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Why Americans are abandoning the church

The Hill logo The Hill 4/20/2021 John Kenneth White, Opinion Contributor
a wooden table: Why Americans are abandoning the church © Getty Images Why Americans are abandoning the church

According to an ancient Chinese proverb, "A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step." Very often, we focus not on those initial small steps but on giant leaps, often undertaken by government. Think, for example, of Franklin D. Roosevelt signing Social Security into law in 1935, a giant step that changed the lives of the elderly. Or Lyndon B. Johnson's signature on the Medicare law 30 years later that did the same. Or the big steps contained in the just-passed American Rescue Plan, which, among other things, aims to reduce childhood poverty by 50 percent. Each of these big steps impacts all of our lives.

But sometimes it's the small steps we take that change the country in profound ways. In 2008, 56 percent of Americans believed that gay marriages should not be recognized as valid. That same year, 52 percent of California voters voted to ban gay marriage, even as 61 percent backed Barack Obama for president. Four years later, Vice President Joe Biden endorsed gay marriage during a memorable appearance on "Meet the Press." A few days later, Obama declared his position had "evolved." Today, 67 percent say gay marriages should be recognized - an all-time high. Millions of first steps led to profound change.

Today another series of small steps are altering how we live and act. 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 to 21 percent over the last decade. 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, Mich., put it: "When I grew up you had two choices: go to Mass ... or go to hell. Most of us chose Mass."

Among older Americans, religious obligations still carry weight. Gallup reports that 66 percent of those aged 65 or older belong to a church. But only 36 percent of millennials have joined a congregation. If a sense of obligation is removed, it is incumbent upon church leaders - from the hierarchy to the local minister - to convince those who have walked away to take a step inside. Often a lack of pastoral care, overt condemnation for those who do not attend or an absence of community causes many to leave.

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."

Some view a smaller congregation as a good thing, since it creates more harmony. In 2016, Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput declared, "We should not be afraid of a smaller, lighter church if her members are also more faithful, more zealous, more missionary and more committed to holiness." Before he was elected pope, Benedict XVI suggested that as Catholic culture diminished, the church would grow smaller. Indeed, it has. According to a Pew study, the percentage of Americans identifying as Catholic shrank from 27 percent in the early 1970s to 20 percent by 2019.

Complicating the issue is the tendency to stereotype those who do not attend religious services as hedonists who pursue an "anything goes" lifestyle. Twenty years ago, sociologist Alan Wolfe described the 21st century as an era of "moral freedom." Today, 67 percent of Americans say it is "not necessary to believe in God in order to be moral and have good values." But moral freedom does not equate with either a lack of morality or religious belief. Seventy-eight percent of Americans believe in God, and 70 percent say God will judge all people on what they have done. Moreover, 79 percent believe in heaven, 70 percent believe in hell and 55 percent say they pray daily. America remains a profoundly religious country.

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: "Religion 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."

It is reaching out, that sense of belonging to something greater than oneself, and getting out of our collective comfort zones that may move our collective footprint in a different direction. Unless there is more pastoral care and community building, the steps out of the church doors will continue to move the country in a profoundly different direction.

John Kenneth White is a professor of politics at The Catholic University of America. His latest book is titled "What Happened to the Republican Party?"

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