The United States is changing and it is changing fast.
From 2009 to 2019 the number of Christians in the United States declined by twelve million (give or take a few). Meanwhile, the number of “Nones” (who respond “None” to religious affiliation), grew by thirty million. Stay with me on this — whatever your religion or noneness, this column is not about Christians.
Here are a few statistic painting a picture of how fast we are changing. In the past decade:
-12% – those who identify as Christian (down to 65% of total population)
+9% – atheists, agnostics, or nothing in particular (up to 26%). In Ontario County, in 2010, Nones were 57.8% of total population.
-4% – those who identify as Protestant (down to 47% of Christians)
-4% – those who identify as Roman Catholic (down to 20%)
-7% – those who attend a religious service (of any kind) once or twice a month (45% of total population)
To measure the speed of this change, compare Baby Boomers and Millennials. Boomers are 84% Christian, 10% None, and 4% other faiths. Millennials are 49% Christian, 40% Nones, and 9% other faiths. Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, and Mormon percentages of the population remained the same during the past decade. The Nones grow 1% every two years.
Thanks for being patient. Now we come to the point.
In a recent article in The Atlantic, Jonathan Haidt wrote: “Social scientists have identified at least three major forces that collectively bind together successful democracies: social capital (extensive social networks with high levels of trust), strong institutions, and shared stories.” Haidt’s article describes the corrosive impact of social media platforms but what I want to emphasize is that there are few institutions other than religion that nurture “extensive social networks with high levels of trust” — and which are also held together “by shared stories.”
One of the positive impacts of spiritual community on the larger society is binding people together and nurturing cohesiveness. There is a reason, for example, that new social programs and political outreach is shared in the Black community through congregations. Traditionally the Black Church has been a glue of the social fabric within the Black community.
In all racial and ethnic communities, Church was a place you could go and sit next to people of a different class, political party, and neighborhood. There was meaningful interaction between those with strongly held points of view as well as the opportunity for relationship. Differences were usurped by a shared story and generations of trust. It was boot camp for citizens that taught the participants how to be part of a community and so strengthened the national fabric.
I am not alone in postulating that the increased polarization between political parties is fueled by alarm over the decline of religion in general and Christianity in particular. In fact, that anxiety has been weaponized to pit various Christian traditions against one another by those who benefit from it politically and economically. But that weaponizing of religious anxiety also ignited a rapid decline in religion even as it polarized the religious groups. When the bitterness of political debates lines the walls within the worship space, religion becomes a bastion rather than a community, and fewer people want anything to do with it.
Pew Center (online), “Decline of Christianity Continues at Rapid Pace,” October 17, 2019