This essay is cross-posted from the Anxious Bench, where it ran on Oct. 24, 2023.
“Nones” now comprise 28 percent of the American adult population, according to survey data that the Pew Research Center released this month. Sixteen years ago, in 2007, only 16 percent of Americans in 2007 said they had no religion.
But if secularization (that is, a shift away from religious affiliation among a substantial percentage of the population) is happening in the United States, it hasn’t proceeded along the lines that secularization theory predicted. According to this frequently recited theory, which was first proposed more than a century ago, educated industrial societies will inevitably become less religious, because as people adopt scientific explanations for natural phenomena, they will become less receptive to religious explanations.
This explanation was given new currency this year in Beyond Doubt: The Secularization of Society, which was written by three sociologists (Isabella Kasselstrand, Phil Zuckerman, and Ryant T. Cragun) who are veterans of secularization studies. Beyond Doubt presented a comprehensive study of several dozen countries from across the globe and demonstrated that in almost all of those that have religious freedom and are becoming increasingly educated, religious beliefs, practices, and affiliation are declining, just as they are in the United States. If religion is gaining adherents anywhere, the authors of Beyond Doubt argue, it’s only among the less educated or the members of a repressive society where few options for religious choice exist. In a free marketplace of ideas, with plenty of opportunities for education, religion will lose nearly every time.
But regardless of whether this theory might explain secularization in other parts of the world, it doesn’t adequately account for the experience of the United States. After World War II, in the midst of a massive surge in college education, the United States experienced a rapid rise in religious affiliation, church attendance, and the percentage of people who said that religion was important in their lives. Even though the United States led most other nations in economic growth, industrial development, access to higher education, and religious liberty and religious diversity – the ingredients that advocates of secularization theory, such as the authors of Beyond Doubt, suggest will inevitably lead to a decline in religiosity – Americans flocked to churches and expressed strong identification with religion. Only 2 percent of Americans in the late 1950s did not identify with a religious tradition.
Weekly church attendance rates declined a bit in the 1960s, once the pressures of the Cold War started to fade. But despite what secularization theory predicts, both church membership and church attendance rates remained unchanged from 1970 to 2009, even as college attendance rates and religious diversity continued to grow. Throughout the late twentieth century and even at the beginning of the twenty-first, 40 percent of Americans reported going to a worship service each week, and 70 percent said they were members of a church, synagogue, or mosque. It was not until the 2010s that the recent trend of religious disaffiliation started to take off.
But according to secularization theory, this is a rather strange moment for the sudden dramatic increase in religious disaffiliation. The past decade has not been a decade of rising college attendance rates. In fact, after decades of growth in higher education, numerous colleges and universities are starting to experience enrollment declines. Economic growth during the past decade has been uneven. Confidence in science – which proponents of secularization theory say leads to religious disaffiliation – is lower in the United States than it has been in decades. In 2022, only 29 percent of Americans said that they had a “great deal” of confidence in scientists, down from 39 percent only two years earlier. On climate change, vaccines, and COVID protocols, plenty of Americans have proven quite willing to reject scientific knowledge and embrace alternative theories that lack the support of the scientific community.
Even young-earth creationism remains surprisingly robust. A 2019 Gallup survey indicated that 40 percent of Americans believe that God created humans in their present form, with no evolution involved – a percentage that is only slightly lower than the 44 percent of Americans who reported believing this in 1982, when Gallup first asked the question.
So, there’s not a whole lot of evidence that large numbers of Americans in the last ten or fifteen years have suddenly found scientific explanations more credible than religious claims.
But if scientific knowledge or education cannot account for the decline of religiosity in the United States, what can explain it? There is no doubt that the percentage of American adults who said they had no religion nearly doubled between 2007 and the early 2020s. What is the reason for this?
