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Are Americans Losing Their Religion? Belonging Without Belief

The following Public Theology article is written by Dr. Albert Mohler and was part of his August 28, 2023 episode of The Briefing. You can find the full episode here.

Part I: Are Americans Losing Their Religion? Big Questions Arise Over Secularization in the United States

Are Americans Losing Their Religion? Big Questions Arise Over Secularization in the United States Are Americans losing their religion? That's the way many people in the society are asking the question, looking at what we all acknowledge is the onward advance of secularization in the United States. That means the receding influence of Christianity in the society. Now, as Christians, we have a very different set of questions than secular observers will ask, but nonetheless, their questions are interesting to us, so are their observations. Now, for example, a recent book has come out by some Christians, Jim Davis and Michael Graham. The title of their book is The Great DeChurching, the subtitle, Who's Leaving, Why Are They Going, and What Will It Take To Bring Them Back? Sociologist Ryan P. Burge is also involved in the project, but today we're not going to be looking at the book and its argument and data.

Instead, we're going to be looking at an article that appeared as an opinion piece in The New York Times, at least ostensibly about the book. The author of the column is Nicholas Kristof, long a venerable author in the opinion section of The New York Times, pretty well-known demonstrating an interest in things religious and theological, but at a bit of a distance. The headline in his article is this, "Americans Are Losing Their Religious Faith." Now, that's quite a statement. We would think it would be important. Nicholas Kristof writes, "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."

Now, that's an accurate statement, at least in part. It might be a bit dated. The argument about American exceptionalism when it comes to the general pattern of secularization in modern Western societies, that really was a theory and an argument that reached the zenith about the 1990s, maybe the first decade of the 21st century. Since then, the data have been coming in pretty overwhelmingly indicating that the United States is not the exception, it's just like the slow kid in secularization. The United States is following now something of the same path, but on a slower scale, slower timetable, and perhaps with a slightly different form than what is found in so many Northern and Western European nations.

Nonetheless, Nicholas Kristof begins that way about the perhaps decline or end of American exceptionalism. He says this, "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." He goes on, "For the first time in Gallup polling, only a minority of adults in the United States belong to a church, synagogue, or mosque." He says, "Most of the research is on Christians because they account for roughly 90% of believers in the United States now."

Hold that for a moment. Let's just recognize that an influential columnist for The New York Times in the opinion section of that newspaper that you can talk about religious diversity in the United States, but 90 percent, he says, of those who claim some religious faith claim some identification with Christianity. At least that ought to be informative. That's not what you would think as you're observing the media or listening to so many of the current cultural conversations. Nicholas Kristof goes on to cite the authors of this book, Jim Davis and Michael Graham, as saying, "We are currently experiencing the largest and fastest religious shift in the history of our country."

Now, that's quite a statement, and we need to pause for a moment and say, You know, that would require some in-depth historical analysis. For example, you might argue going in the other direction that both of the massive Revival movements that marked the earliest decades of American history, the first and second Great Awakenings, it's be hard to argue that that had less significance, that those two movements had less significance in a relatively similar amount of time than what's being referred to here. No doubt, when it comes to dechurching, we're talking about a very important pattern. Christians should be very concerned about what we are looking at here. This does not come as a bolt out of the blue as if we haven't had these thoughts.

Here we have a pretty significant engagement with the data, and it tells us that secularization is proceeding in the United States, but there are particular questions that are raised here having to do with identification with a church and participation or membership in a church. That's what appears to be dropping off pretty fast according to this research. Again, they're saying that, "For the first time in Gallup polling, only a minority of adults in the United States belong to a church, synagogue, or mosque." That's a different kind of question than what we often get with people in the media or people doing religious research asking people if they believe in God. In this case, it's about belonging, not so much believing, but of course, as Christians, we understand those, too, are inextricably linked, or at least, we have to insist that they are.

Now, I mentioned questioning the two Great Awakenings, and the authors of this book directly address their issue that I raised. According to Nicholas Kristof, "The big religious shifts of the past where 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." The book's authors are quoted as saying, "More people have left the Church in the last 25 years than all the new people who became Christians in the first Great Awakening, second Great Awakening, and Billy Graham Crusades combined." This they call dechurching.

Now, I'm going to go back to my Great Awakening point. They add the Billy Graham Crusades to this, but particularly as you're looking at the 17 and 1800s with the Great Awakenings, the American population was a mere fraction of what it is now, so I'm going to go back and say in terms of percentage, I'm going to have to be convinced that this dechurching is actually statistically more significant than the churching of America as one sociologist called it just a matter of a couple of decades ago.

Kristof goes on to say, "This dechurching is apparent in most denominations, reducing the number of Presbyterians and Episcopalians, and also evangelicals like Southern Baptists. White and Black congregants have left churches in similar percentages, but Hispanic religious attendance has dropped less." Well, again, we just need to look at this and ask ourselves some serious questions. This dechurching, and that's the word these authors use, Nicholas Kristof has picked it up, this is, of course, not an insignificant movement, but as we look at this, we need to recognize a couple of things that play into the timeline.

