America’s church slide: Why?

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 October 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 take a closer look.

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 However, that counts all those baptized as infants, many no longer active.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 declined. But as of 2012 the S.B.C. reported its sixth straight year of 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.

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. He writes in Religion News Service 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.”

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.

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 usually fared better than those that didn’t).

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.

More on this in the next Religion Q and A.

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.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X