Are we losing our religion?

By Alan Bean

“About 19.6 percent of Americans say they are ‘nothing in particular,’ agnostic or atheist, up from about 8 percent in 1990.” That statistic is from a report released by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.  Most of the folks in the broad “None” category (68%) believe in a God of some kind; it’s just that they have no use for organized religion and don’t relate to any of the traditional religious labels.

And then there’s the surprising fact that the Unitarian Universalists grew nationwide by 15.8% in the past decade.  Who knew?

Meanwhile, Southern Baptists have been experiencing five straight years of membership decline and have now fallen below the magic 16 million figure they worked so hard to attain.

Overall, evangelical churches are still growing (albeit with less vigor than formerly) while old mainline Protestant denominations like the United Methodists, Presbyterians and Episcopalians continue a half-century plunge in membership and cultural influence. In other words, we are seeing growth among those who define God and the godly life in explicit terms and among those who don’t want to nail anything down.

How do we account for the significant growth on the liberal end of the religious spectrum?  According to the WP acticle, the “none of the above” people

are strongly liberal on social issues, including abortion and same-sex marriage, but no different from the public overall and the religiously affiliated on their preference for a smaller government providing fewer services.  If they have an issue, it’s that they don’t believe religion and politics should mix.

The “Nones” celebrate the separation of church and state because the Religious Right has become such a dominant force within the Republican Party. Back in 1972, Dean Kelley argued that conservative churches are growing because they place strong doctrinal and behavioral demands on their members.  The liberal mainline was in decline because their “can’t-we-all-just-get-along” piety gave congregants little for the heart or the head to feed on.

Kelley’s thesis is problematic.  He failed to appreciate that liberal Christians bravely embraced the civil rights and anti-war movements.  Liberal churches affiliated with the National Council of Churches played an integral role in the struggle for integration and voting rights and they paid a steep price.  In most Mainline groups, the folks at denominational headquarters are more liberal than the clergy, and the clergy are more liberal than their congregants.  Liberal religious leaders, for good reason, tend to be cautious, politically savvy, and just a bit paranoid.

You find far less diversity of theological and political opinion in the evangelical world.  The folks who attend conservative churches are overwhelmingly Republican, patriotic, anti-gay rights, anti-abortion, pro-military, conflicted about the civil rights movement, and big on free market capitalism. As a result, evangelical pastors can let their political, social, and ideological passions show without worrying about a congregational backlash.

Increasingly, evangelicals have embraced a “biblical worldview” which stipulates correct belief on virtually every subject of importance.  To be a true evangelical in the twenty-first century you must be a young-earth, evolution-denying creationist.  You must believe that global warming is a crock.  You must reject the claims of the gay rights movement.  You must oppose all forms of feminism and support “biblical patriarchy”.  You must favor all forms of gun regulation. You must support Israel while ignoring the Palestinians.  You must believe that anyone who has ethical problems with unregulated capitalism is a communist.  Because these commitments flow from an inerrant Bible, those who reject even small bits and pieces of this biblical worldview are bound for the fires of hell.

If you think I am being cheap or facetious, you haven’t been paying attention.

The Republican Party is running up against a sober realization: the brand of religion that drove millions under their tent is having an equal and opposite effect on a huge swath of America.  People resent being labeled as sons and daughters of Satan and wonder why so many apparently sane Americans are defending the indefensible.

In 2007, according to the Pew Report, Blacks, Whites and None-white Hispanics had an equal chance of being a None, but all the growth in that category in the intervening five years has been among White people (up from 15 to 20%).  Since the primary combatants in America’s culture war are Caucasian, the growing polarization in the world of White comes as no surprise.

In the course of my work with Friends of Justice, I spend equal time in White, Black and Latino circles.  It isn’t hard to find Blacks who are critical of Black Prosperity Gospel Preachers and plenty of Latinos reject the dictates of their Bishop.  But Black and Latino evangelicals are relatively free to adopt progressive views on important issues while, increasingly, White evangelicals are not.

The Nones are now the largest religious category living in the shadow of the Democrats’ big tent.  Here’s the breakdown from the Pew report:


The Democrats are almost equally divided between Black Protestants (16%), White Catholics (13%), and White Protestants (14%).  The number of Hispanic Catholics (currently 5% of the whole) should explode in the near future.  These folks have made their peace with a growing contingent of Nones.  While 9% of Democrats are still White evangelicals, this number has been shrinking for decades and, regrettably, this process will continue.  In the eyes of most White evangelicals, you can’t be a Christian and pull the blue lever, it’s as simple as that.

