Four years after my father died in an industrial accident on the job near our home in Gibsonton, Florida, my mother decided to return to her hometown of Floyd County, Virginia.
We arrived on a Norfolk & Western passenger train, pulled by one of the legendary “611” steam locomotives, in Roanoke in 1953, and moved into an apartment at the top of the old Hoback’s Furniture Store on main street in Floyd.
On Sundays, my grandparents took me to their church, Slate Mountain Presbyterian, one of the original “rock” churches of Bob Childress, the “Man Who Moved a Mountain.”
Slate was the church of my mother’s youth. It was also the church where she was eulogized at her funeral in 2012.
Not long after that funeral, Slate Mountain left its religious home in the Presbyterian USA denomination and became an “evangelical” church. The split came, primarily, because of its pastor and the church leadership strongly opposed gay marriage and other recognition of homosexuals in American society.
I also left the church because I could not, in good conscience, be part of a place where gays were, in my opinion, discriminated against and declared “sinners.” I did not then and I do not now, feel that homosexuality is a “sin.” It is a lifestyle choice. I have a first cousin who is gay. Amy and I have many gay friends.
I still have long-time good friends at Slate, some that I knew as a child in the 1950s. Several Slate Mountain members prayed for me in 2012 when a serious motorcycle crash left me near death.
On Thursday, a member of the Slate congregation — not one of my long’-time friends, sent me an angry private message on Facebook, calling me “Godless” and an “Atheist” because I had spoken out to others about complaints of an appointment of a transgender Christian activist appointed to a faith-based group by President Barack Obama.
Slate Mountain pastor Jeff Dalton, a former sheriff’s deputy and another long-time friend, publicly defended my right to an opinion and did not agree with the conclusions of the attack. I appreciated his support.
Dalton has, more than once, urged me to return to services at Slate. I’ve considered it, but the attitudes I saw in the private message and other comments publicly posted, convince me that stepping away was the right choice.
Ironically, a story written by Rachel Zoll of The Associated Press, topped the home page today of Capitol Hill Blue, a political news web site that I own. It is the longest-running political news site on the Internet.
In this deeply religious swath of western Kentucky — a state where about half the residents are evangelical — conservative Christians feel under siege.
For decades, they say, they have been steadily pushed to the sidelines of American life and have come under attack for their most deeply held beliefs, born of their reading of Scripture and their religious mandate to evangelize. The 1960s ban on prayer in public schools is still a fresh wound. Every legal challenge to a public Nativity scene or Ten Commandments display is another marginalization. They’ve been “steamrolled,” they say, and “misunderstood.”
Religious conservatives could once count on their neighbors to at least share their view of marriage. Those days are gone. Public opinion on same-sex relationships turned against conservatives even before the U.S. Supreme Court legalized gay marriage nationwide.
America’s divisions — right-left, urban-rural, black-white and more — spill daily into people’s lives, from their relations with each other, to their harsh communications on social media, to their decisions in an acrimonious presidential election campaign. Many Christian conservatives feel there is another, less recognized chasm in American life, and they find themselves on the other side of the divide between “us” and “them.”
For evangelicals, the sense of a painful reckoning is not just imagined; their declining clout in public life can be measured.
The turnabout is astonishing and hard to grasp — for them and for other Americans — since the U.S. remains solidly religious and Christian, and evangelicals are still a formidable bloc in the Republican Party. But a series of losses in church membership and in public policy battles, along with America’s changing demographics, are weakening evangelical influence, even in some of the most conservative regions of the country.
“The shift in the last few years has really been stunning,” said Ed Stetzer, executive director of Lifeway Research, an evangelical consulting firm in Nashville, Tennessee. “Nobody would have guessed the pace of change. That’s why so many people are yelling we have to take our country back.”
The Protestant majority that dominated American culture through the nation’s history is now a Protestant minority. Their share of the population dipped below 50 percent sometime after 2008.
The conservative Southern Baptist Convention lost 200,000 from its ranks in 2014 alone, dropping to 15.5 million, its smallest number in more than two decades.
The trend is reflected in the highest reaches of public life. The U.S. Supreme Court is now comprised completely of Jews and Roman Catholics. In the 2012 presidential election, the Republican nominees were a Mormon, Mitt Romney, and a Catholic, Paul Ryan.
“We’ve lost our home field advantage,” Stetzer said.
At the same time, the Bible Belt, as a cultural force, is collapsing, said the Rev. Russell Moore, head of the Southern Baptist public policy agency.
Nearly a quarter of Americans say they no longer affiliate with a faith tradition. It’s the highest share ever recorded in surveys, indicating the stigma for not being religious has eased — even in heavily evangelical areas. Americans who say they have no ties to organized religion, dubbed “nones,” now make up about 23 percent of the population, just behind evangelicals, who comprise about 25 percent, according to the Pew Research Center.
Christians who have been only nominally tied to a conservative church are steadily dropping out altogether. When Moore was growing up in Mississippi, any parent whose children weren’t baptized by age 12 or 13 would face widespread disapproval, he said. Those times have passed.
“People don’t have to be culturally identified with evangelical Christianity in order to be seen as good people, good neighbors or good Americans,” Moore said.
Politically, old guard religious right organizations such as the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition are greatly diminished or gone, and no broadly unifying leader or organization has replaced them. In this year’s presidential race, the social policy issues championed by Christian conservatives are not central, even amid the furor over bathroom access for transgender people.
It has come to this: Many conservative Christians just don’t feel welcome in their own country.
“The idea of what we call biblical morality in our culture at large is completely laughed at and spurned as nonsense,” said David Parish, a former pastor at Christian Fellowship and the son of its founder. “The church as an institution, as a public entity — we are moving more and more in conflict with the culture and with other agendas.”
Studies by Pew Research and other groups show about 25 percent of Americans consider themselves “evangelical. ” That’s not even close to a majority.
Yet the sect controls the legislative agenda of the Republican Party. Perhaps not so much now, not with selecting a thrice-married, womanizing Casino magnate and con artist under investigation for defrauding others as their presumptive nominee for President.
Protestants no longer comprise a majority of residents of America, but many of their leaders want absolute control of a country where the government is supposedly based on the will of a majority.
The fastest growing segment of Americans, studies show, are those who — like me — believe in a divine power but do not embrace a particular religion.
In late 2012, I lay in a coma in Roanoke Memorial Carilion Hospital. Some doctors felt I wouldn’t live. Jeff Dalton, the pastor at Slate Mountain, was among the first to visit me and he prayed with my wife. So did a Jewish rabbi, a Catholic priest, a Muslim cleric and a lesbian law enforcement officer. Agnostics and atheists also visited and offered support.
After my hospital stay, I visited Slate and publicly thanked Dalton and his congregation for their prayers and support. I did the same at two Jewish synagogues, a Muslim mosque, three Catholic churches and other places of worship who came to my hospital room or sent cards.
That experience left me with a strong realization that God is far more ecumenical than many of those who represent the varied religions they represent.
That’s why I believe in God but I cannot believe in any specific organized religion.