Part II of America’s church slide: What to do?

EDITOR’S NOTE: Part I of “Why the slide in the influence of America’s churches?”

GENE ASKS:

What one factor more than any other would draw more people into the church?

THE GUY ANSWERS:

In the previous Religion Q and A, Gene asked: “What one factor accounts for the indifference so many Americans harbor toward the church?” The Guy nominated “fading cultural respect,” scanned what observers think about causes, and covered mostly hard church trends, not soft “spiritual but not religious” sentiments.

A timely aside on religious identity: To coincide with the winter Olympics, Pew Research noted that Russians who call themselves Orthodox Christians have jumped from 31 percent to 72 percent of the population since the 1991 collapse of the atheistic Soviet regime. During the same years, believers in God increased from 38 percent to 56 percent. Do more Russians believe in Orthodoxy than in God? Yet a paltry 7 percent of Russians say they attend worship at least once a month, a small increase from 2 percent in 1991. Call that posthumous victory for Lenin and Stalin.

Back to how American churches can rebuild cultural stature. In addition to the statistics in our previous item, many Americans are spiritually and morally confused, grumpy about leaders and future prospects, and hostile toward those they disagree with. Social media, self-absorption and secular diversions supplant face-to-face fellowship that was traditionally a major reason why church involvement fostered well-being. The success of individual congregations helps stem the tide, but no wonder church strategists’ brows are furrowed and pastors feel on the defensive.
The Guy’s answer to Gene is tentative, speculative, and may even sound like preaching, but these are journalistic hunches based on news reports and social research across many years.

Gallup’s longtime polling on what Americans think about various professionals is especially significant.

As recently as 2001, 64 percent of Americans rated the clergy (all faiths) either “high” or “very high” in “honesty and ethical standards.” But a dozen years later less than half (47 percent) express such moral esteem. The good news? The clergy fare better than auto mechanics, bankers, lawyers, members of Congress — and fellow news reporters.

Perhaps that dismal 47 percent reflects the accumulating impact of three decades of incessant sexual molestation scandals involving Catholic priests and hapless bishops. Protestant personalities have also been mired in scandal and folly, and non-religious groups likewise contribute to the sour mood about the cultural establishment. But no doubt those errant Catholics did incalculable damage to the reputation of their huge church and its clergy (even though nominal membership is still growing). It remains to be seen whether Pope Francis can manage a turnaround.

A spillover effect very likely reduced regard also for non-Catholic churches and clergy. In the same way, one Muslim faction’s terrorism and murder of innocents in the name of God has very likely harmed their faith’s long-term moral credibility and also fosters suspicions toward devout religion of any type.

U.S. Protestantism is weakened by perennial acrimony within and between churches, mostly over the sprawling topic of Bible interpretation. In particular, the argument over homosexual marriages and partners evidently harms both sides. Why?

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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?

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NYT: The Obamas and Christmas (no church)

Christmas comes but once a year, the old saying goes. It’s a federal holiday as well as a religious observance, so it’s understandable that any president of the United States, regardless of faith, would take the day off. At the same time, most every POTUS has been a Christian of one stripe or another (questions exist about Jefferson and Lincoln, but that’s for another time).

President Barack Obama professes Christian faith as well, something noted here just the other day.

But personal faith and public (or semi-public) practice are often two different things. Ronald Reagan’s non-attendance at church (not to mention his wife’s reported dabblings in astrology) drew barbs from some political opponents and pundits. George W. Bush often hosted worship services at Camp David but was not a frequent churchgoer when in Washington. (That said, Bush averaged 15 visits to churches each year, versus 3.6 per annum for Obama.)

The New York Times caught this, and jumps in on what the president did — and didn’t — do during his current, Christmastide sojourn in Hawaii:

HONOLULU — President Obama celebrated a low-key Christmas in Hawaii this year. He sang carols, opened presents with his family, and visited a nearby military base to wish the troops “Mele Kalikimaka” — the Hawaiian phrase meaning “Merry Christmas.”

But the one thing the president and his family did not do — something they have rarely done since he entered the White House — was attend Christmas church services.

“He has not gone to church, hardly at all, as president,” said Gary Scott Smith, the author of “Faith and the Presidency: From George Washington to George W. Bush,” adding that it is “very unusual for a president not to attend” Christmas services.

Historically, watching the nation’s first family head to church dressed in their Sunday best, especially around the holiday season, was something of a ritual. Yet Mr. Obama’s faith is a more complicated, more private, and perhaps — religious and presidential historians say — a more inclusive affair.

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