Why the slide in the influence of America’s churches?

GENE ASKS:

What one factor accounts for the indifference so many Americans harbor toward the church?

THE GUY ANSWERS:

Forced to pick just “one factor” among many, The Guy says fading cultural respect — for committed Christians, for Christian churches and for Christianity.

Begin with some hard data.

As Religion Q and A analyzed last Oct. 19, the collective membership of America’s moderate to liberal “Mainline” Protestant denominations has gradually fallen by a third since the mid-1960s, an unprecedented slide. These churches were once at the center of the culture.

During that era the Catholic Church continued to grow (thanks substantially to immigrants) as did groups of conservative and “Evangelical” Protestants, who now outnumber “Mainliners.”

But let’s take a closer look inside those trends.

On paper, U.S. Catholicism claims 77.7 million adherents, 22 percent of the population. However, that counts all those baptized as infants, many no longer active. A 2008 Georgetown University survey found that only 55 percent of those calling themselves Catholic say they practice the faith.

The largest U.S. Protestant body, the conservative Southern Baptist Convention, enjoyed years of expansion while the Mainline churches declined. But as of 2012 the S.B.C. reported its sixth straight year of slight membership decline (to 15.9 million). Worse, average worship attendance was down 3 percent in just one year (to just under 6 million). Baptisms of youths and adults declined in six of the past eight years; the 2012 total (314,956) was the lowest since 1948.

Other conservative groups still gain but that suggests future problems beyond just the S.B.C.

(Though Gene asks about churches, a 2013 Pew Research survey of American Jews showed only a third belong to a synagogue, 23 percent don’t believe in God, and 62 percent say being Jewish is mostly about ancestry and culture vs. only 15 percent who think it’s largely a matter of religious belief.)

Accumulating cultural currents deserve more attention. On Sundays, pro football commands TV devotion while local athletics and other diversions that have become socially prominent compete with worship attendance. The once-protected name of God is repeatedly uttered “in vain” (as the Ten Commandments phrase it) on radio and TV talk shows, whether conservative or liberal. Entertainment media ridicule cherished beliefs. (The Guy distinguishes that from lampooning religious figures’ follies.)

Not to be partisan, but years ago we couldn’t imagine the federal administration legally opposing employment freedom at a Lutheran school (a unanimous Supreme Court backed the Lutherans) or enforcing a healthcare funding rule that violates the conscience of Catholic agencies and some Protestants. Clearly the ground is moving.

Tobin Grant of Southern Illinois University developed an “aggregate religiosity” index that combines 60 years of data from 400 U.S. surveys on things like worship attendance, church membership, personal prayer and feelings about religion. In an essay for Religion News Service he writes in that Americans’ religiosity began to weaken starting in the 1960s, leveled off for two decades, but since 1995 has undergone a steady falloff that’s twice as severe as the earlier one. Grant calls this “The Great Decline.”

And what about Gallup?

Gallup’s daily tracking poll contacted 174,669 U.S. adults last year, and 29 percent were judged “nonreligious,” meaning religion isn’t important in their daily lives and they seldom or never attend worship (vs. 29 percent “moderately religious” and 41 percent “very religious.” That tracks with a 2012 Pew Research survey showing 14 percent with no religious affiliation and another 6 percent identifying as agnostic or atheist. That 20 percent non-religious total compared with 15 percent only five years earlier. A third of those under 30 were non-religious.

New York Times columnist David Brooks observes that “there is a strong vein of hostility against orthodox religious believers in America today.” Among elites, we see more intolerant skepticism on campus and in those “New Atheism” best-sellers. There was telltale fury against eminent philosopher Thomas Nagel (who’s a devout atheist) when he dared propose in Mind and Cosmos that narrow materialism cannot explain important realities and mysteries of our existence.

Admittedly, despite churches’ weakening stature the U.S. remains notably devout compared with Western Europe.
Gene presumably would want to know what factors underlie this “one factor.” The Guy is less than dogmatic about that but analysts have raised these possibilities:

* Beginning in the 1960s, young Americans more and more questioned all well-established institutions, among which the church is the ultimate. Debates about sexual morality have been crucial.

* Affluence plays some role, at least in allowing weekend getaways that don’t involve church. As recreational options proliferate why bother interacting with people at church, some of whom are needy or irritating? Non-religious community and volunteer groups likewise worry about fewer participants. And Baby Boomers’ purported self-absorption would work against absorption with God and God’s people, not to mention expectations to donate money and time.

