches that do not affirm the morality of homosexuality could lose tax-exempt status. It took a New York Times religion reporter all of two days to call for precisely that in Time magazine. There are a number of complications here, of course. The most obvious way to do this would be to remove tax-exempt status from all churches and other religious organizations.
But such a move would probably be a bridge too far as that box includes a lot of organizations that even many progressives would be reluctant to see lose tax-exempt status. (It also would be relatively easy to spin such a strategy in the media as being anti-Islamic or anti-Semitic, which would create major problems for the supporters of such a move.) Thus there would need to be some kind of legal mechanism for removing tax-exempt status from religious organizations that discriminate against protected classes while preserving it for non-discriminatory organizations.
That mechanism may already exist actually, in the form of the Equality Act. Friend of Mere O and former contributor Andrew Walker has written about it for National Review and Sarah Pulliam Bailey has raised this possibility in a story for the Washington Post.
It is possible that this may be a battle the left cannot win. Perhaps once the immediate post-Obergefell enthusiasm fades, they will lack the support to achieve this further victory. But the fact that we’re having this conversation at all suggests that it is at least possible that churches could lose their tax-exempt status.
If that happens, the consequences for the American church would be dire. Many churches would simply have to close their doors while others could, depending on how the left achieved its victory, see both a massive drop in giving (as rich congregants would not be able to give the same amount of money since they wouldn’t be able to write it off come tax time) as well as an increase in expenses as they would now have to pay property tax for their building. For large megachurches in the suburbs this could be particularly devastating as a drop in their budget combined with an enormous property tax bill would be very difficult to manage.
The Loss of Federal Loan Dollars for Christian Universities
There is a second possibility as well which seems more likely to happen. Many university students pay for college using federal loan money. At present, the feds are happy to let them use that money to pay for tuition at evangelical institutions. And evangelical institutions are happy to receive it. Liberty University receives roughly $800 million in federal loan dollars each year. But they aren’t alone.
You can look through this Wall Street Journal data for yourself, but here are some highlights. All dollar amounts are for the 2013-14 award year and are based on data from the US Department of Education:
- Azusa Pacific University, where Mere Fidelity host Derek Rishmawy did his Masters, received $136m federal loan dollars.
- Belmont University, which is where Indelible Grace largely started, received $82.8m.
- Biola, where Mere O founder Matthew Lee Anderson did his undergraduate degree, received $45.9m.
- Calvin College, a major CRC school, received $25.4m.
- Covenant College, the PCA’s official college, received $7.5m.
- Dallas Baptist University received $43.5m.
- Dordt College, another CRC school, received $9.2m.
- Franciscan University of Steubenville, to look at a major conservative Catholic institution, received $19.3m.
- Hope College received $21.6m.
- Houston Baptist University, another place that has employed a number of friends of Mere O, received $26.4m.
- Moody Bible Institute received $4.5m.
- Multnomah University received $7.1m.
- Regent University received $69.8m.
- Trinity International University received $26.1m.
- Union University received $40.4m.
- Wheaton College received $18.4m.
Even the colleges that haven’t taken enormous sums of money, relatively speaking, are taking amounts that would hurt to lose. Moody, for example, only took $4.5m. But their unrestricted revenue from operations in 2014 was $112.4m and their operating expenses were $111.1m. So there’s only a $1.3m gap there, which is about 1/3 the amount they are currently receiving from the feds. (Student fees/tuition was $21.2m, which means that roughly 20% of their student tuition is paid for with federal money.)
So even schools that don’t rely a ton on federal money could be in trouble if the government decided to stop giving money to non-affirming schools. Other schools, like Azusa Pacific, Belmont, Biola, Dallas Baptist, Regent, and Union stand to lose even larger amounts of money.
This too is a possibility that has been discussed by many people, particularly David Wheeler over at the Atlantic. Here too we should pause to consider how a move to strip federal funding from evangelical institutions would work. It’s possible that the federal funding could be made to be contingent on a school’s honor code. If the honor code violated the Equality Act, for example, schools could be judged ineligible to receive federal funding. (Title IX is another possible avenue and, indeed, is one that has already been pursued.)
If it came to that, there are a few possibilities: Christians could independently band together and start some sort of bank or other financing scheme to help make up for the loss of federal loan money. That move along with some more limited budget cuts at Christian universities could perhaps combine to blunt the impact of the loss of federal money. Some limited forms of compromise could also perhaps be accepted, if the alternative to it was to cease existing as an institution. Christian colleges could decide that if forced to choose between having an honor code and existing as an institution, it’s better to go on existing. So they may jettison the honor code for their students.
That said, if hiring policies were also subjected to the same tests, then it would be much harder to justify such a compromise while maintaining anything like a commitment to their identity as an evangelical institution.
Of course, that does raise another possibility, which is that evangelical institutions would over-time cease to be evangelical as they either voluntarily or under coercive threat via their bank account abandon their evangelical distinctives.
This paints a dark picture of the immediate future of the American church. I actually don’t think our future is that dark. The immediate future does look bleak, but there are great reasons for hope long-term. In the first place, the revival in interest amongst younger evangelicals in things like historical liturgical practices and historical Christian theology is a very real thing, though perhaps not as broadly influential as we might hope. That said, this interest suggests a faith with stronger foundations than that of our parents generation, which gave us the seeker-sensitive movement amongst many other ill-considered attempts at being relevant to a deeply inhumane culture that would be better served by clear calls to repentance. Here I share Russ Moore’s long-term optimism for the American church’s future.
That said, we need to be clear about what this future is likely to be. In The Return of the King Gandalf tells the people of Minas Tirith after the death of Denethor that the Gondor they have known is gone, for good or for ill. That seems likely to be true for the American church as well. In the immediate future we are going to have a far more fractious relationship to the American mainstream than we have had at any point in the post-World War II era. We will be, as Gandalf puts it, “hard put to it.”
But there is cause for hope. At some point in the next generation or two, we will likely be tasked with helping to rebuild our local places (and not just the evangelical churches and institutions in those places), though the exact form that will take is not clear to anyone right now. But when we do that work, we will almost certainly not be rebuilding the old order of vaguely Christian American civil religion. I suspect that option will simply not be available to us for a variety of reasons, one of which is quite possibly that many of the institutions we built before Obergefell may no longer exist. We will be building something new.