The Overstated Collapse of American Christianity

Fifty years ago, many observers of American religion assumed that secularization would gradually wash traditional Christianity away. Twenty years ago, Christianity looked surprisingly resilient, and so the smart thinking changed: Maybe there was an American exception to secularizing trends, or maybe a secularized Europe was the exception and the modernity-equals-secularization thesis was altogether wrong.

Now the wheel has turned again, and the new consensus is that secularization was actually just delayed, and with the swift 21st-century collapse of Christian affiliation, a more European destination for American religiosity has belatedly arrived. “In U.S., Decline of Christianity Continues at Rapid Pace” ran the headline on a new Pew Research Center survey of American religion this month, summing up a consensus shared by pessimistic religious conservatives, eager anticlericalists and the regretfully unbelieving sort of journalist who suspects that we may miss organized religion when it’s gone.

The trends that have inspired this perspective are real, but the swings in the consensus over a relatively short period should inspire caution in interpretation. One important qualifier, appropriate to the week of Halloween, is that the decline of Christian institutions and the weakening of Christian affiliation may be clearing space for post-Christian spiritualities — pantheist, gnostic, syncretist, pagan — rather than a New Atheist sort of godlessness. (The fact that this newspaper, occasionally stereotyped as secular and liberal, is proclaiming “peak witch” while The New Yorker gives friendly treatment to millennial astrology, is suggestive of just how un-secular the American future might become.)

But the post-Christian possibilities aren’t the only reason to qualify a narrative of secularization. Here are three points more specific to American Christianity that should be considered alongside the stark declinist story in the Pew data.

The Pew survey shows a definite decline in weekly churchgoing, alongside the growing disaffiliation of people who once would have been loosely attached to churches and denominations — cultural Catholics, Christmas-and-Easter Methodists, Jack Mormons and the like. But recent Gallup numbers indicate that reported weekly and almost-weekly church attendance has only “edged down” lately, falling to 38 percent in 2017 from 42 percent in 2008 — a smaller drop than the big decline in affiliation reported by Pew. And long-term Gallup data suggest that any recent dip in churchgoing is milder than the steep decline in the 1960s — and that today’s churchgoing rate isn’t that different from the rate in the 1930s and 1940s, before the postwar religious boom.

The relatively stability of the Gallup data fits with analysis offered by the sociologists Landon Schnabel and Sean Bock in a 2017 paper, “The Persistent and Exceptional Intensity of American Religion.” Drawing on the General Social Survey, they argued that the recent decline of institutional religion is entirely a function of the formerly weakly affiliated ceasing to identify with religious bodies entirely; for the strongly affiliated (just over a third of the American population), the trend between 1990 and the present is a flat line, their numbers neither growing nor collapsing but holding steady across an era of supposedly dramatic religious change.

That resilience should not be entirely comforting for Christian churches, since both their everyday work and their cultural influence depends on reaching beyond their core adherents, and inspiring a mix of sympathy and interest among people who aren’t at worship every week. Indeed, combining an enduring core of belief with a general falling-away could make the Christian position permanently embattled, tempting the pious to paranoia and misguided alliances while the wider culture becomes more anticlerical, more like 19th-century secular liberalism in its desire to batter down the redoubts of traditional belief.

But for now that resilience also puts some limits on how successfully anti-Christian policies can be pursued, how easily religious conservatism can be marginalized within the conservative coalition (not easily) and how completely the liberal coalition can be secularized — not completely at all, so long as its base remains heavily African-American and Hispanic. (The tragic racial polarization of American Christianity, in this sense, may have one positive effect: preventing a complete polarization of our politics between Christian and post-Christian coalitions.)

The possible resilience of piety and zeal connects to the second qualifier in the story of decline …

Measured by religious affiliation, yes, the millennial generation is the most secular in modern American history. Measured by religious attendance, they are the least churched of American adults. That much of the “secular young people” story is true.

But religious attendance ebbs and then flows across the life cycle, falling when you leave home and then increasing with child rearing and with the encroachment of mortality. And when the political scientist Ryan Burge recently compared weekly church attendance among today’s 20-somethings to weekly attendance among 20-somethings in the 1990s, he actually found a tiny increase: Church attendance has been falling among the middle-aged and early-elderly cohorts, but the typical millennial or Gen Z American is slightly more likely to be a weekly churchgoer than a Generation-Xer circa 1995.

[Listen to “The Argument” podcast every Thursday morning, with Ross Douthat, Michelle Goldberg and David Leonhardt.]

So any recent secularization may reflect the aging-and-dying of the more pious Silent Generation, and their replacement in the 60- to 70-year-old cohort by boomers, as much as it reflects the sudden de-Christianization of the young. In which case the “shock” of de-Christianization in the 1960s and 1970s, the years of boomer young adulthood, is arguably still more important to our present situation than the millennial “aftershock.” Boomers kept identifying with the churches they had drifted from, while their millennial children dropped the residual identification. But it was the boomer embrace of religious individualism that really determined the country’s spiritual trajectory, not some unique millennial apostasy.

Finally, the third qualifier …

This is not how the story of American religion since the 1960s is often told, because in terms of raw numbers of adherents the biggest post-1960s collapse clearly belongs to Mainline Protestantism, with evangelical Christianity and Catholicism looking similarly stable.

But divide American Christianity along Catholic-Protestant lines, rather than into a Mainline-Evangelical-Catholic troika, and you can tell a different story — where evangelicalism gained at the Mainline churches’ expense, keeping the broader Protestant position constant, while Catholicism was saved from a Mainline-style decline only by Hispanic immigration.

The collapse of Catholic mass attendance after the Second Vatican Council — the subject of a fascinating new book, “Mass Exodus,” by the British theologian and sociologist Stephen Bullivant — was more dramatic than any general Protestant development. The subsequent Catholic ratio of deconversions to conversions, of ex-Catholics to new ones, is a grim indicator for the church — worse than the Mainline by far, visible among Hispanic Catholics as well as whites. And after a long period of immigrant-supported stabilization, in the current “aftershock” it’s mostly Catholic mass attendance that’s been falling, even as Protestant church attendance bobs up.

So if you were inclined to extrapolate forward from American Christianity’s current situation, you might predict that the future of de-Christianization, its progress or reversal, will be shaped above all by what sort of Catholicism emerges from the church’s current controversies: from the agony of the sex-abuse scandal, from the revival of the liberal-Catholic program under Pope Francis and the embattlement of conservative Catholicism, from the theological and generational polarizations in the church.

Some of my fellow Catholic scribblers, confronting Western liberalism’s post-Christian drift, like to quote Alexis de Tocqueville’s prophecy that “our descendants will tend more and more to divide into only two parts, some leaving Christianity entirely, others going into the Roman Church.” Whether true or false for the long term, that prediction does not really describe America in 2019, where evangelical Protestantism looks like a stronger alternative to secularism than the church of Joe Biden, Pope Francis and myself.

But if you tweaked the Tocqueville line slightly it would make a better fit: Exactly how our descendants divide, and exactly how many Americans leave Christianity entirely, will depend above all on what happens in the Church of Rome.

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