* Political activism, first by religious liberals and later on by religious conservatives, alienated some members with different opinions or who saw neglect of spiritual matters, making the church seem more like a political lobby. Some ministries’ media escapades and fund-raising hijinks reduced respect and made church seem like a money-making enterprise. Scandals didn’t help, either.

For many attuned to liberalized sexual morals the church appeared old-fashioned (though churches upholding traditional morality have usually fared better than those that didn’t, in part due to higher birth rates).

And Mary Eberstadt may be onto something big in “How the West Really Lost God.” Her research blames the religious recession on the decline of the family with more unwed births, divorces and cohabitation. Religion builds successful families but, reversing that scenario, successful families build religion.

Others may disagree, but The Guy figures one aspect that has not harmed churches is commitment to traditional core beliefs — except for those unpopular sexual teachings. Simple cause-and-effect analysis leads to that conclusion. Those same beliefs persisted for centuries without causing the sort of malaise that’s gaining strength in 21st Century America.

NOTE: More on this in the next Religion Q and A.

QUESTION FOR THE GUY? Leave it in our comments pages or at his site.

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About Richard Ostling

Richard N. Ostling, a religion writer for the Associated Press, was formerly senior correspondent for Time magazine, where he wrote twenty-three cover stories and was the religion writer for many years. He has also covered religion for the CBS Radio Network and the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer on PBS-TV.

  • FW Ken

    My money is on the sustained prosperity of our society since WWII. Who needs God when you have financial security. Our think you do. I think history would support this contention.

    But the real, unasked question is whether exerting social influence is, properly, the task of a religion. It may just be a consequence of fidelity to the faith’s real purpose. Or it may be completely unrelated to the core meaning of faith.

  • Bg_Rdish

    My guess:

    The decline in religiosity has coincided with a fall in community involvement across a broad spectrum of metrics (‘Bowling Alone’). My hypothesis is that the social utility of religion lies in its ability to promote communal cohesion. As people have become increasingly less dependent on close communal relationships — due to widespread prosperity, more automation, greater agricultural productivity, less vulnerability to environmental factors, etc. — the utility of religion has declined. And whether the faithful will admit it or not, the majority of religious adherents are primarily interested in social utility — i.e., a club — not arcane and otherworldly theologies.

  • Bg_Rdish

    Problematic explanations:

    - Changing sexual mores at odds with religious tradition. The Christian tradition most liberal on questions of sexuality — Mainline Protestantism — has registered the steepest decline in membership, whereas the most conservative sects — Evangelical Protestantism, Catholicism, LDS, etc. — have seen lesser drops. Some of that is probably attributable to higher birth rates among the latter, but birth rates alone can’t explain the broader trend or the 30% decline among Mainline Protestants.

    - Political activism. Religion has never been completely aloof from American politics, despite the government’s explicit neutrality. In the Civil War era, the political activism of both liberal and conservative Christians was exceptionally frenzied and divisive, yet the vast majority of people remained Christian. In fact, it seems plausible that heightened sectarian political activism might inspire more steadfast religious commitment. And perhaps it has — on the Right. But the contemporary Left seems to have largely shelved religion as an organizing force (at least outside of black churches).

    - Financial/sexual scandals. Ever heard of the Borgia? ‘Twas always thus.

    - Decline of the traditional family. States among the top-quartile in the percentage of nonreligious residents: VT, NH, ME, MA, OR, CT, WA, NV, CO, WY, NY, RI, CA. Of the aforementioned, number with lower than average divorce rates: 8/13 (62%). Number with lower than average teen pregnancy rates: 10/13 (77%). States among the bottom-quartile in the percentage of nonreligious residents: MS, LA, AL, TN, GA, SC, AR, NC, OK, TX, KY, SD, ND. Of the aforementioned, number with lower than average divorce rates: 3/13 (23%). Number with lower than average teen pregnancy rates: 1/13 (8%). Were I to look at the rest of the developed world, I bet I’d find broadly the same pattern: lower rates of religiosity correlating with higher rates of family stability.

  • RayIngles

    You talk about “intolerant skepticism” “[a]mong elites”. Who, in your view, are the
    “elites”? What’s the definition of the term as you use it?


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