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Michael Harvey
Rabbi | Advocate | Educator

Watching Christianity Die From the Outside

American non-Christians are on deathwatch for the Church

More than a decade ago, Bishop John Shelby Spong wrote a bestseller entitled, “Why Christianity Must Change or Die.”  It laid out what he felt were some of the more obvious reasons why Christianity was on the decline and what it could do to reverse that trend.  Now, in 2024, we see the results of American Christianity refusing to heed his warnings and find itself in the inevitable and predictable decline.  The Pew studies are in, and they show that church affiliation is falling rapidly, and the younger generations want nothing to do with the religious institutions of Christianity.  Moreover, America has seen a religious trend, beyond Christianity, that shows a split away from the middle and moderate, and moving instead towards the fringes of either side, secularism and fundamentalism.  Evangelical and other fundamentalist churches are more vocal and attractive than ever, but that attraction is equal to the other side’s disgust for fundamentalism and a full rejection of Christian institutions in general.  

As a non-Christian, I have watched the landscape of American Christianity change radically over the past 10 years, within my interfaith groups and listening to the Christian voices on social media.  The trend of “exvangelicals” and “ex-Christians” has risen exponentially since the Trump presidency, in which a large percentage of Evangelicals voted for and supported an immoral man for the sake of power.  It was this revelation that caused so much stir in the Christian world, with the fundamentalists finally saying out-loud what they had felt all along, “Morality for thee, not for me.”  That, combined with the exorbitant amount of sex-abuse cases and the in-depth reporting that showed clearly church organizations such as the Catholic Church and the Southern Baptist Church engaging in cover-ups that led to even a more disillusioning view of what were supposed to be institutions that hold the archetype of morality.  

What has been most fascinating to me, as a non-Christian, is seeing the response to the change of the landscape. Those who have moved away from the Church are painfully aware of the downward trends, with some cheering it on, while those steeped in fundamentalism deny the decline or rage against it.  The rise of fundamentalism, the “Republican Jesus”, and groups such as the “Trad Caths”, has seen a lack of empathy, strong condemnations, and an abandonment of the values taught by Jesus in the Gospels.  This was seen no more clearly than by a Russell Moore who resigned from the Southern Baptist church, after hearing that Jesus’ teachings were no longer acceptable:

Moore told NPR in an interview released Tuesday that multiple pastors had told him they would quote the Sermon on the Mount, specifically the part that says to “turn the other cheek,” when preaching. Someone would come up after the service and ask, “Where did you get those liberal talking points?” “What was alarming to me is that in most of these scenarios, when the pastor would say, ‘I’m literally quoting Jesus Christ,’ the response would not be, ‘I apologize.’ The response would be, ‘Yes, but that doesn’t work anymore. That’s weak,’” Moore said. 

While one, historically, could argue that Jesus has been more worshiped than emulated since the creation of the Church as far back as Constantine, the current verbiage is no longer subtle.  American Christians on the right have plainly stated that the teachings of their God are too weak, and that the teachings of the men who have grown the Church with power and money, are the ones to be emulated.  On the left, the Progressive Christians have remained rather silent in the face of the rise of Christian Nationalism, and possible theocracy in American government.  The fights against this rise are few and far between with only a handful of organizations, such as “Christians against Christian Nationalism” doing almost nothing in the face of a wave of danger.  Before I departed the app formerly known as Twitter due to the influx of actual nazism, I spoke at length with Progressive and Moderate Christians and asked them point blank what was stopping them from organizing a million-man march against this kind of theocracy and Christian Nationalism.  The answers were disappointing.  Some Christians were as afraid of the Christian Nationalists as its victims; some invoked the no-true-Scotsman fallacy, meaning that the Christian Nationalists and Evangelicals “were not Christians anyway,” and some were simply frozen unknown what to do.  I, as a Jew and student of history, reminded them that similar arguments made Moderate and even Progressive Christians close their curtains when Jews and others were rounded up or massacred, throughout Europe.  This seemed not to phase any of them, including the powerful Christian clergy I had befriended in person and on social media.  Indeed, it became a real suggestion and possibility that Progressive and Moderate Christians actually secretly agreed with the Fundamentalist Churches on topics of abortion, LGBTQIA, and antisemitism.  As Eli Wiesel stated plainly, “neutrality only helps the aggressor.”  

The reality became even more clear during the Super Bowl when the “He Gets Us” ads began to circulate and the response from Christians on all sides was not only predictable but telling.  The Moderate and Progressive Christians commented about the hypocrisy of telling Christians to love their neighbor, when the truth about the funding behind the ads came to light:

Unfortunately, this branding conceals the fact that the “He Gets Us” campaign has insidious roots in anti-LGBTQ+ movements. Although the campaign is now managed by Come Near, it was founded by another Christian nonprofit known as the Servant Foundation/The Signatry, which donated $65.9 million to the Alliance Defending Freedom.