I think that the answer is that the people who are leaving Christianity are doing so primarily because they no longer find Christianity morally credible. They don’t think they need religion in order to be moral people, and they don’t think that the moral fabric of the country depends on a set of values sustained by religious faith. This is a new phenomenon, because for most of the nation’s history, large numbers of Americans did believe that the country’s moral values were inextricably tied to religion, just as George Washington suggested in his Farewell Address. But when people’s faith in the moral authority of Christianity disappears, they leave the church.
Liberal Protestantism’s Loss of Moral Credibility
The first group of Christian leaders to experience a loss of moral authority in the modern United States were the liberal Protestants (or “mainline” or “ecumenical” Protestants, as they are also often called).
In the 1950s and early 1960s, liberal Protestantism was at the height of its cultural and political influence. Liberal Protestant theologians such as Reinhold Niebuhr were household names in educated circles, and their images appeared on the cover of Time magazine. Presidents such as Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy consulted with liberal Protestant church leaders when planning civil religious declarations or considering legislation of moral importance, such as civil rights bills.
Many Americans believed in religion as a moral authority because they thought that atheism offered no foundation for public morals or human rights and that it would inevitably lead to totalitarianism. After all, all of the officially atheistic states of the 1950s were Communist. As many writings of the 1950s suggested, science could solve technological problems, but it could not solve moral ones; it could create a nuclear bomb, but it could not provide a source of moral restraint to stop people from using it. For that reason, they looked to religion to provide a source of ultimate meaning, a grounding for human dignity, and principles for moral guidance. Eighty-one percent of Americans in 1957 told Gallup that they believed that religion could answer “today’s problems” – compared to only 56 percent who believed this in 1984.
But in the late 1960s, a new generation of young Baby Boomers began to leave mainline Protestantism because they viewed the church’s moral authority as irrelevant. Most often, they did not leave the church in anger, and they did not immediately begin identifying as “nones.” But as observers noted as early as the beginning of the 1970s, church attendance and membership numbers in theologically liberal Protestant denominations were starting to fall, even as membership numbers in evangelical Protestant denominations were increasing. Most of the decrease, as subsequent research showed, came from young adults leaving the churches of their youth. And as David Hollinger’s scholarship suggests, the young adults who left the church often retained the socially conscious, politically liberal values of their upbringing – they just thought that the church’s moral authority was no longer needed to sustain these values.
In my own research in liberal Christian periodicals of the 1960s, I have found that young liberal Protestants who participated in the civil rights demonstrations of the era sometimes had their faith in institutional Christianity shaken, because they saw grassroots activism as a more authentic source of moral authority than the pronouncements of church leaders. Institutional Christianity in the United States was associated with liberal platitudes, but not with moral fervor, they decided. They had grown up believing that Christianity was necessary to protect human rights and democracy, but if real human rights activism and democratic protest were taking place on the streets rather than behind a pulpit, it was time to exchange their church membership for political activity and pursue the goals of a revolutionary Jesus outside of church structures.
Nearly every mainline Protestant denomination experienced membership declines in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. The Methodist and Lutheran strongholds of the northern Midwest started to feel a bit more secular.
But national church attendance rates barely changed, because even as church attendance rates declined among northern liberal Protestants during the late twentieth century, the growth in evangelical church affiliation in the Sunbelt was enough to offset this. Seventy percent of Americans in the late 1990s claimed to be a member of a church or synagogue – a figure that was nearly unchanged from the 73 percent who had said this forty years earlier, in the early 1950s. The percentage of Americans who answered “yes” to Gallup’s question, “Do you believe in God?” remained well above 90 percent throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first. In 1999, only 8 percent of Americans told Gallup that they had no religion – a figure that was considerably higher than the 2 percent who had said this in 1959, but still hardly enough to signal a widespread secular trend.
Catholicism’s Loss of Moral Credibility
But then a church scandal occurred that led to a loss of Christianity’s moral credibility for a second group of Americans: Catholics.
