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 However, that counts all those baptized as infants, many no longer active.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?