The Alliance Defending Freedom is labeled as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center for their staunch and unrelenting anti-LGBTQIA support and legislation.  What could be more hypocritical or malicious than an ad about loving your neighbor as a Christian really meant “love your neighbor, except those neighbors”?  The ads also drew criticism for the amount of money spent on the ads, tens of millions of dollars, which the biblical Jesus would have more likely wished it to be spent on the homeless, hungry, and needy.  

Interestingly enough, the other side of the spectrum, the Fundamentalist Christians, hated the ad as well, stating that it was “too inclusive” that Jesus “didn’t love everyone, just his followers,” and that Jesus didn’t “accept people’s sins.”  In other words, the ad was too weak for the Evangelicals, Christian Nationalists, and Fundamentalists, but it was also disingenuous to the Moderate and Progressive Christians.  This, above all, shows where American Christianity is today and why it is on the decline.  With all the 45,000 denominations of Christianity throughout the world, the staggering number of churches in America (more than McDonalds or Starbucks), there seems to be such an obvious inconsistency and incongruity problem that the old message of “we’re right, they’re wrong” seems almost laughable.  American Christians cannot decide who is a real Christian who is not, who Jesus was or not, or even to worship or emulate Jesus, their God.  

Looking from the outside, again as a student of history, I wonder how it is that so many could look past the harm caused by the Churches, in the past, and today.  Immigrants, LGBTQIA, Jews, and other minorities are in fear for their lives in America due to Christian theocracy; women are dying from forced births, climate change is denied or tossed aside for hopes of a world to come, and while millions go hungry, Super Bowl ads are bought and Mega Churches are filled.  This is to say nothing of the past and problematic laws of Constantine and Theodosius, the rampant antisemitism and hate for non-Christians by Augustine and Chrysostom, the Crusades, the Inquisitions, the Pogroms, the Holocaust, the proven endemic of sexual abuse cases and the covering up of those cases, the greed, tax evasion, and use of donations, and the support for a former President who is the very opposite of a moral man, all while railing against the current Catholic President who attends Church weekly.  From the outside, the decline in church attendance is beyond obvious, and frankly, we are surprised it is not happening at a faster rate.  

More than a decade ago, Bishop John Shelby Spong wrote a bestseller entitled, “Why Christianity Must Change or Die.”  It laid out what he felt were some of the more obvious reasons why Christianity was on the decline and what it could do to reverse that trend.  Now, in 2024, we see the results of American Christianity refusing to heed his warnings and find itself in the inevitable and predictable decline.  The Pew studies are in, and they show that church affiliation is falling rapidly, and the younger generations want nothing to do with the religious institutions of Christianity.  Moreover, America has seen a religious trend, beyond Christianity, that shows a split away from the middle and moderate, and moving instead towards the fringes of either side, secularism and fundamentalism.  Evangelical and other fundamentalist churches are more vocal and attractive than ever, but that attraction is equal to the other side’s disgust for fundamentalism and a full rejection of Christian institutions in general.  

As a non-Christian, I have watched the landscape of American Christianity change radically over the past 10 years, within my interfaith groups and listening to the Christian voices on social media.  The trend of “exvangelicals” and “ex-Christians” has risen exponentially since the Trump presidency, in which a large percentage of Evangelicals voted for and supported an immoral man for the sake of power.  It was this revelation that caused so much stir in the Christian world, with the fundamentalists finally saying out-loud what they had felt all along, “Morality for thee, not for me.”  That, combined with the exorbitant amount of sex-abuse cases and the in-depth reporting that showed clearly church organizations such as the Catholic Church and the Southern Baptist Church engaging in cover-ups that led to even a more disillusioning view of what were supposed to be institutions that hold the archetype of morality.  

What has been most fascinating to me, as a non-Christian, is seeing the response to the change of the landscape. Those who have moved away from the Church are painfully aware of the downward trends, with some cheering it on, while those steeped in fundamentalism deny the decline or rage against it.  The rise of fundamentalism, the “Republican Jesus”, and groups such as the “Trad Caths”, has seen a lack of empathy, strong condemnations, and an abandonment of the values taught by Jesus in the Gospels.  This was seen no more clearly than by a Russell Moore who resigned from the Southern Baptist church, after hearing that Jesus’ teachings were no longer acceptable:

Moore told NPR in an interview released Tuesday that multiple pastors had told him they would quote the Sermon on the Mount, specifically the part that says to “turn the other cheek,” when preaching. Someone would come up after the service and ask, “Where did you get those liberal talking points?” “What was alarming to me is that in most of these scenarios, when the pastor would say, ‘I’m literally quoting Jesus Christ,’ the response would not be, ‘I apologize.’ The response would be, ‘Yes, but that doesn’t work anymore. That’s weak,’” Moore said. 