The Second Vatican Council of the 1960s shook the faith of some Catholics who had never expected the church to experience changes of that magnitude, and it prompted other Catholics to become more lax in their church attendance and their observance of Catholic teachings that did not accord with their own moral vision. While 75 percent of American Catholics attended church every week in the 1950s, fewer than 50 percent did so in the late 1990s. But the fallout after Vatican II was mild compared to the anger that many Catholics felt after revelations of a massive sexual abuse crisis emerged at the beginning of the twenty-first century.
After the sex abuse crisis, many chose not to affiliate with the church at all. By 2014, 41 percent of Americans who had been raised Catholic no longer identified as Catholics. In 1965, more than a third of all babies born in the United States were baptized into the Catholic Church that year, but in 2014, only 18 percent were. The massive wave of departures from church hit the heavily Catholic Northeast particularly hard. A 2017 report published by the Barna Group categorized 46 percent of the Boston metro area population and 45 percent of the population in Portland, Maine as “dechurched” – that is, people who used to attend church but now never go at all.
As bad as this was for the American Catholic Church, the situation would have been considerably worse if the church had not been able to depend on high immigration rates to bring in millions of new Catholics, mostly from Mexico and other parts of Latin America. In 1987, only 10 percent of American Catholics had been Hispanic and 85 percent had been non-Hispanic whites, but by 2014, the American Catholic Church was 34 percent Hispanic, with non-Hispanic whites now making up only 58 percent of the church.
But since much of the Hispanic immigration was concentrated in the South and Southwest, it did not do much to reverse the massive declines in church affiliation that the Northeast and parts of the northern Midwest experienced. In the Archdiocese of Atlanta, the number of Catholics increased from 32,000 in 1962 to 1.2 million in 2020. But in the Archdiocese of Boston, the number of Catholics dropped from 3.5 million in 1970 to fewer than 2 million today – and many of those who are still left in the church don’t attend Mass as often as they used to. Between 1971 and 2018, Massachusetts experienced a net loss of 234 Catholic parishes, even as Georgia experienced a net gain of 67.
The result has been a regionally concentrated secularization rather than a national trend. Church attendance rates have become very low in parts of the North that experienced high church attendance only a few decades ago, but church attendance is still strong in much of the South.
Has Evangelicalism Lost Moral Credibility?
Will the South and the Sunbelt, which are heavily evangelical with a growing Catholic presence, experience secularization as well? Based on my analysis, it will experience a wave of secularization only to the extent that Christianity loses moral credibility in those regions. So, we might ask: Is evangelical Protestantism currently experiencing a crisis of moral authority, or is it on the verge of experiencing such a crisis? Will large numbers of evangelicals decide that Christianity has lost its moral authority?
Among a minority of evangelicals, the answer is clearly yes. Because most of white evangelicalism has firmly aligned itself against one of the most foundational moral principles of contemporary progressives – the principle of equity for marginalized groups, especially racial, gender, and sexual minorities – this has created cognitive dissonance for evangelicals who believe in the moral principle of equity for marginalized groups. Some of those who experience this cognitive dissonance have left evangelicalism in disgust over its political alliances, as numerous books, articles, blogs, websites, and podcasts have documented.
But despite all of these publications – and despite all of the publicity given to the “exvangelicals” – the statistical evidence doesn’t seem to indicate that these departures have had as much of an effect on evangelicalism as some might have supposed. While the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, has lost several million members over the last several years – and while few evangelical denominations are growing – many of those who have left organized evangelical denominations have not left Christianity altogether but have instead joined nondenominational community churches.
In fact, the percentage of Americans identifying as “born again” Christians reached a record level in 2018, when 41 percent of respondents to the General Social Science survey answered “yes” to the question, “Would you say you have been ‘born again’ or have had a ‘born again’ experience—that is, a turning point in your life when you committed yourself to Christ?” The record level of affirmative responses to this question was driven largely by increases in the number of people of color identifying as “born again,” because 54 percent of respondents of color claimed this label, saying that they had had a “turning point” in their life when they committed themselves to Christ. With the rapid growth of charismatic Christianity among Hispanics and increases in the number of African American Christians identifying themselves as “born again,” it appears that born-again Christianity among people of color has largely made up for any declines in evangelicalism among whites.
