One of the biggest cultural megatrends happening in America today also happens to be the least-reported: American Christianity is collapsing.
While 61% of the white population 65 and older identifies as mainline Protestant or Catholic (and 26% of those as “evangelical”), only 22% of those 18-29 do. There is a steady and sustained shift towards identification as “Nones” – respondents who report no affinity for a given faith, or indeed, any faith at all.
This tracks with a lot of prior research that demonstrates that younger Americans are increasingly turning away from traditionally organized religion. And while many of these people do report being “spiritual” in less traditional ways (professing belief in an abstract higher power and/or praying daily, for example), more than a third do not. In fact, there’s research that suggests that as many as 10-20% of Americans are actually atheists, and simply eschew the term because of stigma.
It’s not axe-grinding to observe that the core of those self-professed Christians who remain are, on the whole, generally more ideological than in the past. Indeed, the term “Christian” itself has taken on a distinct and recognizably political tone in the culture, rather than as primarily a rubric of moral guidance. A perfect example of this is the arc between two generations of leadership in American Christianity: the late reverends Billy Graham (“America’s pastor”) and Jerry Falwell, and their respective sons.
However you feel about these men, they were both unarguably two of the most influential leaders in American Christianity over the last fifty years. While Reverend Graham was not apolitical, he was not a nakedly partisan bomb-thrower like Falwell. Graham cultivated a brand of blandly inspirational, love-your-brother Christianity, while Falwell was one of the early pioneers of Christian-branded hard-right politics. Both men left behind sprawling and lucrative business empires: Graham’s alone has operating revenues of nearly $1 billion, and Falwell’s Liberty University is the largest Christian-themed university in the world. (Most of its students are via distance learning.) Between them, these men represented different, but overlapping, sections of a mass American culture that was overwhelmingly white, middle-class, Protestant, and tilted conservative.
(Side note: in high school, I attended Boys State at Liberty University, which is in Lynchburg, just a little over an hour from my hometown. There, we all met the Rev. Falwell himself. Boys State at LU was a really weird experience for reasons that go beyond the scope of this blog post.)
Given their fathers’ different paths to fame, it’s illustrative to see that their sons, building on their fathers’ legacies, have wound up in a pretty similar place. Neither Franklin Graham nor Jerry Falwell Jr. have shown much interest in cultivating mass-audience appeal, opting instead for deeply incendiary and partisan political Christian conservatism. Both men peddle in incredibly offensive Islamophobia, Obama birtherism and culture war, all while pumping their business enterprises that are “non-profit” only in name. The famous picture of Falwell posing with President Trump, with the latter’s Playboy cover within the frame, really encapsulated the hypocrisy on display.
Whether or not you believe that these men and their fellow travelers wage never-ending culture war out of deeply held conscientious conviction or not, the causes they champion are deeply and demonstrably unpopular, particularly outside the 65+ and white demographic. A certain generation of people of color probably haven’t forgotten that the senior Falwell got his start by opening and campaigning for segregation academies during Massive Resistance; younger generations are both put off by the Islamophobia and homophobia and recognize an unfriendly political tribe when they see one.
While new, youth-oriented megachurches may be growing, and the rate of people who frequently attend church is rising, churchgoing overall is declining (and is likely lower than what surveys report). The most popular interpretation is that religious people are becoming more committed, but there are just fewer “religious people” than ever before; and perhaps just as importantly, even those who still consider themselves “religious” are less likely than ever to affiliate with particular religious institutions.
The church used to be a central – perhaps the central – hub of many communities’ social and civic lives in a way that’s largely faded now. In previous generations, it was easier, and often expected, that individuals would submit themselves to a religious institution for the sake of tradition, culture and continuity. Of course, those traditions often favored one class of people (usually white, Christian, heterosexual men) above others, so when given a choice, many people simply decided they didn’t want to follow them anymore. That increase in personal freedom was a good thing.
Yet like so many things, it has come at a cost. Cultural homogeneity makes political decisionmaking easier. Social Security, Medicare and food stamps were an easier sell to voters generations ago who identified with those programs’ likely recipients. Universal healthcare in 2018 is a more difficult sell because of the racialized “welfare queens” arguments popularized by conservative, often white and Christian politicians over the last 25 years or so. Indeed, instead of championing healthcare and aid to the poor, self-professed Christian conservative politicians are famously supportive of warfare and less aid to the needy. It’s not hard to see why many of us who grew up in the 80s or later sees these people as hypocrites, which inevitably taints the religious institutions they affiliate with.
A shared religious experience, and even institutions, is not a prerequisite to American democracy, no matter how much people today like to think it is. American religiosity is really one long, recapitulating story of new generations re-inventing the faiths they inherit while also adapting to new ones, whether it’s various Protestant sects, or the Catholicism or Judaism or Islam or a dozen other faiths imported by immigrants. Yet that process seems to be accelerating today, with new generations not just re-interpreting the faiths of their parents, but opting out of them entirely. A new public equilibrium will eventually be established. My bet would be on some form of bland, default deism that advantages no particular faith as we traditionally have Protestantism, though a kind of public humanism is possible too.
Nevertheless, I believe we face at least a decade or two more of Boomer tantrums about the receding role of white Protestantism in the American public sphere – which ironically will only fuel the millennial opting-out of that traditional religiosity. Just one more facet of the intergenerational conflict roiling American society at the moment.