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American Religion: Shifty 1

American Religion: Shifty 1

Robert Putnam and David Campbell, in their new book, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, examine American religion — but their concern is what has happened in the last 50 years or so. Fascinating study.

Here’s a major thesis of this book; they see the last 50 years of American religion in three movements:

The Shock was the 60s, and its major characteristics were sexual liberation (the big one in this study), drugs, rock ‘n’ roll, and the “God is dead” slogan. The major shifts occurred between 1969 and 1973, which they call the Long Sixties. It was the era when, in the stunningly insightful words of Joan Didion, “we had somehow neglected to tell these children the rules of the game we happened to be playing.” Young adults church attendance, one of the rules that was propping up both faith and culture, declined dramatically.

This led to the First Aftershock. The first aftershock to the sexual liberation movement entailed a substantial rise of religious conservatism as reaction formation. Student radicalism also meant conservative evangelical religion. While other Christian churches were on the decline (Mainline, Black Prot, Anglo Catholic), evangelicals were onward and upward. But the evangelical boom that began in the 70s was over early in the 90s.

Do you see American evangelicalism’s boom emerging as a reaction to the 60s? What do you think of the connections Putnam and Caldwell make to politics here? If the authors are right on the second aftershock, do you see another conservative, reactive evangelical boom?

Why the rise in this first aftershock? It wasn’t a theological shift in the nation. Demographics, made popular by Michael Hout, tells us some of the story but not enough. And the administrative skills and flexibility of evangelicalism were involved but they, too, are not enough. Evangelicalism grew because of its stronger moral voice. The Sixties alienated people morally, or threatened them morally, and evangelicalism offered conservative ethics in general.

Putnam and Caldwell see the major alternative evangelicalism offered to be in its conservative sexual ethic. The distinctive numbers are not with abortion but with attitudes toward premarital sex. The correlation is too high between evangelical growth and conservative sexual ethics to be ignored. It’s not a cause and effect thing, but it’s connected.

That rise ended by the early 1990s, and their intent is to explore why that happened.

The Second Aftershock. The 1990s were just as shocking in shifts in religion as the 60s, and the emerging leaders 15 years ago were clearly onto something. Anyone who says they weren’t is missing a key piece of the puzzle. The major Second Aftershock is the “rise of the nones.” That is, “nones” are those who say they are not associated with a church or faith. The numbers of those who say “none” when it comes to religion go like this: from 95-97% of Americans in the 50s to 93% in the long Sixties to — here’s the number — 75% in the mid90s.

The Richter rating of the Second Aftershock is greater than the Shock of the 60s.

Why? This is their concern: their answer? The overt and relentless politicization of the church among conservative evangelicals. [If this is true, we can guess the same will occur with the progressives in our current milieu. Why? Politics cannot replace faith; it doesn’t get the job done.]

What’s happening? Again, they trace a strong correlation with two moral views: homosexuality and marijuana. The increase of liberal views on both homosexuality and marijuana correlates with being a “none.” Liberal views, more especially now with sex and homosexuality, is leading to a disaffection with churches. As conservative leaders spiked in their opposition to homosexuality, the none group began to increase.

When religion got connected to the Religious Right, young adults increasingly abandoned the church. Perhaps American conservatives have lost the culture war because they fought to hard.

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  • Interesting. I have lived through so much of this. I remember Dr. Ted Rendall, a teacher and pastor at Prairie Bible Institute in Alberta, Canada, a wonderful teacher and preacher and really an intellectual (an amazing library in his house). An amazing reader, very humble. Anyhow he said back in the 1980’s that he was afraid “Moral Majority” would cause backlash. My words of what he said.

    I think we’ve seen that. We need churches and Christians who pure and simple are bent on living out “The Jesus Creed.” Who are in it together. And whose existence critiques the status quo.

  • Dan

    “Perhaps American conservatives have lost the culture war because they fought to hard.”

    So what was the real alternative? Should conservative Christians who saw abortion as equivalent to the Holocaust have politely stepped aside and prayed and only concerned themselves with theological or “ministry” concerns? I think not.

    “The overt and relentless politicization of the church among conservative evangelicals….Politics cannot replace faith; it doesn’t get the job done.”

    These statements assume an accusation, that conservative Christians in any way intended political action as a replacement of faith. I am quite sure that misses the mark. Theologically conservative Christians see the fall as a central theme in “earthly” concerns. Unjust laws are an outgrowth of rebellion against the character of God. But because we live in a democratic republic, Christians have a responsibility to be involved. Politics is a necessary evil, something most conservatives get involved with while holding their noses.

    I see Christian liberals as more likely to politicize the faith, because they do not merely voice opinions about certain issues (social justice, poverty, open borders, universal health care) but insist on certain government responses to them (the only way to help the poor is a government program, real concern for the immigrant must mean support for immigration both legal and illegal.)

