It has been scarcely a month, March 29, since the Gallup poll announced that the number of Americans who go to religious services is below 50% of the population.
2020 was the first time in eight decades of statistics collected by Gallup, in which “47% of Americans said they belonged to a church, synagogue or mosque, down from 70% in 1999.” Church membership had remained roughly 60% to 70% since the first survey in 1937.
This 20-year decline has been repeated and analyzed in many media outlets.
The Gallup study shows church attendance is declining among all denominations and age groups, with more younger people joining the “nones” and thousands of U.S. churches closing each year.
“The two major trends driving the drop in church membership are more adults with no religious preference and falling rates of church membership among people who do not have a religion—apparent in each of the generations over time.” (see news.gallup.com)
In my last column, I used an article by David Brooks to argue that politics and religion could support each other in the current search for social justice and the fight against poverty and racism in America.
Now it may be time to look at another dimension of the religion and politics link.
Some of the commentaries on this startling 20-year decline in church membership have made the point that as people seem to take their religious beliefs and behavior less seriously, they have transferred their fervor to politics.
Political affiliations are now often seen as ultimate, with the correct political position being as significant as being saved from Hell and earning Heaven were in religion. We are now taking our political views as seriously as we once did our faith, to the point of seeing our political enemies as heretics or demons who should be eliminated.
Many Republicans see Democrats, especially black and poor ones, as worthy of “excommunication” from our political system. That is what the voter suppression efforts suggest. Some Democrats see QAnon conspiracy theorists as not only ignorant but “deplorably” so, and probably irredeemable.
Shadi Hamid, writing in the April issue of Atlantic, noted that “as Christianity’s hold ... has weakened, ideological intensity and fragmentation have risen. American faith ... is as fervent as ever; it’s just that what was once religious belief has now been channeled into political belief. Political debates ... have taken on the character of theological disputations.”
“This what religion without religion looks like.”
That last sentence is a powerful warning to all of us. Religion was a moderating influence in our society, offering salvation but also comfort; all major world religions contain a version of the Golden Rule, “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” In current polarized American politics, especially on the Right, this has been modified to read “do unto others before they do you under.”
At the same time, American Christianity has itself become polarized, with progressive Christians questioning the emphasis on sin, judgment and exclusivity found in evangelical Christianity and doctrinally conservative Christians seeing the progressive Christian emphasis on social ills and inclusivity as making them the “leftist” wing of the Democratic Party.
The irony is that both of these Christian “camps” are themselves becoming more tied to the secular (non-religious) values of American culture, even as their churches decline in membership while the ranks of the partisan politically committed swell in number and importance. Some right-wing Christians waved their crosses next to their Trump flags when attacking the Capitol in January, confusing the sacrifice of Jesus with Trump’s attempt to sacrifice democracy.
Some Progressive Christians, on the other hand, are too quick to see all evangelical Christians as ignorant hypocrites even though Southern Baptists and Church of Christ members are just as visible in tornado, hurricane, and flood relief efforts as Presbyterians and United Church of Christ congregants.
If we must see life in fiercely partisan, “either-or” terms, perhaps we should draw the “us versus them” line, not between liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, progressive and evangelical religions, but rather between those whose actions show they care about others, and those whose actions show that they do not.
Maybe fervent caring is better than either fervent religion or politics.
Ken Wolf is a Democrat and a retired Murray State University history professor. He speaks here as an individual and not as a representative of either of these organizations. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editor’s Note: Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the editorial opinion of the Murray Ledger & Times.