Former Dallas Morning News religion reporter Christine Wicker set out to write a book about the growing influence and strength of evangelical churches. But she found a community more fractured and less numerous than typically reported by the media. She explains that numbers for evangelicals in the U.S. are grossly inflated.
BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield. This week, Barack Obama gave a speech about religion in which he pledged to increase funding to George Bush's faith-based initiatives by a half a billion dollars. There was much speculation about whether it was shrewd political calculation to woo ever-important evangelical values voters.
It's repeated widely that one in four Americans are evangelical, so it made sense for Christine Wicker, a former religion reporter for The Dallas Morning News, to write a book about this huge unified portion of the country. But as she started doing research, she was told over and over by evangelicals that she was writing the wrong book and that she should instead investigate how evangelical churches were, in fact, shrinking.
She went on to find a group that was anything but unified. Oh, and that business about evangelicals being a quarter of the population, she says it's wrong. CHRISTINE WICKER: What's right is that they are seven percent of the population. I judged this every way that I could. I looked at beliefs, I looked at behavior, I looked at church attendance. And that 7 percent holds up every way you look at it. There's only a small core of people, and they are the ones delivering the vote. That other 18 percent, it's a swing vote.
BOB GARFIELD: Even evangelicals often have trouble agreeing on who's who - who's born again, who's evangelical, who's fundamentalist. As a practical political matter, though, versus a theological one, isn't there enough ideology overlap among all these categories to make the number of certified evangelicals kind of besides the point?
I mean, whoever they were, did they not fuel the so-called Republican revolution and did they not sweep George W. Bush into power? CHRISTINE WICKER: Well, Southerners have been voting Republican since Nixon. Now, once Bush came in, he began to convince us that that group of evangelicals was much larger than it was. But here's how I usually answer that question. If that 7 percent were really as influential and big as we have been led to believe it is, if it was one out of four Americans, they would have gotten their policies passed, because politicians would be fallin’ all over themselves.
So abortion should be illegal by now. Gay rights should have been pushed back. Taxes to help the poor, social programs, all the things that they wanted should be the law of the land. But they're not. BOB GARFIELD: It's not just that it's all out there and the media missed it. To use your word, we've been duped into thinking that this juggernaut was just going to roll over the body politic, outlawing abortion and same-sex marriage and criminalizing Halloween, or whatever. How did that happen? CHRISTINE WICKER: Well, first of all, what they did was to intimidate the press. When you start researching in this, you see that they were very deliberate about a whole lot of things. They went into the mainline churches and they fomented dissent and they accused those churches of being soft on Communism. It was a concentrated campaign to use the media to besmirch these other churches. And it worked. We did it.
Then they did a campaign to say the media is so liberal that they are against us. Against them? We covered them three times more than we covered anybody else. The media has been a complete lapdog for the religious right. BOB GARFIELD: You hit on an interesting point because the media do tend to be enablers in the cult of personality. There's a handful of people who we seem to have anointed as spokesmen for Christian America – the late Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, James Dobson, Ralph Reed. Is that a big part of the problem? CHRISTINE WICKER: There are statistics in the book – they asked evangelicals, do you even know who these people are? And most of them didn't. They didn't even know their names. They had no idea who they were.
Let's just talk about something that recently came out about James Dodson. He sent out a million emails asking his followers, who had signed up for these emails – these are core folks – they want to get his message, they want to follow him – he asked them to put their name on a petition asking President Bush not to allow taxpayers' money to be used to fund abortion providers like Planned Parenthood.
Now, that's easy. It's their core issue. It's not asking much. He sent out a million. He got a three-percent return rate. That's pretty good for an email solicitation. But that was not spam. That was sent to people who really are his followers, a million of them.
Now, if you say James Dobson has a million followers that's real different than saying James Dobson can get 30,000 people to put their names on a petition. BOB GARFIELD: Now, ordinarily I would never get into issues of personal faith, but in this case, more or less to preserve your credibility, can you tell me something about your personal history with Christianity? CHRISTINE WICKER: My family is going into its sixth generation of evangelical faith. It is true that I am no longer an evangelical, but for me that kind of faith is really bred in the bone. And there are many stories of astonishing faith in this book.
I think this is a faith that offers a tremendous amount to people. And one of the things that I discovered as I did this book was how much it's still the good things that I learned. The example of Jesus still rules my life very much. BOB GARFIELD: One final thing. If the disintegration of the evangelical movement is going on, as you've described, what are the political implications for the 2008 election? CHRISTINE WICKER: I think that that 7 percent will never go Democratic, but the 18 percent is, and always has been, a swing vote. So what John McCain has to do is keep evangelicals frightened enough that they'll get to the polls and vote for him. They don't like him, so they're either going to sit it out or they're going to go Republican, because they are fearful of the Democrats. BOB GARFIELD: Christine, thank you very much.
CHRISTINE WICKER: You're welcome, I enjoyed it. BOB GARFIELD: Christine Wicker's new book is The Fall of the Evangelical Nation: The Surprising Crisis Inside the Church.