Promise and Peril: The Decline of Religion in America

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Collin Hansen: Before the coronavirus pandemic, American religiosity had been in steady decline. When American religiosity peaked in 1960, one in two adults in the United States attended any religious service in a given week. Now it’s a little more than one in three. Membership in religious bodies has declined from more than 75 percent to 62 percent, and the number that gets all the attention is the so-called nones, the Americans who claim no religion. That’s now 25 percent compared to just 5 percent in 1960.

Collin Hansen: It’s hard to see this trend reversing with the unprecedented disruption of COVID-19. My own pastor estimates we’ve lost 25 percent of our church during the pandemic. Lyman Stone is an expert on both the decline of American religiosity and also the spread of COVID-19. Stone is an adjunct fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a research fellow at the Institute for Family Studies, and a former international economist at the US Department of Agriculture. He blogs about migration, population dynamics, and regional economics at A State of Migration.

Collin Hansen: His work has been covered in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and numerous local outlets. Lyman joins me on Gospelbound to discuss his 2020 report, Promise and Peril: The History of American Religiosity and Its Recent Decline. We’ll also see if we can glean some insight on COVID-19 as well. Thank you for joining me, Lyman.

Lyman Stone: Thank you. Good to be with you.

Collin Hansen: I imagine many Americans believe the country used to be really religious, but became less so lately. Describe how religiosity has ebbed and flowed in the nation’s history.

Lyman Stone: It depends on how you count it. My preferred measure is just to ask, what share of people were church members? What share of people had any real association with a specific church body? Or not just church, synagogue, religious… Whatever organization, whatever religious group you prefer. And so, this is different than just the share of people who would say, “Oh yeah, I’m a Christian,” if you asked them. It’s the share who are really likely to actually be creating a religious community and religious life.

Lyman Stone: That share was very high in the 1600s. And yes, we’re going to go all the way back to the 1600s here. We’re going to take a long view here. So in the 1600s, it was quite high. Early on, you were probably looking at better than 70 percent of adults as members of some religious body. But over the 1700s, that begins to decline. There’s a lot of reasons for this, but one of the major reasons is that most colonies in the early American period had a state religion and they prohibited other religious exercise and practice, and this was not very popular.

Lyman Stone: The state churches declined, but they also prohibited competing churches from really taking root and gaining converts. So you have this decline in religious connection, driven by essentially conflict with state-mandated religiosity. By the end of the 1700s, so by the period of the American Revolution, probably less than one in five American adults is meaningfully associated with a church. You can go by membership or you can go by likely attendance, things like this. It’s very low. This is a very secular period around the revolution.

Lyman Stone: This is why, of course, a very large number of the founding fathers are Deists. They’re not connected to any particular religious movement. Now, this is also why we get into this debate about, well, were they religious? Were they not? What did they think about religion? Because there was this unique time where there were a lot of people who might have been vaguely religious in some sense, or even vaguely Christian, but they were uncomfortable with the function of the state churches, that is the established Anglican and established congregational churches.

Lyman Stone: They weren’t Quaker dissenters. They weren’t going to associate with those radical movements. But they didn’t really have access to any alternative religious expression. So philosophical Deism fills in the gap for a while. And so, our Constitution ends up being an astonishingly secular document compared to the state constitutions that prevailed at the time. In any reasonable history of the legal status of religion in America, the U.S. Constitution is this watershed moment in secularization. And yet, in that moment, religiosity turns and we start to see rising religiosity through the entire 19th century.

Lyman Stone: There’s a brief exception around the Civil War with some disruptions related to that. But religiosity rises throughout the 19th century, throughout the early 20th century. Beginning in probably the 1930s, religiosity begins to decline again. Depending on exactly what measure you count, it could be 1930s, 1960s. But certainly, since the 1960s or 1970s, we’ve seen a sharp decline in religiosity by any measure. What’s new about this decline is not that we’re very secular. We’re still far more religious in terms of church membership and church attendance than we were in the time of the revolution.

