For the first time, the Gallup Organization reports that membership in a Christian church, synagogue or mosque has fallen from 61 percent in 2010 to 47 percent. Meanwhile, those who profess no religious preference grew from 8 percent in 1998-2000 to 21 percent. And among those who do express a religious preference, the number of congregants has declined from 73 percent to 60 percent.
One reason for the empty pews is a lack of religious obligation. In his book, “The Lost City,” Alan Ehrenhalt recalls that in 1957, the Catholic Church in his Chicago neighborhood had 1,100 seats filled to capacity every Sunday at nearly “every hour on the hour.” A 1958 Catholic survey found 75 percent said they attended mass every week. As Bishop Kenneth Untener of Saginaw, Michigan, put it: “When I grew up you had two choices: go to Mass. . .or go to hell. Most of us chose Mass.”
Obsession with religious doctrine is often another factor. Many Catholics, for example, believe that President Biden should be denied communion because he supports abortion rights and gay marriage. John Gehring, program director of Faith in Public Life, labels this idea “pastoral malpractice.”
What has changed is the location of religion in the United States. No longer housed in the institutional church, it is frequently found within the individual. This has always been a peculiarly American disposition.
In 1968, Ronald Reagan was asked, “What do you think we are on Earth for?” His answer reflected a rugged individualism that eschewed religious establishments: “[R]eligion is based on the idea not of any mass movement but of individual salvation. Each man must find his own salvation; . . .every man [must] be what God intended him to be.”
Robert F. Kennedy, when asked the same question that fateful year, framed his answer quite differently: “If you’ve made some contribution to someone else, to improve their life, and make their life a bit more livable, a little bit more happy, I think that’s what you should be doing.” Kennedy’s embrace of the social gospel places a responsibility upon the institutional church to build a community of compassionate outreach.
Kennedy’s daughter, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, writes that when she grew up, “the purpose of our faith was to improve the world, not just our own lives.” But today Townsend claims that too often faith “builds walls to keep the threatening world out, rather than moving us in ever-widening ways into the world that so desperately needs our help.”
- A lack of religious obligation
- Obsession with religious doctrine
- A focus on self rather than body or institution.
Are there other reasons for religions decline in American society?