Number one, COVID. As you think about the COVID interruption, you now know, and we can now all see that it fundamentally changed many habits and patterns of both work and leisure and entertainment. Just take movies, for example. Before we think about church, let's think about movies. People used to go to movie theaters at far greater rates than they do now. That doesn't mean that they are consuming less media. It does mean that they've decided they're going to watch their entertainment on platforms rather than going to a movie theater. Now, there's not much out there about a mass social movement of the detheatering of America, but the dechurching has to be at least understood in that context, but of course, for evangelical Christians who believe in the Gospel and a Biblical New Testament definition of the Church, this is hardly a comforting parallel. What we do believe as Christians is that when there is a great disruption like what we saw in COVID, and when there's an interruption, you pretty much find out where the more serious believers are. Once again, this data, this particular argument and the issue addressed by this book is not so much belief as belonging, that is, participation and membership in a church or mosque or synagogue. As Kristof candidly accepts, that means overwhelmingly churches, but nonetheless, you look at an article like this that appeared in The New York Times, there's a scare quote. That means there's a quote pulled from the article put in bold print that says, "Less than half the nation may identify as Christian by the mid-2030s."

That's fairly shocking in terms of the timetable, not so much in terms of the reality. I think most of us who are Gospel-minded Christians understand we appear to be becoming pretty fast a minority in this country. Even as a minority, there are a lot of us, and furthermore, when you look at projections like this, this is a notoriously difficult business. At the same time, it does us no good to deny the trends we're looking at, and so it's at least conceivable that the argument that less than half the nation may identify as Christian within something like the next 10 to 20 years, that's at least conceivable.

Now, as you're looking at this question, people immediately want to ask the following question, and that is, "Why? What are the theories as to why this is happening?" Some people are saying, "Look, it's hard doctrinal issues. It's the fact that the church is outdated in so many ways, especially as you look at conservative churches on LGBTQ issues." Or, you could look at this and say, "You know, the intersection of modern American Church life and modern American politics has been ugly and messy." There are people who say, whether it's true or not, there are people who say that their disengagement from the Church may be because of disengagement for what they see as politics. At the same time, those of us that have been watching all this for a very long time recognize this is, in one sense, just more of the same. The data here do point to an acceleration, but quite frankly, we've been hearing these arguments for a very, very long time. Nicholas Kristof considers this particular issue, this proposed pattern is so important, that he devoted very important real estate in the media world to considering this argument.

You also have to wonder, what exactly is the media class, for example, those who are at The New York Times, what are they thinking about this? Is this good news or bad news? This is where you have to watch something else, and that is that for many people in that class, the larger concern here is certainly not theological. It's sociological. What will it mean if all these millions of Americans no longer have the sense of belonging that they had, or at least said they had, in some kind of religious congregation when they have it no more?

That kind of argument is made clear in this portion of Kristof's article, "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." That's what I mean by this kind of sociological sense of concern about the loss of belonging in religious congregations, but Christians have to look at this from a Gospel perspective with a New Testament definition of the Church.

This is where it helps us to take a step back and consider how people are engaging these arguments, and what that tells us about the current concern or discussion we should have about the decline of Christian Church membership in the United States. Let's take a closer look at what's going on here. In this case, we're actually helped by someone else in a major American newspaper. We just need to note, once again, that was we look at this, there are really two big stories here. One is, what is the story? Second, why are the people in the mainstream media finding the story interesting? How exactly are they dealing with it? Whether you're counting that as two or three questions, then it's helpful to put them all together.

Part II: The Incongruence of Belonging Without Belief: What the Apparent Decline of Christianity in the US Reveals

The second article I want to reference also directs attention to the book by Jim Davis and Michael Graham, joined by Ryan Burge, The Great DeChurching. In this case, the author is Perry Bacon, Jr. He's coming from a different perspective in terms of his personal story, but of course, in this case, The New York Times and The Washington Post are pretty similar in terms of basic worldview. Perry Bacon, Jr., writes this. He says, "I am currently a None, or more precisely a nothing in particular," but he says, "I want to be a something." Now, that's really interesting. Here you have someone who basically writes about his own experience being dechurched or dechurching himself, and yet he says he wants to belong to something. He wants a name.

None, he explains, "is the term that social scientists use to describe Americans who say they don't belong to or practice a particular religious faith." He goes on to say, "This block has grown from about 5% of Americans in the early 1990s to nearly 30% today. Most Nones," he says, "aren't atheists, but what researchers call nothing-in-particulars, people who aren't quite sure what they believe." Perry Bacon, then writes about his own alienation from the Church. He describes growing up in Louisville, Kentucky, as the son of a father who was an assistant pastor at a small charismatic church. He says it's still run by his uncle.

