The Hollowing Out of American Religion

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(RNS) — Twenty-five years ago, when Trinity College hired me to create a center for the study of religion in public life, nearly 9 in 10 Americans asserted a religious identity. Now, according to Gallup, it's 7 in 10. 

Then, two-thirds of Americans said they belonged to a religious congregation. Now, it's less than half. As for weekly attendance, Gallup reports it down from 40% to 30%.

Those numerical changes may overstate the actual behavioral trends. The rise of the "nones" — people who say they have no religion — is to some extent the result of a shift in how Americans understand religious identity.

Take someone who told a pollster in 1990, "Well, I haven't gone to church in 30 years but my parents took me to an Episcopal church so put me down as Episcopalian." Today such a person is more likely to say, "Well, my parents took me to an Episcopal church, but I haven't gone to one in 30 years, so put me down as a none."

Today, in other words, Americans understand religious identity more as how they are currently engaged than as something ascribed to them in childhood. So the rise of the nones has partly to do with non-religious Americans now identifying themselves as such. 

Meanwhile, increased social comfort with none status may have enabled greater truth-telling in matters of religious practice.

Exemplifying the well-known phenomenon of people overstating their "good" behavior to pollsters, Gallup for years reported weekly worship attendance in the 40% range, when behavioral studies showed it was actually in the mid-20s. Americans in the 21st century may simply be less reluctant than their forebears to admit that they haven't gone to church in the past seven days — and that they don't belong to a congregation, either.

Likewise (for those seeking spiritual silver linings), surveys have shown that most nones profess a belief in God — though usually without having to say what kind of god they believe in. (One of the rare surveys that asked, the 2008 American Religious Identification Survey, found that just 27% of nones believe in a personal God, as compared to 70% of American adults as a whole.)

But whatever mitigations are proposed, there is no doubt that organized religion in America is shrinking rapidly and good reason to think that it will continue to shrink for some time to come. That's because, while all generational cohorts are less religious than they used to be, the youngest are the least.

Thus (by Gallup's count), 62% of the generation of students I taught when I first got to Trinity (Gen X) belonged to congregations in 2000, 57% do a decade later, and 50% do now. Among millennials, membership is down to 36% from 50% a decade ago. For both generations, the historic tendency of Americans to lock in their church membership once they get married and start having children has been reversed. 

Altogether, according to Gallup, 31% of millennials and 33% of Gen Zs are nones — and that's at the low end of current surveys. The 2019 Cooperative Election Study puts millennial nones at 43% and Gen Z nones at 47%, with the entire U.S. adult none population at 34%.

It's a fair bet that by midcentury, just half the American population will identify with a religion, one-third will belong to congregations, and one-sixth will attend worship once a week. The trends could reverse, of course, but as of now the turn away from organized religion is the most consequential demographic shift in our time.

That's because, in the wake of the civil rights movement, the Republican Party decided to build its future on religion. From Richard Nixon's Silent Majority to Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority, the GOP's Sunbelt strategy became a Bible Belt strategy, which used religion to push the Democrats into the minority. 

And a promising strategy it was, so long as the vast majority of Americans remained religiously engaged. Otherwise, however, not so much.

Consider this. Since the 2000 election, those who say they attend worship weekly or more have voted Republican by more than 20-point margins, while those who say they never attend have voted Democratic by similar margins. But whereas in 2000 the Weeklies were more than 40% of the electorate and the Nevers under 15%, in 2020 the Weeklies were down to 24%, the Nevers up to 32%.

Given that smaller proportions of religious voters are coming on line every cycle, you'd expect the GOP to dial back its enthusiasm for restricting abortions, fighting LGBTQ anti-discrimination laws and maximizing the ability of religious institutions and individuals to access public goods while receiving exemptions from generally applicable laws.

But of course, that hasn't happened. Instead, having abandoned its 20th-century dream of becoming the majority party, the GOP has dialed back its commitment to democracy and gone all-in for gerrymandering congressional districts and suppressing the votes of the (increasingly secular) other side.

As a result, the place of religion in American politics has become more important over the quarter-century that it has been my business, even as Americans themselves have been turning away from organized religion. Anyone who thinks this is a healthy development should think again.

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The opinions contained in this piece are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Interfaith Youth Core. Interfaith America encourages a wide range of views and strives to maintain a respectful tone with a goal of greater understanding and cooperation between people of different faiths, worldviews, and traditions.