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UW Religion Today: Today’s Evangelical Message on College Campuses

March 21, 2018
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By Paul V.M. Flesher

There have always been religious organizations on college campuses. Some were quiet and private, while others were loud and boisterous, always ready to tell others about themselves.

In the 1980s, perhaps the most visible student religious groups were evangelical. Not only were evangelical churches represented, but there was Campus Crusade for Christ, Intervarsity Christian Fellowship, the Navigators and others.

The word “evangelical” comes from the Greek word “euangelion” -- meaning “good news” -- and was rendered into English as “gospel.” And, that is just what these evangelical groups do through their visibility. They have been sharing the good news -- telling others about the message of salvation that Jesus’ actions have given to all human beings. To be saved, all one had to do was to accept that Jesus had saved them.

Trying to save other people also served as a form of recruitment for evangelical campus groups. When a person was saved, they usually joined one of these religious organizations or a church. Those who did not join rarely remained in their new state of salvation, but returned to their former friends and behavior.

From the late 1960s onward, these evangelical youth groups grew and formed a vibrant part of campus life in many colleges and universities. At the same time, seeds were being sown that, today, a half-century later, are damaging the message of salvation on these campuses.

Under the leadership of Richard Nixon, who was president from 1969 to 1974, the Republican Party brought evangelicals into a new coalition, the “silent majority,” along with many Catholics, through the politicization of abortion. Evangelical and Catholic Christians, who had largely stayed out of politics prior to that time, seized on the issue of abortion’s legalization. As the Republican Party vowed to stamp it out, it gained widespread support of these religious groups.

On the flip side, abortion became a religious issue, with both evangelical and Catholic leaders and churches railing against, making it a topic of sermons and transforming it into the epitome of evil.

From that small beginning, two things happened. Evangelicals became increasingly Republican, and the message of the gospel, the good news of salvation, had to gradually give larger amounts of time to the anti-abortion message.

National polling from the late 1970s onward has measured a growing drop-off in the number of Christians and an increasing body of people unwilling to identify with Christianity. The change was slow at first but, by 2012, the percentage of Americans in this category -- what pollsters call “none of the above” or just “nones” -- had risen to just under 20 percent. Evangelicals themselves, by contrast, had fallen to 19 percent, while Protestants, for the first time in American history, dipped below 50 percent (Pew Research Center, “The Decline of Institutional Religion,” 2013).

If this analysis is correct, the change should have begun about the time that evangelicals became a key part of the Republican Party. That was the moment in which accepting salvation also meant that one had to join, not just an evangelical church but also the Republican Party. Many who were willing to accept Christ were unwilling to accept Republicanism. So, they turned their back on both.

And, the polling shows that people have been making the decision in this manner. The younger one is, the more likely one is to be a none. More than 32 percent (in 2012) of the under-30s were nones, while in the 30-50-year-old range, 21 percent were nones. It is only among the over-50s that 15 percent or fewer are nones.

And, what is the message of campus evangelical organizations today? That the current president is worthy of Christian support. That, despite his moral failings, he is the “evangelicals’ man.” They put him in the White House and continue to support him vociferously, despite his daily tweets providing new reminders of his moral ineptitude.

Even more than in the 1970s and the 1980s, the message of salvation that Jesus enjoined his followers to spread among all the world before he ascended into heaven is being drowned out by political messages. It will be interesting to discover, in the coming decades, what impact this has had on people accepting the salvation that Christianity has taught that Jesus brought.

Flesher is a professor in UW’s Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies. Past columns and more information about the program can be found on the web at www.uwyo.edu/RelStds. To comment on this column, visit http://religion-today.blogspot.com.

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