Lyman Stone: What’s unique about it now is that religious affiliation is also declining. What little evidence we have from the 18th century, for example, suggests that even if people weren’t attending church, even if they weren’t a church member, even if they had no meaningful sense in which we could call them Christian in a community or theological sense, nonetheless, if you said, “Are you a Christian?” They’d probably go, “Oh yeah. Yeah. I’m basically, yeah, I’m a Christian. I’m part of Christian civilization, certainly.” So you had a very nominal background. That is changing in America. We are seeing an end to that, that if people aren’t religiously connected to a denomination or through attendance, they’re very likely to not affiliate at all.

Collin Hansen: I still sense, Lyman, that 1960 specifically looms large in the American religious psyche. A lot of our church facilities were built for and during that religious boom. A lot of them were pretty ugly as well. Would it help if we just stopped comparing our day to 1960?

Lyman Stone: Yeah. I think so. In fact, I think a lot of what Americans today associate with the best moment of American Christianity, the 1940s, ’50s, ’60s, is perhaps mistaken. I just ran across an example of this on Twitter, like yesterday, where this person tweeted she was upset that the women’s Bible study in her church occurs during the work day, because of what that says about their attitude towards women. Now, my view is what that says is that the people who would show up for Bible study are stay-at-home moms and retirees, and they have a lot of them. And so, they provided a Bible study at that time.

Lyman Stone: But the more striking thing is the attitude about what the church is supposed to do here. What she’s saying is she’s upset that the church has not provided a Bible study for her at Wednesday at 7 p.m. or whatever. Any of us in churches know that the way a Bible study happens is some member says, “I really want this to happen,” and so they plan a Bible study. This is how things really happen. But American religious institutions became so formalized, so bureaucratic. So you get a lot of denominational mergers and formalization and all this stuff, so institutional, during the 1940s, ’50s, ’60s, that we developed this idea that church happens by the church providing us with church.

Lyman Stone: But that is not in fact how church happens. How it happens is we make it happen. I’m part of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. We are a congregational polity, and we also believe that the local congregation calls the pastor. The pastor is in essence ordained because they were called. I think this is a very healthy model for thinking about what went wrong in American Christianity. And in fact, in Christianity in many countries during this time. It’s basically that we developed an assumption that religion is something that would be provided to us. Whereas what Christianity really is, is it is something that we do together.

Lyman Stone: Now, in a theological sense, of course, that sounds a bit odd to say that something that we do rather than something that God does. But I am talking about the visible form of the church here. I don’t think there’s a dispute that the visible form of the church is a manifestation of real choices by real people in a concrete and discernible context.

Collin Hansen: Now I’m going to ask you a question. It’s a little sensitive for me to ask, and it’s not actually in your report, at least that I saw. But I think you’ve talked about it with Ross Douthat, who I think was a little bit more of a sympathetic interviewer on this point. What criteria do you use, Lyman, to conclude the First Great Awakening never really happened?

Lyman Stone: Well, you’ve got a couple of Great Awakenings in American history. The First Great Awakening is this time where we have a lot of textual accounts from theologians, and pastors, and things like that at the time, saying that they started doing these sermons that were really about calling people to repentance in an emotional way, that they were connecting the experience of penitence to a sort of psychological movement, an internal experience and awareness of grief over one’s salvation, over one’s sin.

Lyman Stone: These are things that to American Christians, we say, “Well, of course.” Like, “How can you have genuine repentance that isn’t that way?” But this is, in some sense, a product of the First Great Awakening. Now, I don’t think that the First Great Awakening isn’t real. I think something happened. I mean, literally we can see the sermons, we can see the texts. There’s clearly this efflorescence of thinking, and writing, and maybe even a change in how people experienced church. But it had absolutely no effect on getting more people into church.

Lyman Stone: The period in the First Great Awakening, the decline in membership and attendance and all these things just continues straight through the period, just right through it. Hits not even a speed bump, which is to say this great movement that we associate with this Renaissance of Christian thinking in America, was in terms of the life of church bodies, could we say a failure, a dud? It did not, in fact, yield healthy churches.

