A number of readers were excited by Glenn Stanton’s piece in The Federalist citing new research showing that US Christianity is doing pretty well after all. It’s based on a new research paper. When I read the paper, I saw some clear problems with it, at least insofar as the claims that Stanton made for it. But I’m just a layman who is not sure that he’s reading a social science paper correctly.

So I e-mailed Notre Dame sociologist of religion Christian Smith, who knows more about this stuff than anybody else (he’s the one who came up with the concept of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism), to ask if he had responded to the paper. For background, the new paper was written by Schnabel & Bock, in partial refutation of an earlier paper by sociologists Voas & Chaves, which found that American Christianity is on the same downward track as Christianity in other Western nations. (I cited this research in The Benedict Option, btw).

He replied that he had been to busy with his work to formally respond to the paper, but shot me a few lines. He began by saying that Both the Voas/Chaves paper and the Schnabel/Bock paper are correct, but show somewhat different things:

It is true that so-so religion is what is going away in the US. There is a pretty resistant strong core of “conservative” religion. I believe Pew has been showing this for some time.

Note, however, a few problems on measurement. First, Americans fib in church attendance survey questions. After the debate, I’m persuaded by about 25-30% inflation rate.

Second, some of these measures tell us very little, like “literal Bible.” That is no measure of orthodoxy or even conservatism. “Literal” is an early 20th C invention of fundamentalism sipping up to modernist foundationalist epistemology. Let’s not allow survey measures designed in the 1970s tell us about whether religions are strong.

That’s really true. Everybody at my tiny Orthodox congregation are strong churchgoers and believers, but if you asked us if the Bible is “literally” true, we wouldn’t know how to answer that correctly. Of course to us it’s the Word of God, not just a book of fables, but like Roman Catholics, we don’t read the Bible as a science text. If a social scientist were to take our disbelief in the literalness of the Bible as a sign of weak religion, he would be seriously missing the mark.

More Smith:

In short, the Voas/Chaves piece does average and not disaggregate, but I still suspect it informs us of something important.

The assumption in this piece [based on Schnabel/Bock] is that moderate religions aren’t all that important, only strong is what we should really count. That is worth doubting, perhaps. If you care about the shape of an entire culture and society, the moderately religious are a sort of swing vote. Like Bernie and Trump, a minority of “strong” religious may score points here and there but cannot govern. It’s just more polarization and sectarian defensiveness.

What Americans mean by “pray” is wildly heterogeneous. A standard measure with little validity. The only tradition’s answer to this I would trust is black Protestants.

Also note how the attendance was coded. Once a week is grouped with less than once a year. Gerrymandering. Is anyone really happy that that apparently only stable category is 7% of more than once a week attenders?

These survey measures also are blind to “internal secularization.” “Evangelical” can look strong by numbers but be dramatically corrupted internally by secularizing accommodation. Which is exactly what has happened there, as far as I’m concerned. Where does MTD show up on these surveys?

That last paragraph from Smith bullseyed my greatest concern about Stanton’s claim for the new research. Anecdotally, I have heard from many, many pastors, priests, and college professors over the past few years, all saying that the young Christians they work with have little to no understanding of what Christianity is. Their view of Christianity is entirely emotivist. For example, I stood in a hall full of Evangelical college students, and was told later by a professor that nearly all of them — churchgoers, mind you — only conceive of Christianity in a “Jesus is my friend, and wants me to be nice” way. When they get out into the world, he said, the fragile form of faith that they have — the MTD Christianity — is simply not going to be able to withstand contact with the post-Christian world.

Yet all these young adults are men and women who go to church and who profess to love Jesus with all their hearts.

One reader who sent me the Stanton piece asking my opinion is a conservative Evangelical youth pastor who has told me in the past that MTD is an almost overwhelmingly powerful force with his church’s young people. These are kids who go to church, and not only go to church, but also go to a conservative Evangelical church. They would show up in a survey like this as strong believers and faithful church attenders. But what they actually believe in is MTD. The only way you can feel confident about this kind of thing is if your measure of Christianity’s strength is the number of bottoms in the pew.

What are you seeing in your church community?