America’s New Unchurched Majority

America’s New Unchurched Majority April 7, 2021

The sun of the churches’ heyday is setting, and religion in America is entering its twilight era:

Americans’ membership in houses of worship continued to decline last year, dropping below 50% for the first time in Gallup’s eight-decade trend. In 2020, 47% of Americans said they belonged to a church, synagogue or mosque, down from 50% in 2018 and 70% in 1999.

Gallup has been asking Americans about their religious affiliation since 1937, and throughout the 20th century, their answers were consistent and stable. For six decades, around 70% said they belonged to a church, synagogue, mosque or other house of worship. This pattern held true as recently as 1999.

But in the 21st century, religious membership began a precipitous slide, and the “nones” boomed. The trend lines were visible in 2006, way back in the early days of this blog, when I wrote “Receding Waters“. Since then, the change has only accelerated, and now we’ve reached a momentous milestone. For the first time ever, a majority of Americans have no religious affiliation.

This graph is a thing of beauty:

Best of all, if you look closely, you can see the decline has steepened in the last few years. In 2015, 55% of Americans were members of a religious institution. In 2020, only 47% said the same. That means 8% of the entire population has departed their churches in the last five years alone. That’s something like twenty-five million people!

According to Gallup:

The decline in church membership is primarily a function of the increasing number of Americans who express no religious preference. Over the past two decades, the percentage of Americans who do not identify with any religion has grown from 8% in 1998-2000 to 13% in 2008-2010 and 21% over the past three years.

This nonreligious shift is happening across the board, affecting all genders, races, education levels, political ideologies and age groups. It’s not just that younger generations are less religious, although they are. Gen X, Boomers, and even the pre-Baby-Boom “traditionalists” have all become less likely to be members of a church and more likely to report no religious preference. It seems the godless young are deconverting their elders!

Other polls corroborate this stunning result, like one which found that only 48% of Americans say religion is very important to them. That’s also a record low, and also the first time that less than half the population said so.

There are some caveats to this. The new unchurched majority isn’t entirely made up of people who have no religious belief at all. Many have a religious preference but no affiliation with a church – i.e., they might consider themselves Christian, still believe in God, but don’t attend services. The “nones” who don’t profess any specific religious beliefs are a subgroup of this majority, and people who explicitly call themselves atheist or agnostic are a smaller subgroup of that.

Even so, this is a positive development, because churches and parachurch organizations are the nerve centers of the religious right. They offer up a captive audience for preachers who fill their congregants’ ears with a toxic brew of white nationalism, patriarchy, anti-democratic ideology and xenophobic fearmongering. They also provide a convenient venue for right-wing politicians to campaign and fundraise (in defiance of the ban on non-profits engaging in partisan political activism, which the IRS has all but given up on enforcing). As people drift away from the churches, they’ll be harder for the religious right to reach and harder for them to influence.

This is bad news for the Republican party, since they’ve staked their future on the shrinking bloc of white Christians. As white people become less religious, they vote more Democratic. Even the working-class, non-college-educated whites who’ve been the backbone of the GOP are being swept up in this trend. As I noted in December, the nonreligious shift almost certainly guaranteed Joe Biden’s victory and Donald Trump’s defeat in 2020.

The swing states of Wisconsin and Ohio are a case in point, as explained in this article by Eric Levitz:

Although both states have shifted right since the Obama era, the former has remained competitive while the latter has gone solid red. If one focuses on race and education, this split is hard to explain. Both states are heavily working-class, with nearly identical percentages of Ohioans and Wisconsinites holding college degrees, while African Americans comprise roughly twice as large a share of Ohio’s population as they do of Wisconsin’s. Thus, if you only looked at these two variables, you’d assume that the Buckeye State was the bluer battleground. But religiosity presents a countervailing distinction. In Pew’s polling, 58 percent of Ohioans say they are “highly religious,” which makes their state the 17th-most religious in the country. By contrast, only 45 percent of Wisconsinites identify as highly religious; only five states demonstrate lower levels of religiosity, and all of them are blue.

Other Midwest states like Michigan, Pennsylvania and Minnesota also rank in the bottom half of religiosity, meaning that they, too, will be a greater and greater struggle for the GOP to win in future cycles. Christian conservatives are trying to run up an icy hill, and the slope is only getting steeper.

There’s a massive historical irony in this. Donald Trump promised to restore a lost era of American greatness, and Christians, especially white evangelicals, voted for him in huge numbers because they believed him. They believed that he could bring back the era of their cultural and political dominion. Instead, he’s hastened their slide into demographic oblivion.

As Yale sociologist Philip Gorski points out, the symbiotic alliance between the Republican party and Christian conservatism – making a particular political ideology an essential element of religious belief, and vice versa – mirrors the church-state alliances that led to the widespread rejection of religion in Europe. When faith serves the desires of the powerful, ordinary people grow disillusioned, and many head for the exits.

To be sure, the United States isn’t the only country that’s secularizing rapidly. The rise of nonbelief is a global phenomenon, so American politics can’t be the sole cause. More likely, the decline of religion is being driven by broader and deeper causes (the internet and the Flynn effect are two possibilities I’ve suggested). The U.S.-specific factors are overlaid on this larger trend. That’s not good news for evangelical Christians, because even if they could break the link between religious belief and conservative ideology, those greater causes would ensure that faith will continue to decline.

There’s no way to know how long this trend will continue. As much as apologists want to proclaim that they stand for God’s unchanging and eternal truth, faith is nothing if not adaptable. It’s always reshaped itself to move with the times, and there will always be a hard core of believers who’ll never throw in the towel. It’s likely that religion in America will reach an equilibrium at some level above zero. But it will be in a much diminished state, no longer able to dictate public policy or control how the rest of us live our lives, and that will be worth celebrating.

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