Lyman Stone: Now, as a Lutheran, the idea that perhaps a highly emotivist perspective on repentance and salvation wouldn’t be very effective at strengthening churches is super appealing to me, because this is like our whole brand.

Lyman Stone: So I’m predisposed to believe this. But yes, in the data, there is no evidence that this movement really did much. I should say, a big part of this is because, to a considerable extent, the First Great Awakening, the new denominations that form are limited by state policy. That is, even if they get out in the field and preach a sermon, and a lot of people go, “Woo,” they can’t build a church. Within the established churches, there is some skepticism of this. Even of those that welcome awakeners in, you still get this situation where the established churches are deeply problematic.

Lyman Stone: People don’t like being told they have to go to church. It doesn’t matter how emotionally engaging the pastor is, if people fundamentally feel like that is a boot heel on their neck.

Collin Hansen: Another question here on Promise and Peril: The History of American Religiosity and Its Recent Decline. Lyman, should parents pull their children out of public schools as a result of your study?

Lyman Stone: A big part of their thesis is that the decline in religiosity across almost every country, is closely related to education, in fact, caused by the increase in secular public education. Now, I present a lot of research and there’s some more research that has been published after I published. So this is an active area of research, that shows that this is not true of all education. It’s only for overtly secular education. If kids spend more years of school in religious schools, even if those schools face accreditation rules and stuff like that, they don’t get less religious.

Lyman Stone: In fact, that can make them more religious. So it is secular public education that is driving secularization. I chart in the paper how kids are spending more and more days, more and more hours of their life in these environments. And those environments are getting more and more secular over time. On the one end of my answer is like, “Of course, yes. Put your children in an environment which will reinforce the most valuable and important things in life.”

Lyman Stone: On the other hand, if you put your kid in a religious school, but you don’t reinforce that at home, and your kids’ friends don’t have any particular religious identity, if that religious school presents the same role models and norms as the local public school, it’s not clear you’re better off, especially since you’re out a lot of money too. I think we shouldn’t be thinking of, “Pull a kid out of school, put them in this.” The objective should be to provide our children an immersive and extensive environment that places their religious identity in a position of honor.

Lyman Stone: That means we want their friends to be people who are going to help them create a norm within their group of friends that this religious identity is significant and honorable. We want them to be in a school environment where persons of faith and life walks associated with faith, like becoming a pastor, are held up as honorable and worthwhile. We want them to be connected to networks that’s going to plug them in with other people who are successful in their field, who may share their convictions.

Lyman Stone: That may be a religious school, but it may not be. It depends on the school. It depends on the public school. It depends on your church community. It depends on the exact field a kid is interested in. And it depends on the parents. A piece of research that didn’t go in the paper, that increasingly I think should have, is that… We have great longitudinal research on this, and it finds that the number of days per week that parents conduct religious activities in the home with their children is extremely influential on the odds of a child remaining in their parents’ faith tradition.

Lyman Stone: You can look at controlling between parents who say religion is very important versus look only at parents who really value religion, and similar race, and marital status and all this stuff. If you look at those who do religious activities together frequently in the home, and those who do not, talking about like 20 percentage point difference in odds that the child remains within Christianity at least. So doing stuff at home matters. Catechize your children. It is not your church’s job, and it is not your church school’s job. You are the parent. God has placed this role on you to catechize your child. Do it.

Collin Hansen: I’ve cited that research, which, again, you’ve shared in other podcasts, but not in the report. Because I kept looking for it in the report because it stood out to me so much. If I can summarize, you’re basically saying, “Religious affiliation and even church attendance is not enough to give you a huge boost forward in terms of religiosity-

Lyman Stone: I think that’s right. Yeah.

