Religious Right causes Free-Fall in Church Membership in the U.S.

Church membership is in a free fall — and the Christian right has only themselves to blame

Amanda Marcotte, Salon – April 02, 2021 – NATIONAL CATHOLIC REPORTER

Church membership is in a free fall -- and the Christian right has only themselves to blame

The trend of Americans exiting the pews, never to return, has been steady for some years now and shows no signs of slowing down. According to a new Gallup poll released this week, only 47% of Americans polled in 2020 belong to a house of worship, which is the first time that number has fallen below half of the country since they started polling Americans on this question.

This article originally appeared at Salon.

But what’s really interesting is that the collapse in church membership has happened mostly over the past two decades. Since Gallup started recording these numbers decades ago, church membership rates were relatively steady, with only the smallest decline over the decades. In 1937, 73% of Americans belong to a church. In 1975, it was 71%. In 1999, it was 70%. But since then, the church membership rate has fallen by a whopping 23 percentage points

It is not, however, because of some great atheist revival across the land, with Americans suddenly burying themselves in the philosophical discourse about the unlikeliness of the existence of a higher power. The percentage of Americans who identify as atheist (4%) or agnostic (5%) has risen slightly, but not even close to enough to account for the number of people who claim no religious affiliation. A 2017 Gallup poll finds that 87% of Americans say they believe in God. So clearly, what we’re seeing is a dramatic increase in the kinds of folks who would say something akin to, “I’m spiritual, but not big on organized religion.

Blame the religious right. Until recently, the U.S. was largely unaffected by the increasing secularization of many European countries, but that started to change dramatically at the turn of the 21st century. And it’s no mystery why. The drop in religious affiliation starts right around the time George W. Bush was elected president, publicly and dramatically associating himself with the white evangelical movement. The early Aughts saw the rise of megachurches with flashily dressed ministers who appeared more interested in money and sermonizing about people’s sex lives than modeling values of charity and humility

Not only were these religious figures and the institutions they led hyper-political, the outward mission seemed to be almost exclusively in service of oppressing others. The religious right isn’t nearly as interested in feeding the hungry and sheltering the homeless as much as using religion as an all-purpose excuse to abuse women and LGBTQ people. In an age of growing wealth inequalities, with more and more Americans living hand-to-mouth, many visible religious authorities were using their power to support politicians and laws to take health care access from women and fight against marriage between same-sex couples. And then Donald Trump happened.

Trump was a thrice-married chronic adulterer who routinely exposed how ignorant he was of religion, and who reportedly — and let’s face it, obviously — made fun of religious leaders behind their backs. But religious right leaders didn’t care. They continually pumped Trump up like he was the second coming, showily praying over him and extorting their followers to have faith in a man who literally could not have better conformed to the prophecies of the Antichrist. It was comically over the top, how extensively Christian right leaders exposed themselves as motivated by power, not faith. Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, Gallup’s numbers show numbers of religiously affiliated Americans taking a nosedive during the Trump years, dropping from 55% of Americans belonging to a church to 47%.

To be clear, the drop-off in religious affiliation is, researchers have shown, likely less about people actively quitting churches, and more about churches being unable to recruit younger followers to replace the ones who die. As Pew Research Center tweeted in 2019, “Today, there is a wide gap between older Americans (Baby Boomers and members of the Silent Generation) and Millennials in their levels of religious affiliation

All of which makes sense. It’s rare that people abandon an ideology or faith that they’e had for a long time. Once an adult actively chooses to belong to a church, it’s hard to admit that you were wrong and now want to abandon the whole project. But young adults, even those who went to church with their parents, do have to make an active choice to join a church as adults. And many are going to look at hypocritical, power-hungry ministers praying over an obvious grifter like Trump and be too turned off to even consider getting involved.

In 2017, Robert P. Jones, the head of the Public Religion Research Institute and author of “White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity,” spoke with Salon about how the decline in religion is concentrated largely among young people. There’s “a culture clash between particularly conservative white churches and denominations and younger Americans,” he explained, noting that young people were particularly critical of anti-science and homophobic rhetoric from religious leaders

“[C]onservative white Christians have lost this argument with a broader liberal culture,” he explained, including “their own kids and grandchildren.”

It’s a story with a moral so blunt that it could very well be a biblical fable: Christian leaders, driven by their hunger for power and cultural dominance, become so grasping and hypocritical that it backfires and they lose their cultural relevance. Not that there’s any cause to pity them, since they did this to themselves. The growing skepticism of organized religion in the U.S. is a trend to celebrate. While more needs to be done to replace the sense of community that churches can often give people, it’s undeniable that this decline is tied up with objectively good trends: increasing liberalism, hostility to bigotry, and support for science in the U.S. Americans are becoming better people, however slowly, and the decline in organized religious affiliation appears to be a big part of that.


This trend – of fewer Christians in Church – is a sad commentary of the American culture of Christian church-going. In a country once remarkable for its adherence to Christian ethics and Church attendance, the U.S.A. has suffered more under the presidency of Donald Trump than at any other time in the history of religious statistical records.

Encouraged by the ex-President of the United States, Donald Trump; many of the country’s fundamentalist Christian Leaders flourished in their desire to shore up fundamentalist beliefs that have been challenged by both scientific and social research that has moved beyond the out-dated understandings of the 19th century.

One instance of change in social and theological understanding of human nature, for instance, has been that of new learnings about the aetiology of human gender and sexuality – matters which the modern world has come to terms with, but which some fundamentalist Christian organisations are unwilling to acknowledge and deal with. Such resistance to change, paradoxically in the U.S., has been evidenced in President Trump’s siding with publicity-hungry Pentecostal pastors, whose attitude towards LGBTQ+ people and Women’s Rights are out if kilter with the modern understanding of these important issues in a modern world society. This is a President whose own dismissive attitude towards women has been well-documented, yet, stunningly, this does not seem to deter his religious Right-Wing ‘Christian’ backers.

Young people, who are discovering for themselves the real ‘facts of life’ on gender, sexuality, equality and other social justice issues, are just not interested in investing their personal integrity in any religious system which denies the realities they themselves are encountering in their own lives; so that those who want to embrace integrity and justice are no longer attracted to a religious code that takes no account of their understanding of what it means to be a citizen of the world as they have come to know and embrace it.

When even the Pope in Rome acknowledges that things have changed in the Church’s understanding of gender and sexuality (and the place of women in a formerly male-dominated patriarchal Church and society); then it is time for other Christian Churches to open up to new possibilities of recognising the hand of God acting in creation in ways different from the outdated understanding of our predecessors. (Is this a new ‘Galileo Moment’ in the Church?)

At this Season of the Easter proclamation, of the Christ who brought a new understanding of the Ways of God to the people of his own day – but was rejected by the religious authorities and put to death for his pains – the Church of today needs to repent of its deadly resistance to change in its attitude towards the facts of human evolution. so that today’s youth might recognize what it might mean to be called into the ‘Body of Christ’, a vital, living organism which transmits the ongoing power of love and justice of a Creator God, who made all humanity in God’s own Image and Likeness.

“Christ our Passover has been sacrificed for us; therefore, let us keep the Feast – not with the old leaven of malice and wickedness; but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. Christ is Risen, Alleluia! He is Risen indeed, Alleluia!”

Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand

About kiwianglo

Retired Anglican priest, living in Christchurch, New Zealand. Ardent supporter of LGBT Community, and blogger on 'Thinking Anglicans UK' site. Theology: liberal, Anglo-Catholic & traditional. regarding each person as a unique expression of Christ, and therefore lovable.
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