For the first time in its more than eight decades of investigating the religious attitudes and practices of Americans, Gallup reports, church members made up just 47% of the American population in 2020 – down 23% since 1999, before which the percentage rarely dropped below 70%.
Why this precipitous fall and what could it portend for the future?
“The decline in church membership,” says the Gallup Report, “is primarily a function of the growing number of Americans who express no religious preferences.” In 2000, Americans who did not consider themselves religious at all made up 8% of the population. Today, 21% meet this description.
While there is obviously an interrelation there, I suspect it is more complicated than the former being “primarily a function” of the latter.
On the one hand, not being a believer can have as much of an effect as a cause. The child who is not brought up in church, or whose family is not as involved in that church as families were before, is probably less inclined to religious belief or to church affiliation. church as an adult.
In addition, churches are far from the only community organizations struggling to maintain membership.
In 1973 America had over 4 million Boy Scouts out of a population of 215 million. Today that number is 2.3 million out of a population of 330 million.
Despite three decades of continuous warfare, creating millions of eligible members, veterans organizations like the American Legion are in decline as older members die and younger prospects pass on their affiliation.
We hear a lot about social fragmentation and political polarization these days, and these numbers are probably relevant to these issues.
As a libertarian, I am inclined to see the white hand of the state behind all bad things, and I can make that argument here. The increased reach of the welfare state makes the charitable functions of churches and other social organizations less urgent, while the control of the regulatory state makes the operation of physical establishments more expensive. You can almost hear Mussolini muttering from the other side of the grave: “Everything inside the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state.”
But if that is part of the cause, it is far from being the whole cause.
It is no coincidence that the decline in the participation of physical groups is closely linked to the growth of fast and affordable Internet access.
In the past (i.e. the childhood of the over 50s) meeting other people with similar interests meant physically getting to a central location. Today it is (or at least can be, as one pandemic year has shown) as easy as opening your laptop or picking up your phone.
This phenomenon has drawbacks. We separate ourselves into echo chambers where our prayers are assertive and those who disagree are intrusive.
But it also comes with benefits, such as instant fellowship on demand, over vast distances, with others who share our interests.
We are in the midst of the most tumultuous social changes in decades, if not centuries. The churches, and the rest of us, are going to have to weather this storm and hope for sunnier weather on the other side.
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