Collin Hansen: … carrying on to generations, if it’s not embedded in a thick religious community of examples, where religion is strongly a part of your identity marker.” Okay. Now, you cited the overtly secular public education and the time spent in it is a cause of secularization, but that’s not the only way that education goes along with secularization. It’s also just simply the number of more years. Can you quickly tell us what that looks like?

Lyman Stone: Yeah. Absolutely. People are spending more years in school. More years in school means their transition to adulthood is delayed, because in almost every human culture, adulthood means you’re done being a learner and you’re ready to provide for a family. As we push farther and farther in life, the point at which our society makes a young adult ready to support a family, that is, we require more years of education. We require more certifications. We settle all this debt. All these different things that we basically keep pushing back when adulthood begins. And as a result, we create young adults who have formed habits that are not conducive to a religious community.

Lyman Stone: Man was not made to be single until he was 30 in a society that does not strongly stigmatize non-marital sex. Woman was not made for that either. I’m sorry. I mean, man, generally. This is not good.

Collin Hansen: One of the earlier guests this season on Gospelbound was Mark Regnerus and his new book, The Future of Christian Marriage. You’re echoing much of what we had talked about on that podcast. Explain the relationship between declining religiosity and political power for Christians.

Lyman Stone: There’s several different relationships there. But certainly, we see that in periods where religious organizations exercise great political power, inevitably they shoot themselves in the foot. I talked about this in the colonial period. That’s the canonical example, but we have other examples as well. One of my ancestors, I found a letter from him recently. He was the superintendent of the American Home Board of Missions for New Mexico and Arizona.

Lyman Stone: He writes this fascinating letter about how the papists must have their political resistance broken. We need to make them good Americans. So we’re going to force them to accept a public school system that is non-sectarian. And by the way, we’re only going to hire good Protestant church ladies to be the teachers. And then we’re going to sneak them into houses to convert the people to Protestantism. I have the letter from him about how this is the strategy.

Lyman Stone: What he’s talking about is that New Mexico was not allowed to enter the union until they passed what was called a Blaine Amendment, which is basically an amendment saying no government funds will be used to pay for sectarian education, which basically meant for Catholic education, because the public schools still had Protestant religious content. But Protestantism was seen as non-sectarian, which is just hilarious from a historical perspective.

Lyman Stone: Of course, this was used as a vehicle to tacitly advance a certain version of Protestantism. And then he talks about the Catholic bishop complaints. He quotes the Catholic bishop saying, “This policy will lead to agnosticism, and secularism, and all of these things.” And my ancestor, in his letter, writes, “This guy’s crazy. It’s never going to happen.” What we find now is that states that implemented Blaine Amendments did in fact have more aggressive secularization. Blaine Amendments today are in fact a major vehicle of secularization, that now provisions that were designed to discriminate against Catholics are being used to discriminate against all religious people.

Lyman Stone: This is how power works. It corrupts. When you try to play Constantine, you always get bit. When you try to use the force of the state to force people to adhere to your religion, there will be backlash. And so, the backlash is secularism. And so we should not go back down this road. A lot of people have asked me, “Does that mean we need to bring back school prayer?” No, that will not work. There are a lot of kids in the schools who are going to resist and you’re going to turn them into very committed evangelists of resisting school prayer.

Lyman Stone: I don’t want to force anybody in the school they don’t want. But I do want to give people a choice to put their child in a safe, high-quality educational environment that is not offensive to their values. So school choice is what we should be arguing for, choice, for Americans to be able to make choices for their kids. There’s a reasonable policy. A lot of people on both sides of the political divide already support it. It’s consistent with American values. It doesn’t force anybody to do anything, and it will work.

Lyman Stone: There’s a lot of research on this from different contexts that suggests it will work. It won’t just work to encourage religiosity, which is of course, what I care about. It will work to reduce social conflict. We have so many stupid arguments about public school curriculum, just into the arguments. Stop forcing people to go, done. We will have a more politically peaceable society. There’s a modern example of this new discrimination happening as well with what are called anti Sharia laws. Also, they’re called anti-foreign laws. Basically they’re laws that prohibit the consideration of Islamic jurisprudence in family cases, in particular.