He says he was at church every Sunday and it was a big part of his life. As the article continues, he writes about some issues of his alienation and the Christian historic understanding of the morality of homosexuality is at least a part of this, but then he writes, "So between early 2017 and early 2020, I went from someone who clearly defined himself as a Christian and attended the same church most Sundays, to someone who wasn't sure about Christianity, but was still kind of shopping for a new religious home and going to service every few weeks." He says, "I wasn't fully comfortable with the idea of vetting churches by their views on policy issues. I had never really done that before, he then puts in parenthesis, "(perhaps I should have.)"

I just underlined it for Christians. We have to have a theological understanding of what's going on here. Perry Bacon actually helps us because writing about the time when he was going to church, here's what he says, "I was never totally confident that there is one God who created the Earth or that Jesus Christ was resurrected after He was killed, but belonging to a congregation seemed essential. I thought religion, not just Christianity, but also other faiths such as Judaism and Islam pushed people towards better values. Most of the people I admired," he writes, "from the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., to my parents were religious, and I figured I might as well stick with Christianity, the creed I was raised in."

Now, I find it very interesting he used the word "creed" there because he started that paragraph by saying, quite bluntly, that there never was a time when he really embraced the doctrines, the truths that are revealed and confessed in those creeds. We're looking here at something that really turns out to be important, I think. Perry Bacon, writing in The Washington Post, turns out to be exactly the kind of person described by Nicholas Kristof writing in The New York Times, someone who clearly is very intelligent, very engaged on so many issues, someone who is fairly well-described as being repelled by what many people see as historic, orthodox, Biblical Christian judgment on LGBTQ issues. At the same time, also revealing that there really never was a time when he was doctrinally really inside Christianity.

In this case, he's pretty clear that his interest was belonging. Later in the article, he says he likes congregational singing. He writes with longing about belonging. He writes about the fact that secular assemblies that try to mimic church just haven't worked very well. They've been fairly well-described as failed experiments. I'm going to make the argument as a Christian theologian that belonging without believing was never actually belonging in any meaningful Gospel or New Testament sense. Just a couple of decades ago, sociologists, particularly in the United Kingdom, they were writing about what they saw as the pattern of believing, but not belonging. Now, Perry Bacon writes about his pattern of belonging, but not really believing, but when push comes to shove, he doesn't belong anymore.

He also, rather movingly, writes about his concern for his little preschool daughter because she is not having the experiences that he had. She doesn't have the experience of belonging, but he also writes about the awkwardness of eventually having to tell her that he doesn't believe what is being taught and preached in church. Well, you see, he doesn't want to be a hypocrite, but in this case, he also feels that something is horribly missing. That's one of the quandaries of the modern age. It's one of the quandaries of a culture that is secularizing. God made us in His image, and we will worship something, and we will belong to someone, to something, somewhere, or at least we will feel the ache to belong to something.

When you look at the absence of the Church, you recognize in this case that the Church was just defined sociologically in many ways the glue that was essential to holding Western civilization and its societies together. Now, for Christians, that can't be the main function of Christianity, but it's not irrelevant either, but now we're looking at the fact that with the crumbling of the social capital of Christianity and Western societies, there are people who really and seem sincerely to lament its loss. They also reveal they never were Christians in any Biblical since in the first place. My argument in engaging all of this is that the tighter the secular pressure comes, the more we're going to find out who was just belonging, but not believing, and once the beliefs become sufficiently scandalous, well, the belonging becomes very untenable.

Later in the article, Perry Bacon writes about potentially, say, going to a Unitarian Universalist fellowship, but clearly he sees something rather empty there as if he had belonging without any theology. He says he's thought about starting something on his own, just a "gathering of Nones." He goes on to write this, "But I've not followed through on any of these options. With all my reservations, I don't really want to join an existing church, and I don't think I'm going to have much luck getting my fellow Nones to join something I start." He then says, "My sense is that the people who want what church provides are going to the existing Christian churches, even if they are skeptical of some of the beliefs. Those who aren't at church are fine spending their Sunday mornings eating brunch, doing yoga, or watching Netflix."

We'll be watching this unfolding debate, and in coming weeks, we'll take a closer look at this book itself and its argument, but we clearly are onto something important here, something important enough to get major attention for The Washington Post and The New York Times. Something important enough to raise the issue of believing and belonging in the most influential opinion sections in the United States, even among the media elite. We need to be watching this, though, as Christians, understanding that for Christians, believing and belonging cannot really even be logically separated.

In closing on this issue, just think about the text we know as The Great Commission. It's found, of course, at the end of The Gospel of Matthew. In Matthew 28:18, we read this, "And Jesus came and said to them, 'All authority in Heaven and on Earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of The Father and of The Son and of The Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you, and behold, I am with you always to the end of the age.'"

This is about the preaching of the Gospel. This is about the preaching of the Gospels so that sinners will hear the Gospel, and hearing they will believe and believing they will be saved. The Church is right here, it's not just believing, it is also belonging. The Church is here in the command about baptizing, teaching, and observing. Christians are those who know that there is no way to separate faithful believing from obedient belonging.


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