While much of the rest of the industrialized world has become more secular over the last half-century, the United States has appeared to be an exception.
Yet evidence is growing that Americans are becoming significantly less religious. They are drifting away from churches, they are praying less and they are less likely to say religion is very important in their lives. For the first time in Gallup polling, only a minority of adults in the United States belong to a church, synagogue or mosque. (Most of the research is on Christians because they account for roughly 90 percent of believers in the United States.)
“We are currently experiencing the largest and fastest religious shift in the history of our country,” Jim Davis and Michael Graham write in a book published this week, “The Great Dechurching.”
The big religious shifts of the past were the periodic “Great Awakenings” that beginning in the mid-1700s led to surges in religious attendance. This is the opposite: Some 40 million American adults once went to church but have stopped going, mostly in the last quarter-century.
“More people have left the church in the last 25 years than all the new people who became Christians from the First Great Awakening, Second Great Awakening and Billy Graham crusades combined,” Davis and Graham write.
This “dechurching,” as they call it, is apparent in most denominations, reducing the numbers of Presbyterians and Episcopalians and also of evangelicals like Southern Baptists. White and Black congregants have left churches in similar percentages, but Hispanic religious attendance has dipped less.
To be clear, the United States remains an unusually pious nation by the standards of the rich world. Pew reports that 63 percent of American adults identify as Christian — but that’s down from 78 percent in 2007. And in that same period the percentage of adults who say they have no religion has risen to 29 percent from 16 percent.
If this trend continues at the same pace, by the mid-2030s fewer than half of Americans may identify as Christian.
There are various theories for what is behind the struggles of Christianity, and multiple factors are probably at work. One noted by Davis and Graham is that to many people the church hasn’t seemed very Christian.
When the Rev. Jerry Falwell dismissed AIDS as God’s lethal judgment on promiscuity, he conveyed a sanctimoniousness that in the 1980s and 1990s allowed much of the religious right to turn a cold shoulder to the suffering of people with the virus.
Jesse Helms, a leader of the religious right in the Senate, even suggested in 1995 that funds for fighting AIDS should be reduced because gay men contract the virus through “deliberate, disgusting, revolting conduct.” In retrospect, the most immoral conduct in America in the late 20th century was not taking place in gay bathhouses but in conservative churches where blowhards preached homophobia, embraced bigots like Helms and resisted efforts to counter AIDS — allowing millions of people, gay and straight alike, to die around the world. That is not morally inspiring.
Then in 2001, Falwell and the Rev. Pat Robertson suggested that the Sept. 11 terror attacks were God’s punishment for the behavior of feminists, gay people and secularists. My view was that God should have sued them for defamation.
The embrace of Donald Trump by many Christian leaders, even as he boasted about assaulting women, separated children from parents at the border and backed an insurrection, was for some a final indication of moral decay.
(It’s important to note that conservative churches had another side that worked tirelessly and without much recognition to address disease and poverty, as I’ve often written. It was evangelicals like Michael Gerson who in 2003 helped persuade President George W. Bush to adopt a huge initiative to fight AIDS worldwide. That may be the single best American program of my lifetime, saving some 25 million lives around the world so far. We owe Bush and evangelicals our thanks for that.)
The loss of religious community has far-reaching implications. Congregations are a crucial part of America’s social capital, providing companionship, food pantries and a pillar of community life. There’s also some evidence that religious faith is associated with increased happiness and better physical and mental health.
One of the most thoughtful contemporary religious commentators, Russell Moore, an evangelical who is now editor of Christianity Today, bluntly acknowledges the challenges ahead.
“American Christianity is in crisis,” Moore writes in his new book, “Losing Our Religion.” “The church is a scandal in all the worst ways.”
Moore is deeply critical of the way many evangelical leaders embraced Trump, and he is pained by church sex abuse scandals. In his own ministry, Moore said that he increasingly has heard from committed young Christians who are upset that their parents have been politically radicalized: “I was less likely to hear about wayward children going out into ‘the real world’ and losing their faith as I was to hear about wayward parents retreating into an imaginary world and losing their minds.”
Moore cites data suggesting that the reason people leave churches is not that they lose their belief in God so much as that they lose confidence in religious leaders and in the church’s moral leadership. He thinks faith can still recover; I’m not so sure.
Religious charlatans like Falwell may have meant to usher in a new Great Awakening, but in fact they taught millions of Americans to be wary of preening ventriloquists who claim to speak for God.