With each passing year, it becomes more difficult for progressive evangelical leaders to survive, emotionally or professionally.  Mark Knoll’s The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind remains the classic formulation of the problem, but a spate of new books confront the same issue.

Knoll’s Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind suggests that evangelicals should look to the foundational creeds of the Christian faith instead of taking refuge in liberal forms of Christianity which he sees as just as problematic as fundamentalism.

Christian Smith’s, The Bible Made Impossible, argues that evangelicals read the Bible as a textbook offering advice on every conceivable subject.  This leads to “pervasive interpretive pluralism”: Christians can’t agree about the biblical message because we are looking for answers to questions the scriptures don’t address.   I suspect the “biblical worldview” discussed earlier is a last ditch attempt to overcome this problem.

Last year, evangelical professors Randall Stephens and Karl Giberson created a stir with The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age, a book that demonstrates just how scandalous the evangelical mind has become.  “The DNA of the parallel culture of evangelicalism is wound from two different strands,” the authors believe, “an ancient religious tradition and a secular world increasingly dominated by science and influenced by forces outside of conservative Christianity.  The countless points of contact create complex and bewildering problems for believers, problems that have been with Christianity since its inception.”

Evangelicals and Nones are riddled with cognitive dissonance and have found opposite but similar ways of coping with the problem.

It would be a huge mistake to read the Pew Report as an indication that America is becoming a post-Christian nation.  Secularism and supernaturalism are both on the rise.  According to a 2008 report released by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 59% of Americans  claim to believe in a hell “where people who have led bad lives, and die without being sorry, are eternally punished.”  Among evangelicals, 82% agree with that statement (the exceptions being, I suspect, “enlightened” evangelicals like the authors cited above, and a larger group that rejects the hell statement because it ignores the saving blood of Jesus).

Secularists (who either reject religion or gravitate to non-dogmatic faith traditions) and supernaturalists (who inhabit a dark Manichean world where the children of light do battle with the children of darkness) are on the rise.  Most of us fall somewhere between these polar extremes and are annoyed, and occasionally disgusted, with the more outspoken adherents of both communities.

But let’s face it, our more nuanced (or compromised) forms of spirituality lack the marketing appeal of uncut faith and apostasy.   While the  folks with a simple message sell the books and pack out the auditoriums, we muddle along in our perplexity, giving Jesus and Einstein their full due and living honestly in a world of loose ends.

3 thoughts on “Are we losing our religion?

  1. Alan, How are you doing? I miss seeing you and discussing various theological subjects. This is a very interesting article, you make many very good points. In an article that seems to advocate the seperation of church and state, you seem to spend a lot of time talking about how the two relate to each other. At the risk of over simplfying things; I’m reminded of two things from the Bible: God gave humans free will. So, I hesitate to make any effort to limit anyone’s exercise thereof. And, Jesus Christ came to “fulfill” the law, thereby rendering it inconsiquential, at least in matters of faith. IT seems to me that much of the difficulty humankind has had with religion and government can be attribted, at least in part, to our reluctance to let go of “law” and live by grace, in faith.

    It would be great fun to discuss these things with you again…
    grace and peace, my friend, Craig

  2. It’s been a while, Craig. Two issues are involved in this debate: the Bible vs. the scientific worldview, and who’s in charge. People on both sides of the culture war are scared to death–normally of the folks on the other side of the battle line.

  3. Are you familiar with the idea that, now that science education and technology in everyday life (even in the USA) has penetrated the world, and that the separation of Church and state (the end of Christendom) both in the developed world, are here, that the Church is going to have to adapt, by becoming anti-Empire, and anti-Military/Consumer/incarceration-industrial complex, like the original followers of the way Paul corresponded with, and it won’t be the size or power that we’re used to at all?

    I’m more interested in the perspective from the mainline Protestant congregations that are doing well, that are healthy and active, not necessarily growing, but living. So I like Diana’s books on this topic

    This is God’s world, Jesus is the heart of Christianity, and doesn’t just save us from sin. God gave us the ability to discover, experiment, and become scientists–look at a toddler and you’ll see God made us all experimental scientists.

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