The Nones, Like the Poor, Are Always With Us

This is a couple weeks old but worth linking to. Molly Worthen, a history professor from the University of North Carolina, points out that there may not really be any more “nones” — those with no professed religion — than at other times in history, but they may be “coming out” more and getting more attention for it.

Nevertheless, America’s rates of church affiliation have long been higher than those of Europe — perhaps because of the First Amendment, which permitted a religious “free market” that encouraged innovation and competition between spiritual entrepreneurs. Yet membership, as every exasperated parson knows, is not the same as showing up on Sunday morning. Rates of church attendance have never been as sterling as the Christian Right’s fable of national decline suggests. Before the Civil War, regular attendance probably never exceeded 30 percent, rising to a high of 40 percent around 1965 and declining to under 30 percent in recent years — even as 77 percent still identify as Christians and 69 percent say they are “very” or “moderately” religious, according to a 2012 Gallup survey.

We know, then, that the good old days were not so good after all, even in God’s New Israel. Today’s spiritual independents are not unprecedented. What is new is their increasing visibility.

I do find it fascinating that religion, and Christianity in particular, has thrived in the United States without any official church, while it has little influence in many nations of Europe that have nominally established churches. But I also think that Worthen is right to note that Christianity is popular here more as a general identity than as an actual force in people’s lives. Christianity operates in most people’s lives more as a background cultural assumption than as an active belief system, comprising a very basic civic religion without a lot of particular doctrines or dogmas.

Unfortunately, that cultural assumption has given Christian leaders far too much influence over policy throughout our history. And at every turn, it was the institutional church that was the primary impediment to social progress from the earliest days. The opposition to separation of church and state, particularly the ending of religious tests for office, came pretty much exclusively from conservative Christian leaders and churches. Same for the fight to end slavery, to give women the right to vote, to end the legacy of oppression of blacks in the South (and the North, to a lesser degree), and now to gain equality for the LGBT community.

But as more and more people come out of the closet as non-believers, that cultural assumption becomes less and less influential. It becomes safer for those who are Christian only because they use it as a shorthand for “I’m a good person” to leave that assumption behind. I suspect it is largely those people who have moved from the “Christian” category to the “none” category.

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