While one, historically, could argue that Jesus has been more worshiped than emulated since the creation of the Church as far back as Constantine, the current verbiage is no longer subtle.  American Christians on the right have plainly stated that the teachings of their God are too weak, and that the teachings of the men who have grown the Church with power and money, are the ones to be emulated.  On the left, the Progressive Christians have remained rather silent in the face of the rise of Christian Nationalism, and possible theocracy in American government.  The fights against this rise are few and far between with only a handful of organizations, such as “Christians against Christian Nationalism” doing almost nothing in the face of a wave of danger.  Before I departed the app formerly known as Twitter due to the influx of actual nazism, I spoke at length with Progressive and Moderate Christians and asked them point blank what was stopping them from organizing a million-man march against this kind of theocracy and Christian Nationalism.  The answers were disappointing.  Some Christians were as afraid of the Christian Nationalists as its victims; some invoked the no-true-Scotsman fallacy, meaning that the Christian Nationalists and Evangelicals “were not Christians anyway,” and some were simply frozen unknown what to do.  I, as a Jew and student of history, reminded them that similar arguments made Moderate and even Progressive Christians close their curtains when Jews and others were rounded up or massacred, throughout Europe.  This seemed not to phase any of them, including the powerful Christian clergy I had befriended in person and on social media.  Indeed, it became a real suggestion and possibility that Progressive and Moderate Christians actually secretly agreed with the Fundamentalist Churches on topics of abortion, LGBTQIA, and antisemitism.  As Eli Wiesel stated plainly, “neutrality only helps the aggressor.”  

The reality became even more clear during the Super Bowl when the “He Gets Us” ads began to circulate and the response from Christians on all sides was not only predictable but telling.  The Moderate and Progressive Christians commented about the hypocrisy of telling Christians to love their neighbor, when the truth about the funding behind the ads came to light:

Unfortunately, this branding conceals the fact that the “He Gets Us” campaign has insidious roots in anti-LGBTQ+ movements. Although the campaign is now managed by Come Near, it was founded by another Christian nonprofit known as the Servant Foundation/The Signatry, which donated $65.9 million to the Alliance Defending Freedom.

The Alliance Defending Freedom is labeled as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center for their staunch and unrelenting anti-LGBTQIA support and legislation.  What could be more hypocritical or malicious than an ad about loving your neighbor as a Christian really meant “love your neighbor, except those neighbors”?  The ads also drew criticism for the amount of money spent on the ads, tens of millions of dollars, which the biblical Jesus would have more likely wished it to be spent on the homeless, hungry, and needy.  

Interestingly enough, the other side of the spectrum, the Fundamentalist Christians, hated the ad as well, stating that it was “too inclusive” that Jesus “didn’t love everyone, just his followers,” and that Jesus didn’t “accept people’s sins.”  In other words, the ad was too weak for the Evangelicals, Christian Nationalists, and Fundamentalists, but it was also disingenuous to the Moderate and Progressive Christians.  This, above all, shows where American Christianity is today and why it is on the decline.  With all the 45,000 denominations of Christianity throughout the world, the staggering number of churches in America (more than McDonalds or Starbucks), there seems to be such an obvious inconsistency and incongruity problem that the old message of “we’re right, they’re wrong” seems almost laughable.  American Christians cannot decide who is a real Christian who is not, who Jesus was or not, or even to worship or emulate Jesus, their God.  

Looking from the outside, again as a student of history, I wonder how it is that so many could look past the harm caused by the Churches, in the past, and today.  Immigrants, LGBTQIA, Jews, and other minorities are in fear for their lives in America due to Christian theocracy; women are dying from forced births, climate change is denied or tossed aside for hopes of a world to come, and while millions go hungry, Super Bowl ads are bought and Mega Churches are filled.  This is to say nothing of the past and problematic laws of Constantine and Theodosius, the rampant antisemitism and hate for non-Christians by Augustine and Chrysostom, the Crusades, the Inquisitions, the Pogroms, the Holocaust, the proven endemic of sexual abuse cases and the covering up of those cases, the greed, tax evasion, and use of donations, and the support for a former President who is the very opposite of a moral man, all while railing against the current Catholic President who attends Church weekly.  From the outside, the decline in church attendance is beyond obvious, and frankly, we are surprised it is not happening at a faster rate.  

About the Author
Michael E. Harvey is a Reform Rabbi, ordained by the Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion in 2015. After leading multiple congregations across the United States, Mike proudly served as a hospital chaplain at IU Health during the height of COVID-19. Mike is passionate about social justice, interfaith cooperation, and bringing deep Jewish learning to the lay public. He has followed these passions in serving his communities, including founding and directing interfaith councils and sitting on multiple boards, locally and nationally. In 2022, Mike wrote and published his first book, Let’s Talk: A Rabbi Speaks to Christians, which became an Amazon Bestseller. Mike's current projects include finishing his second book, and completing his doctorate degree at Spertus Institute of Jewish Learning and Leadership. His new book "From the Gospels to the Gas Chambers: How Christian Scripture Inspires a Pattern of Genocide" is in production and is in need of a publisher.
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