    If the rise of the religious right was a turnoff to some, I blame the portrayal of the religious right by the media, depicting them as bigoted, power-hungry, stupid, backwards, etc. I sincerely doubt mere involvement in the political process led people anyone to conclude evangelicalism was not viable.

  • #2 Dan – Anyone who has been around the religious right since the MM was created knows they didn’t need the media to make them appear bigoted, power hungry, stupid or backwards. They did just fine on their own.

    Evangelical Christianity has not only embraced politics as religion but has baptized the whole mess because those with power perceived politics and politicians as a path to more power and a higher public profile.

    Clearly this isn’t true of every Christian but you would have to ignore established history to not see this clearly portrayed by well known names and personalities (see picture above).

  • smcknight


    I recommend you read this book by Putnam and Caldwell. What is standing out to me is the high correlation of politicization with young adult etc decline in evangelical church/faith participation. What also stands out is the moral robustness of an evangelicalism that appealed to the post Sixties crowd. These authors are shining lights on some social dimensions of America’s religious history.

    I’m with you on abortion, but the issue wasn’t simply speaking against abortion and no one is saying folks shouldn’t get involved. It was too deep of a commitment to one political party. That’s what this book is exploring: politicization of faith. Also, their conclusion is that abortion wasn’t as serious a crisis issue as the sexual liberation. I don’t know about that one, but I do know that racial issues were the earliest precipitation factors. (Bob Jones University case was the one singular precipitating issue.)

    By the way, the “fought too hard” line is from the book not me. I would have said “fought the wrong way.” I did not say “replacement” and would not see it that way.

  • smcknight

    Anyone know what creates that little square at the end of the title to Putnam and Caldwell’s book?

  • Jonathan

    That square is a 1×1 image from The reason it appears as a square is that there’s a CSS style which applies border and padding to all images inside the entry.

  • Ben

    Scot, are the percentages you listed for people who don’t identify as nones? It seems like you’re saying the opposite.

  • smcknight

    Thanks Jonathan.

  • MattR

    Glad you’re reviewing this one Scot… seems like an important, and timely book!

    “Do you see American evangelicalism’s boom emerging as a reaction to the 60s?”

    Yes. Though too young to have been there, this seems to be a lot of what I heard growing up in the evangelical world… it was a reaction and battle against the 60’s ‘liberals’ and ‘un-Christian morality.’ Up though the 90s at least, it seemed evangelicals were still fighting that culture war.

    “do you see another conservative, reactive evangelical boom?”

    Basically, no.

    I think the authors are dead on about the ‘second aftershock.’ This IS what many of us who were just coming into Christian leadership 10-15 years ago were saying… evangelicals had merged culture/politics with theology, and some of the very young adults they were trying to protect and save from a so-called 60s moral decline didn’t buy it.

    The biggest issue for me… power. We had fought a culture war, but forgot the spiritual one… ie: loving our neighbors, and passing on the core of the faith to the next generation!

    Another conservative reactive boom?… no. I think the “younger evangelicals” (Webber’s term) have a completely different cultural mindset. It’s what many of us were saying back in the early emerging/missional days… this is not about ‘relevance,’ nor even strictly generational… this is a profound cultural shift.

  • scotmcknight

    Ben, those are declining numbers of those who do associate with a religion. The nones are the remaining.

  • Joel

    OK, so why did you put a photo of Jim Wallis here? Don’t see the obvious connection.

  • We are in a precarious time. We don’t have to look very far(Europe) to see how the church declined around progressive civil development. One of the big differences is that the church in Europe had become state sponsored in many places. That is the essential difference in the US and why there is even a possibility of renewal. The sentimentalism that lurch’s so strongly in the boomers to return to what they viewed as a golden age of the church just isn’t going to happen. I wouldn’t be looking for anymore aftershocks. I’d look for relief efforts. The damage has been done. After the relief efforts have run their course then we will need to put our eyes on “new developmental models”. The church isn’t going to look like it ever has before.

  • smcknight


    Because of this paragraph I have Double Jim: Dobson and Wallis.

    Why? This is their concern: their answer? The overt and relentless politicization of the church among conservative evangelicals. [If this is true, we can guess the same will occur with the progressives in our current milieu. Why? Politics cannot replace faith; it doesn’t get the job done.]

  • Joel

    Ok, I see now. I just didn’t think that those who consider themselves conservative evangelicals would also align themselves with Wallis.

  • BrianH

    @14 Joel — true, but perhaps it is a suggestion that Wallis has in his own way, made too close a connection to political power from the opposite side.

  • Pat

    Seems to me when the Church connects or aligns itself with anything than Jesus Christ, it’s in for trouble. Jesus’ chief agenda item was to seek and save the lost. He didn’t come for the well, but for the sick. When we start adding to that agenda or taking away from it, that’s when we start seeing the decline in numbers. People know authenticity when they see it and anything that seeks to add backbreaking rules versus the dispensing of life-giving water will drive them away.

