Why They’re Leaving The Church

Christianity in America has been losing adherents, and the loss has become too pronounced to ignore. Reaction to that loss has been one of the more obvious motivators of White Christian Nationalists’ prolonged tantrum.

It wasn’t all that long ago that the media was filled with reports that–while “mainstream” Christian churches were losing ground–that loss was offset by the growth of Evangelical “mega churches.” Today, the reports are that those Evangelical churches are also in decline.

The question, of course, is why.

A Guardian  article a while back addressed the phenomenon, and the purported reasons for it

Churches are closing at rapid numbers in the US, researchers say, as congregations dwindle across the country and a younger generation of Americans abandon Christianity altogether – even as faith continues to dominate American politics.

As the US adjusts to an increasingly non-religious population, thousands of churches are closing each year in the country – a figure that experts believe may have accelerated since the Covid-19 pandemic.

About 4,500 Protestant churches closed in 2019, the last year data is available, with about 3,000 new churches opening, according to Lifeway Research. It was the first time the number of churches in the US hadn’t grown since the evangelical firm started studying the topic. With the pandemic speeding up a broader trend of Americans turning away from Christianity, researchers say the closures will only have accelerated.

The report noted that a large number of churches are being “repurposed” into cafes, museums and shops, reminding me of my last trip to visit my son in Amsterdam, where  repurposed Churches seemed to be on every corner.

Here in the U.S. the pandemic has come in for a good deal of blame: researchers note that when people break the habit of Sunday church attendance, it requires  some significant effort to get them back.

But a more likely diagnosis is the decreasing religiosity of the American population.

But while Covid-19 may have accelerated the decline, there is a broader, long-running trend of people moving away from religion. In 2017 Lifeway surveyed young adults aged between 18 and 22 who had attended church regularly, for at least a year during high school. The firm found that seven out of 10 had stopped attending church regularly.

As the article noted, some of the reasons were logistical–prompted by people moving away for college or starting jobs which made it difficult to attend church. But–as the research also found–other reasons were more philosophical. When researchers asked why they had broken with their churches, one  of the top answers was that the respondent saw church members as judgmental and hypocritical.

About a quarter of the young adults who dropped out of church said they disagreed with their church’s stance on political and social issues.

A study by Pew Research found that the number of Americans who identified as Christian was 64% in 2020, with 30% of the US population being classed as “religiously unaffiliated”. About 6% of Americans identified with Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism.

“Since the 1990s, large numbers of Americans have left Christianity to join the growing ranks of US adults who describe their religious identity as atheist, agnostic or ‘nothing in particular’,” Pew wrote.

“This accelerating trend is reshaping the US religious landscape.”

In 1972 92% of Americans said they were Christian, Pew reported, but by 2070 that number will drop to below 50% – and the number of “religiously unaffiliated” Americans – or ‘nones’ will probably outnumber those adhering to Christianity.

Scholars of religion quoted in the article noted that the move away from religion occurred much earlier in other countries.

“Canada, Britain, France, Australia, New Zealand, the nones rise much earlier, the wake of the 1960s the baby boom generation, this kind of big, growing separation of kind of traditional Christian moral morality,” Bullivant said.

“What happens in America that I think dampens down the rise of the nones is the cold war. Because in America, unlike in Britain, there’s a very explicit kind of ‘Christian America’ versus godless communism framing, and to be non-religious is to be un-American.

That belief–that one must be religious–or actually, White and  Christian–in order to be a “true” American permeates the current White Christian Nationalist movement. Rage at the decline of that (ahistorical) insistence is fueling what I’ve characterized as a “tantrum,” leading to periodic eruptions of violence like that of the January 6th insurrection, which was striking for its numerous displays of Christian imagery.

A few days ago, a commenter to this blog noted that animals are most vicious when cornered, and that much of the rage we are seeing is triggered by similar perceptions of growing irrelevance. I think it’s a valid analogy.

The question is, how long does it take to tame that rabid animal?