Lyman Stone:

This sounds like, “Oh yeah, we don’t want to import Sharia into the U.S.” The problem is the same principles that allow Sharia law to be considered in family cases, allow Christian religious beliefs to be considered in family cases. They allow Orthodox Jews to have their own separate arbitration. A lot of churches, as part of their church discipline, participate in arbitration of family cases. Attacking Islamic rights to participate in that will ultimately backlash on Christians who want to participate. We are going to get ourselves kicked out of the family law process. That will be a disaster for the ability to have a Christian family. We should be opposing legal discrimination against our Muslim neighbors, because if we do not stick up for them, it will come to us.

Collin Hansen: Lyman, a couple more questions for you, and your knowledge of COVID-19 to this report. Let’s imagine maybe you’re writing it in 2021. What’s the effect for religiosity?

Lyman Stone: There was a survey done in July of this year by the Pew Center. They do very high-quality survey research. But their direct empirical work is excellent. It’s the best in the business. They found that church attendance in person or online had fallen significantly. Before up through 2019, monthly church attendance was falling by about one or 2 percent a year. It looks like through 2020, it’s fallen about maybe 4 or 5 percent, including online attendance, which is striking. So this is bad.

Lyman Stone: At the same time, the same study found people of religious faith, and particularly Christians is the main group they’re looking at because that was the big enough sample size, but this held a little bit for Jews too, are weathering the pandemic much better. That is, they’re more likely to say that they are having frequent calls or FaceTimes or video things with friends and family. They’re more likely to say that they are doing well during the pandemic. They’re more likely to have had religious guidance or had public health guidance about the pandemic.

Lyman Stone: States that have denser associational life, of which religious congregations are part of that, I’m about to publish a report next month about this, have had lower transmission of COVID-19. This is the wild ones, people like, “Oh, churches are spreading it.” When you actually look at it, states with denser associational life, which is churches, but also other like social clubs and stuff, have actually had less transmission of COVID-19. They’ve actually done better at handling it.

Lyman Stone: Religiosity is likely to take a negative hit, at least in the short run, because of COVID. And yet, for a lot of people, COVID is going to remind them why this community was so important to them. I think if we’re going to have a hope of a revival in America, we need to be communicating that. We need to be saying, “When you were alone at home, I wasn’t. While you were lonely, my church was looking out for me. While you were afraid, I had a hope no matter what happened.”

Lyman Stone: I know that sounds a bit belligerent to say, but frankly, we should be saying this. We should be communicating the benefits of God’s good things in our life. And one of those good things is that he has created the visible community of the church. All too often, we present evangelism as like, “You’ll have these feelings and then God will save you.” But part of what we should be saying is, “Your life will be better with…” Not in like a prosperity gospel sense, but in like a, “Bad things happen. This is one of the ways we deal with them sense.

Collin Hansen: Well, I mean, I feel like, Lyman, I’ve even left a couple of questions here on the cutting room floor, and I could talk a long time just why I love following you on Twitter and love reading your reports, they’re endlessly fascinating. I ask one last question always at the end of Gospelbound, and that is, what is the last great book you read?

Lyman Stone: Last book I read. The last book I read wasn’t great. Well, I’ll go with really interesting, and because it’s in my subject area. I recently read a book called Birth Control and American Modernity.

Collin Hansen: Well, I don’t want to hear about that one.

Lyman Stone: It’s basically exploring how American ideas of family size, and childbearing, and birth control have changed over time. And the argument’s basically that the big thing that has driven declining birth rates in America, at least over the last few centuries, has been changing ideas of attachment to transcendent community and identity, which obviously I found compelling.

Collin Hansen: Thank you, Lyman, for taking so much time. Folks, check out his report, Promise and Peril: The History of American Religiosity and Its Recent Decline, published through the American Enterprise Institute. Been looking forward to this for a long time, Lyman. Thank you very much.

Lyman Stone: Thank you. You have a nice day.

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