  • Andrew

    This is also an example of a correlation and not necessarily a causation. Yes it is true that those with more liberal views on sexuality might also be one of the nones but it doesn’t mean that either one is causing the other.

  • I think that Jimmy Carter’s quote fits very nicely here:

    Evangelical Christianity has been hijacked by people who would give Jesus himself the boot if He knocked on their door.

    I do think that with how the “right” has fought the battle has caused many to exit the doors of the church.

  • Jeremy

    Isn’t this basically the same thing with Samuel Wilberforce back in the late 1800’s? The church fought so hard against evolution that it caused a massive falling away and split of liberal and conservative theologies? Is the issue with the second shock that we decided to fight tooth and nail instead of engage?

    “Compromise” was a bad word for me growing up, and I never quite understood the insane number of things that got placed under its umbrella. One of the things that initially drove me away was that humility and tolerance (in the true sense of the word, not the permissive sense) was viewed as compromise and therefore unacceptable.

  • Jeremy

    that should have said “engage with humility.”

  • What I think Putnam & Campbell have succeeded in illuminating – I need to have the book in hand to see whether they purposefully illuminated in the way I’m seeing it! (probably not, I’d guess!) – is that the American Church became or has become primarily reactionary to major cultural shifts. Those shifts probably started off with tremors, which too many complacent church clergy & members could ignore or brush aside.

    As their cocoon of family/church/nation was shattered, first with the 60s “sexual” revolution, then VietNam & Watergate (I’d surmise), then the selfishness & financial shenanigans which (IMO & from my perspective working in Wall St, then) began in the 80s, etc., the church reacted vehemently to try to yank back all those fleeing from its hallowed halls & ethical boundaries. Perhaps it’s just my POV that the moralizing and politicizing come from the same source of panicked reactionary clergy concerned over loss of folk (loss of income, too).

    What if we look at this metaphorically the way Jesus did. If all those running away from the churches were the prodigal kids, what would have happened if the father had run screaming, cursing & threatening hell-fire after his wayward children? What if the father had marshaled all his connections to try to pass laws & build fences preventing his children from rebelling & running away? But, the father in Jesus’ parable didn’t react like that. He knew his house was in order, and that there was no reason or lack of love which would cause his son to leave. While it broke his heart, he knew his son left because of his own willfulness.

    OTOH, in our situation, many churches & their families did not have their houses “in order”, filled with love, wisdom & maturing as disciples in Christ. The reactionary moralizing & panicked politicizing remind me of the frustration many (most?) of us can feel as parents when we see children choosing poorly, and we want to stop ’em in any human ways we can think of.

    Of course, an opposing parental reaction to the frantic reassertion of boundaries could be seen in some churches who may have let the boundaries fall away over time, allowing them to be redrawn by those running away or rebelling.

    Instead, we need to breathe and pray deeply, and ensure that our Body/family is “in order.” Only God can change their hearts, while we love, speak truth (ok, so sometimes we yelled it, too, and need to repent), and wait patiently (after we get that Holy Spirit grip on our collars/selves). Perhaps when we calm down, re-focus ourselves on God and living out the reign of God in our lives, then we will see God’s work in those neighbors & family & prodigals whom we love.

    If those who rebelled & ran away from the church come back looking for God’s reign (moral robustness, etc.) and still don’t find it within our members or find an imbalanced gospel, they could despair of or misunderstand God completely.

    I guess I’m tracing back further than your question began, Scot. ISTM the 60’s could be the reaction of a widespread disenchantment churches and families which professed but didn’t know & reveal Christ in their lives. There’s nothing quite like hypocrisy to enrage young people.

  • too long. sorry!

  • JAYG

    I heard Rick Perry Governor of Texas, no for a third term, on NPR, he perfectly sums up what’s so irrational on the right. First he says, ‘If you want to smoke pot or gay marry you can go to California for that.’ In his next breath he says, ‘Here in Texas we believe in freedom.’ He goes on to explain his idea of freedom includes no government interference! (By the EPA and Health Care, etc.) The interviewer at NPR does nothing to point out the ridiculous contradiction in those two statements! In short he is saying we believe in the type of government interference we favor and that is our idea of freedom.

    Second the NPR interviewer reminds him that Texas is among the worst of 50 states in several areas such as lowest high school graduation rates, highest incarceration rates, highest poverty rate and fewest covered by health insurance. Perry says, ‘Yes we have our challenges, but they must be addressed by improving our economy and the way we are going to do that is by lowering taxes.’ The interviewer never asks, ‘Well Gov Perry, how are you expect to have to address these problems by having less and less public funds to do so with.’