BENTON, Ky. (AP) — Pastor Richie Clendenen stepped away from the pulpit, microphone in hand. He walked the aisles of the Christian Fellowship Church, his voice rising to describe the perils believers face in 21st-century America.
“The Bible says in this life you will have troubles, you will have persecutions. And Jesus takes it a step further: You’ll be hated by all nations for my name’s sake,” he said.
“Let me tell you,” the minister said, “that time is here.”
EDITOR’S NOTE — This story is part of Divided America, AP’s ongoing exploration of the economic, social and political divisions in American society.
The faithful in the pews needed little convincing. Even 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.
Now, many evangelicals say liberals want to seal their cultural victory by silencing the church. Liberals call this paranoid. But evangelicals see evidence of the threat in every new uproar over someone asserting a right to refuse recognition of same-sex marriages — whether it be a baker, a government clerk, or the leaders of religious charities and schools.
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.”
Clendenen, preaching on this recent Sunday, reflected on the chasm between his congregants and other Americans.
“There’s nobody hated more in this nation than Christians,” he said, amid nods and cries of encouragement. “Welcome to America’s most wanted: You.”
For evangelicals like those at Christian Fellowship, 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.
Liberal-leaning Protestant groups, such as Presbyterians and Lutherans, started shrinking earlier, but some evangelical churches are now in decline. 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.
Clendenen said many in his church backed Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who had positioned himself in the Republican primaries as the standard bearer for religious conservatives. Chris Haynes, a church band member and communications professor, said he voted for Ohio Gov. John Kasich. Some congregants now support presumptive nominee Donald Trump — a thrice-married, profane casino magnate with a record of positions at odds with social conservatism. “It’s like we’re scraping the bottom of the barrel,” for candidates, said Haynes’ wife, Brandi, who teaches at the Christian Fellowship school.
White evangelical voters remain very influential in early primaries. About two-thirds of Iowa caucus voters this year said they were born-again Christians. In Mississippi, eight in 10 primary voters were evangelical. And they turn out at high rates in general elections.
But white evangelicals can’t match the growth rate of groups that tend to support Democrats — Latinos, younger people and Americans with no religious affiliation. In 2004, overwhelming evangelical support helped secure a second term for President George W. Bush, a Christian conservative who made social issues a priority. In 2012, evangelicals voted for Romney at the same rate — yet he lost.
This is a far cry from 1976, which Newsweek declared the “Year of the Evangelical,” when born-again candidate Jimmy Carter won the presidency and more conservative Christians were drawn into politics. Four years later, Ronald Reagan famously recognized the emerging influence of the religious right, telling evangelicals in Dallas, “I know you can’t endorse me, but I endorse you and what you’re doing.”
No issue has more starkly illuminated conservative Christians’ waning influence than the struggle over same-sex marriage.
Evangelicals were “all in” with their opposition to gay rights starting back with the Moral Majority in the 1980s, said Robert Jones, author of “The End of White Christian America.” In the 2004 election, Americans appeared to be on the same page, approving bans on same-sex marriage in all 11 states where the measures were on the ballot. When President Barack Obama was first elected in 2008, just four in 10 Americans supported gay marriage.
But three years later, support rose to more than five in 10. And now the business wing of the Republican Party is deserting social conservatives on the issue, largely backing anti-discrimination policies for gays and transgender people. Younger Americans, including younger evangelicals, are especially accepting of same-sex relationships, which means evangelicals “have lost a generation on this issue,” Jones said.
“This issue is so prominent and so symbolic,” said Jones, chief executive of Public Religion Research Institute, which specializes in surveys about religion and public life. “It was such a decisive loss, not only in the actual courts, the legal courts, but also in the court of public opinion. They lost legally and they lost culturally.”
Clendenen said he saw “a lot of fear, a lot of anger” in his church after the Supreme Court ruling. He said it made him feel that Christians like him had been pushed to the edge of a cliff.
“It has become the keystone issue,” he said, sitting in his office, where photos of his father and grandfather, both preachers, are on display. “I never thought we’d be in the place we are today. I never thought that the values I’ve held my whole life would bring us to a point where we were alienated or suppressed.”
Trump uses rhetoric that has resonance for Christian conservatives who fear their teachings on marriage will soon be outlawed as hate speech.
“We’re going to protect Christianity and I can say that,” Trump has said. “I don’t have to be politically correct.”
If culture wars and the outside world once felt remote amid the soybean and tobacco farms around Marshall County, Kentucky, change of many kinds is now obvious to Clendenen’s congregants.