And even among whites, evangelicalism has not declined as much as people have supposed. An evangelical-flavored Christianity remains vibrant in much of the South and parts of the rural Midwest – which is why Chattanooga, Tennessee, for instance, still has a weekly church attendance rate of 59 percent, even as the weekly church attendance rate in a few northeastern and western cities has fallen into the single digits. In Birmingham, Baton Rouge, and Charlotte, more than half of the population has been to church within the last seven days, according to the Barna Group’s 2017 report – despite the fact that in Boston, San Francisco, and Seattle, more than half of all respondents say they haven’t been to church at all in the last six months.
Some of the more affluent parts of the Sunbelt are rejecting the evangelical churches that might have had widespread appeal in these regions a generation ago. The Orlando, Florida, metropolitan area is now the ninth most unchurched metropolitan region in the United States, with 51 percent of the population never attending church. But this is not true of the South.
On the whole, it appears that evangelical Christianity, at least in certain regions of the country, has not experienced the widespread moral disaffection that plagued mainline Protestantism in the late twentieth century and Catholicism at the beginning of the twenty-first. Instead, even as white evangelicalism became morally repugnant to some Americans – especially college-educated professionals in cities outside the South – it solidified its standing among a rural white population, who may have considered white evangelicalism’s growing identification with right-wing politics and Christian nationalism to be a positive development that echoed their own moral code.
And among people of color who are increasingly identifying with a form of born-again Christianity that was often associated with charismatic, multiracial nondenominational churches led by dynamic pastors, the conservative politics of some forms of white evangelicalism hasn’t seem to diminish their faith in the Christianity of their own churches. Evangelicalism may be too decentralized and fragmented for moral crises in some branches of the movement to tarnish the image of the movement as a whole in the way that the sex abuse crisis did for the Catholic Church.
What Does This Mean for the Future of Religion in the United States?
If people decide to leave Christianity primarily because of a moral objection to the church – not primarily because they become too educated to take religious claims seriously – I suspect that religion will retain a stronger presence in at least some regions of the United States than believers in secularization theory expect. Because American evangelical Protestantism has long been heavily decentralized – and is becoming even more so, with the rise in popularity of nondenominational community churches – it may be able to continue to reinvent itself in ways that allow it to avoid the loss of moral credibility that have plagued other forms of organized religion in the United States. And because of the regional political polarization, the evangelical moral pronouncements that offend non-evangelicals in many regions of the country may solidify evangelicalism’s moral credibility among a certain segment of the population – especially in the South.
And if this is the case, the United States will probably not secularize along the lines of Canada or Britain. Instead, dechurching will hit some regions particularly hard, even as it leaves other sections of the country or segments of the population relatively unscathed. Christianity in the United States will continue to become less white, more evangelical and charismatic, less mainline Protestant, and more southern – but it will likely remain a strong influence in the United States, even if it becomes a more culturally polarizing force than it was in the mid-twentieth century.
The United States is not exactly secularizing as much as it is becoming more religiously and culturally polarized. In the 1950s, a generic public Christianity that was heavily shaped by mainline Protestantism could serve as a culturally unifying force in the early years of the Cold War, when nearly all Americans viewed Christianity as morally beneficial, at least in a general sense. But the forms of American Christianity that are likely to grow in the future are the least likely to unite disparate segments of the population who no longer agree on Christianity’s moral credibility.
Some of the proponents of secularization theory have hoped that a new set of secular values could end the culture wars and unite the population, just as they have in parts of northern Europe. But instead, we may be left in the future with an American Christianity that has regional appeal but not nationwide acceptance – and if that’s the case, the departures from Christianity that we’re seeing among some sections of the population will not lead to a resolution of the culture wars, because the American population is unlikely to become either nearly entirely post-Christian or nearly entirely Christian. We’ll instead likely see a growing division over Christianity’s moral credibility – and that division will continue to affect our culture and politics for years to come.