The De-Churching Of America
So, I’m about to board a plane for Baton Rouge, having had a great time in Nashville. As I’ve said here recently, you would think from reading this blog that I’m all doom and gloom. In fact, I met some strong, committed, orthodox Christians in Nashville, and saw plenty reasons for hope. I didn’t interview people; I conversed with them. Ergo, I don’t have a lot I can say here, except that there are good, faithful people doing their best in a situation that’s difficult and getting more so with each passing day. There’s nothing like meeting people like this and talking with them to bolster one’s spirits.
That said, we have to be aware of how serious the situation really is. My friend Damon Linker is a liberal, but not a sentimentalist about what the loss of Christianity in America means. Though he is pleased, generally, with cultural liberalization, he sees trouble on the horizon. Excerpts from his latest column, on “the great American unchurching”:
Americans are abandoning religion in droves.
That’s the clear takeaway from two crucially important polls released earlier this week — one from the Public Religion Research Institute and another from the Pew Research Center.
The Pew poll shows that since 2012 the share of Americans who describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious” has surged from 19 percent to 27 percent, while the share of those who call themselves “religious and spiritual” has declined from 59 percent to 48 percent. That’s a dramatic change for a mere five years, and it builds on longer-term trends.
The PRRI poll, which is far more ambitious, places the Pew findings in a broader context, showing that white Christians now comprise less than half of the population; that the relative size of the white evangelical Protestant, white mainline Protestant, and white Catholic populations is declining rapidly; that 24 percent of the country is religiously unaffiliated; that the share of young people (aged 18-29) in that unchurched group is 38 percent; and that nearly all of the growth in the numbers of the religiously unaffiliated has taken place since the early 1990s, when their share of the population consistently averaged a comparatively paltry 8 percent.
Add up the findings and assume current trends continue and we’re left with a picture of the United States as a country in which established religious traditions and institutions are in sharp decline — and therefore in which culture and politics are rapidly secularizing.
Secular liberals, rejoice — right? No, says Linker. For one, the support of Donald Trump by a majority of Evangelicals (and, he might have said, many other conservative Christians) comes from a fear they have of what will happen to them under the rule of the Democratic Party — which is hostile to religion. “Liberals tend to dismiss this as paranoia and whining,” says Linker — but he points to the vicious, anti-Catholic questioning Sens. Feinstein and Franken visited upon federal judiciary nominee Amy Coney Barrett this week, and finds evidence for conservative concern.
There is no guarantee at all that those who leave religious institutions and traditions behind will end up on the liberal left. As Trump’s strong support in the GOP primaries among non-religious Republicans attests, a significant number of the post-religious (especially those who are less well educated) could well end up on the nationalist alt-right.
Linker’s column seems primarily addressed to fellow liberals who are pleased by the unchurching of America (though he also speculates that the embrace of Trump by religious conservatives might undermine their appeal to their children’s generation). I hope secular liberals will pay attention. But I also hope that religious liberals and religious conservatives will be shaken out of their complacency about the times we’re living through.
This long Jeremy Paxman piece in the Financial Times is a good complement to the Linker column. It’s about “the Church of England’s fight to survive.” It’s hardly news that the C of E is in steep decline. Paxman takes a deep dive, though, exploring the details of the Church’s extremely dire condition.
[T]he Church of England is tottering from irrelevance to the edge of extinction. “Seventy per cent of giving to the Church comes from those over 50. Forty per cent comes from the over-seventies,” says Mike Eastwood, a former charity director now working as secretary of the Liverpool diocese. Unless congregations are replenished soon, the game will be up. Yet he refuses to believe the struggle naught availeth. “I believe we can turn it around. We’ve got about 10 years.”
Paxman’s piece is balanced, in the sense that he reflects on the good things the Church has given, and does give, to Britain. But I share Niall Gooch’s frustration with the piece:
One of the CofE’s (very) long term problems is social & aesthetic free riding, ppl who want the quiet churchyards & the architecture >
— Niall Gooch (@niall_gooch) September 8, 2017
The things that sceptics & the “Magic FM in the Chilterns” folk like abt the CofE come from ppl who believed in & sacrificed for the faith.
— Niall Gooch (@niall_gooch) September 8, 2017
Niall — follow him on Twitter — points out that you can’t keep the beautiful and historic things people like about the Anglican church without actually believing in Christianity, and not simply holding those beliefs in your head, but living a Christian life within the Church itself. Of course the same is true for French Catholics, who are living through the physical destruction of many of their churches, which have been empty or near-empty for so long that the government (which owns the property) no longer wants to pay for their upkeep. The same is true all over Europe, and will be coming true here in the US as we follow Europe’s path to spiritual decrepitude.
It doesn’t have to be that way. We are not nearly as bad off as Britain and France — yet. But it’s coming. There are tens of millions of these “free riders” in American Christianity: people who expect the church to be there for them when they need to baptize a baby, marry off a son or daughter, and bury a patriarch, but who give neither their time nor their tithe to the ordinary life of the church. It’s not going to work, folks. It’s just not. If living out the faith is not important to you, your kids will notice this, and learn from it:
The holy grail for helping youth remain religiously active as young adults has been at home all along: parents.
Mothers and fathers who practice what they preach and preach what they practice are far and away the major influence related to adolescents keeping the faith into their 20s, according to new findings from a landmark study of youth and religion.
Just 1 percent of teens ages 15 to 17 raised by parents who attached little importance to religion were highly religious in their mid-to-late 20s.
In contrast, 82 percent of children raised by parents who talked about faith at home, attached great importance to their beliefs and were active in their congregations were themselves religiously active as young adults, according to data from the latest wave of the National Study of Youth and Religion.
The connection is “nearly deterministic,” said University of Notre Dame Sociologist Christian Smith, lead researcher for the study.
Other factors such as youth ministry or clergy or service projects or religious schools pale in comparison.
“No other conceivable causal influence … comes remotely close to matching the influence of parents on the religious faith and practices of youth,” Smith said in a recent talk sharing the findings at Yale Divinity School. “Parents just dominate.”
Many of us know nominal Christians who like to think of themselves as faithful, but who don’t actually practice active Christianity. I imagine this is true for Jews, Muslims, and Americans of other religions. They have a misplaced faith that the culture will carry their children and grandchildren along in the faith, somehow. This is not true. In fact, exactly the opposite is true. If you are not actively engaged with your faith, as a family, then it’s going to fade in the next generation. Look at England.
And while we’re at it — hear this, religious liberals — note well that the Church of England and its Western counterparts have fallen all over themselves to liberalize, to no avail. Religious liberalism is a dead letter. It’s sterile. It produces no children, so to speak. True, religious conservatism has its share of problems, but at least there is a there there, if you follow me. As a reader said the other day, progressive Christianity is simply hospice care for a terminally ill faith. Liberal Christians don’t want to hear it, but the statistics are there.
I know a lot of you get frustrated with my sky-is-falling Benedict Option stuff, but it’s really happening, people. If I’m an alarmist, it’s because the situation is alarming. It calls not for hiding in the cellar and awaiting the end, but rather for seriousness, collaboration, creativity, and action. The institutional church is not going to save any of us from this fate. The church is not the electric company or the fire department. It’s not always going to be there, no matter what. The responsibility is our own — and we are running out of time.
I absolutely hate a happy-clappy refusal to face reality. I have seen what denial does, and how much destruction can result from people who ought to know better declining to recognize what is right in front of their noses, because if the thing exists, then they will have to behave in ways that make them uncomfortable. Seriously, don’t be that guy.