Within the last month or so, the mainstream media – who is no friend to culturally conservative religious sects – has been gleefully hyping two events unfolding within the Southern Baptist community. The first was some metropolitan Atlanta churches threatening to leave the pack over race / being expelled over the acceptance of gay couples into the congregation. The second was “Bible teacher” Beth Moore proclaiming that she no longer considers herself a Southern Baptist and that she is splitting with Christian publishing house Lifeway.
As the mainstream media reduces every shift in American culture to Donald Trump, because he will live rent-free in their brains forever, these stories became about Trump as well. But they actually follow a pattern of “Christian celebrities” spontaneously leaving their faith traditions for more lucrative pastures that was well-established long before Trump considered running for office.
The path of the Christian celebrity is a lot like Taylor Swift starting out as a country music crooner and then gravitating toward pop music. Country music is a niche market of people with a well-defined culture and values. And they cling to that culture stubbornly. It necessarily has a smaller audience than pop music, where any vapid song can be streamed to the entire world. Taylor Swift no longer had to be a narrative songwriter when she left country. All she needed was a catchy beat, ten words repeated in a mind-numbing rotation, and a wardrobe of confectionary outfits. Easiest way to make money in the world if you are young and beautiful and willing to objectify yourself on a grand scale.
Christian celebrities likewise find themselves caught between a narrowly-defined culture and the potential for mass-market appeal. They also find themselves at the mercy of shifts in urban – suburban culture.
You aren’t going to be a megachurch pastor in a rural area. If you establish a megachurch in an urban area and that urban area is the beneficiary of an influx of people from out-of-state with different values, you either adapt or die. Many of the imports into some urban areas of the Sunbelt – Dallas / Fort Worth, Houston, Atlanta, Nashville, Louisville – are coming from places where politics has swallowed everything. In short order, they have changed the churches in these areas from communities of the faithful to political parties that occasionally pass around shot glasses of grape juice. And the schisms keep a-coming.
You’ll notice in the Beth Moore story, the main problem with her getting political was that Baptists stopped buying her books. She has to pivot to ever more liberal positions to stay relevant among the only people left seeking her guidance. Give it a year and, like Taylor Swift, she will be unrecognizable.
You can see this same crack-up happening at Christian colleges and universities. For my nominally Baptist alma mater, Baylor University, it took a single generation of administrators to shift the university from a place where like-minded families sent their kids to learn, make lifelong connections, and find a mate into a critical theory-obsessed hellhole where almost every social media post coming out of the administration now has to do with race or gender. (Every once in a while, as an afterthought, they add in a quote from Scripture.) They started borrowing enormous sums to finance new construction, then moved to a more mainstream student population that was also willing to take on a lot of consumer debt (something many cultural conservatives refuse to do). In all cases, financial patterns foretold a shift in religious standards.
Chances are, behavior is not going to have a meaningful impact on the continued existence of Christian faith traditions in the region, much to the disappointment of the chattering classes. The people who actually want to keep the faith will keep the faith. They will build new institutions with an ancient perspective, while the others turn into mostly secular pursuits. The people whose idea of faith is not much different than reading a self-help book, such that it can be any constellation of beliefs that makes them feel good, will move on to ever more new fads.