Latino immigrants are starting to arrive in significant numbers, drawn partly by farm work. Muslims are working at chicken processing plants in the next county or enrolling at nearby Murray State University. On a recent weeknight, a group of women wearing abayas shopped in a Dollar General store near campus. Some gays and lesbians are out in the community, and Clendenen says he occasionally sees them at Sunday worship.
It was on the other side of Kentucky, in Rowan County, where clerk Kim Davis spent five days in jail last year for refusing on religious grounds to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples since the licenses would include her name. Gov. Matt Bevin recently tried to defuse the conflict by signing a bill creating a form without a clerk’s name.
In New Mexico and Oregon, a photographer and a baker were fined under nondiscrimination laws after refusing work for same-sex ceremonies. Daniel Slayden, a Christian Fellowship member and owner of Parcell’s, a popular bakery and deli near the church, has never been asked to bake a wedding cake for a same-sex couple but already knows how he’d respond.
“If a homosexual couple comes in and wants a cake, then that’s fine. I mean I’ll do it as long as I’m free to speak my truth to them,” said Slayden, taking a break after the lunchtime rush. “I don’t want to get (to) any point to where I have to say or accept that their belief is the truth.”
The problem, many religious conservatives say, is that government is growing more coercive in many areas bearing on their beliefs.
They say some colleges — citing a 2010 Supreme Court ruling that required school groups to accept all comers — are revoking recognition for Christian student clubs because they require their leaders to hold certain beliefs.
Some faith-based nonprofits with government contracts, such as Catholic Charities in Illinois, have shuttered adoption programs because of new state rules that say agencies with taxpayer funding can’t refuse placements with same-sex couples.
And religious leaders worry that Christian schools and colleges will lose accreditation or tax-exempt status over their codes of conduct barring same-sex relationships.
A 1983 U.S. Supreme Court ruling allowed the IRS to revoke nonprofit status from religious schools that banned interracial dating. In the Supreme Court gay marriage case, U.S. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli, representing the government, was asked whether something similar could happen to Christian schools, which often provide housing for married students. He responded, “It’s certainly going to be an issue,” causing a meltdown across the evangelical blogosphere.
It has come to this: Many conservative Christians just don’t feel welcome in their own country.
They say they are either mocked or erased in popular culture. “When was the last time you saw an evangelical or conservative Christian character portrayed positively on TV?” Stetzer asked.
“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.”
How to navigate this new reality? Most conservative Christians fall into one of three broad camps.
There are those who are determined to even more fiercely wage the culture wars, demanding the broadest possible religious exemptions from recognizing same-sex marriage.
There are those who plan to withdraw as much as possible into their own communities to preserve their faith —an approach dubbed the “Benedict Option,” for a fifth-century saint who, disgusted by the decadence of Rome, fled to the forest where he lived as a hermit and prayed.
There is, however, a segment that advocates living as a “prophetic minority,” confidently upholding their beliefs but in a gentler way that rejects the aggressive tone of the old religious right and takes up other issues, such as ending human trafficking, that can cross ideological lines.
Clendenen is cut from this mold. Now 38, he came of age when the religious right was at its apex, and he concluded any mix of partisan politics with Christianity was toxic for the church.
A congregant once lobbied him to participate in Pulpit Freedom Sunday, an annual conservative effort to defy IRS rules against backing politicians from the pulpit. Clendenen stood before the congregation and endorsed … Jesus.
He prays for President Barack Obama, considering it a Christian duty no matter his opposition to the president’s policies. But Clendenen believes few Americans who support same-sex marriage would show him or his fellow evangelicals a similar level of respect. “On any front that we speak on, we’re given this label of intolerance, we’re given this label of hate,” Clendenen said. (He said evangelicals are partly responsible for the backlash, however, because of the hateful language some used in the marriage debates. “I don’t see the LGBT community as my enemy,” he said.)
He uses the word persecution to describe what Christians are facing in the U.S., even though he feels strange doing so. He has traveled extensively to help start churches in other countries, and knows the violence many Christians endure. A map of the world is posted in his office with pins in the places he’s visited, including Romania and Kenya. And yet, he feels the word applies here, too.
He ruminated on all of this as he prepared to head into his sanctuary to lead the Sunday service.
Some good may come of these hard times, he believes. Conservative Christians who have been complacent will have to decide just how much their religion matters “when there’s a price to pay for it,” he said. Christianity has often thrived in countries where it faces intense opposition, he noted.
Preaching now, Clendenen urged congregants to hold fast to their positions in a country that has grown hostile to them. And as the worship service wound down, he issued a final exhortation.
“Don’t give up,” he said. “Don’t let your light go out.”