Is American Christianity in Decline?

In his column in last week’s Times, the always interesting Ross Douthat sifts through recent data on the decline of Christianity in the United States. It’s true, he writes, that the percentage of people declaring themselves Christian is declining, and that the percentage of Americans who tell pollsters they have “no religion” is increasing. But that doesn’t indicate an across-the board decline in Christian belief and practice. Seriously committed Christians remain so. It’s the nominal, weakly committed Christians who are leaving the churches:

The relative stability of the Gallup data fits with analysis offered by the sociologists Landon Schnabel and Sean Bock in a 2017 paper, “The Persistent and Exceptional Intensity of American Religion.” Drawing on the General Social Survey, they argued that the recent decline of institutional religion is entirely a function of the formerly weakly affiliated ceasing to identify with religious bodies entirely; for the strongly affiliated (just over a third of the American population), the trend between 1990 and the present is a flat line, their numbers neither growing nor collapsing but holding steady across an era of supposedly dramatic religious change.

That resilience should not be entirely comforting for Christian churches, since both their everyday work and their cultural influence depends on reaching beyond their core adherents, and inspiring a mix of sympathy and interest among people who aren’t at worship every week. Indeed, combining an enduring core of belief with a general falling-away could make the Christian position permanently embattled, tempting the pious to paranoia and misguided alliances while the wider culture becomes more anticlerical, more like 19th-century secular liberalism in its desire to batter down the redoubts of traditional belief.

But for now that resilience also puts some limits on how successfully anti-Christian policies can be pursued, how easily religious conservatism can be marginalized within the conservative coalition (not easily) and how completely the liberal coalition can be secularized — not completely at all, so long as its base remains heavily African-American and Hispanic. (The tragic racial polarization of American Christianity, in this sense, may have one positive effect: preventing a complete polarization of our politics between Christian and post-Christian coalitions.)

Douthat is right about this. As I’ve written elsewhere, the real story in American religion is its increasing polarization. The middle is dropping out in favor of extremes on either end: the Nones and the Traditionally Religious. Whether the departure of the Laodecians from America’s churches will be on the whole a good thing, for the churches and the society at large, remains to be seen.

A New Edition of a Classic Textbook

Next month, Eerdman’s will release a new edition of A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada, a textbook by one of the greatest living historians of Christianity, Mark Noll (Notre Dame – Emeritus). Here’s the description from the publisher’s website:

Mark Noll’s A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada has been firmly established as the standard text on the Christian experience in North America. Now Noll has thoroughly revised, updated, and expanded his classic text to incorporate new materials and important themes, events, leaders, and changes of the last thirty years. Once again readers will benefit from his insights on the United States and Canada in this superb narrative survey of Christian churches, institutions, and cultural engagements from the colonial period through 2018.

A New History of the Religious Left

We close out the week with a new history of the religious left, Spiritual Socialists: Religion and the American Left, by historian Vaneesa Cook. Cook says it’s wrong to see the American left as hostile to religion. It’s just that the left has had its own religious tradition, which she calls “spiritual socialism.” The tradition is continued today, she says, by figures such as Bernie Sanders, Pope Francis, William Barber, and Cornel West. Here’s the description from the publisher’s website:

Refuting the common perception that the American left has a religion problem, Vaneesa Cook highlights an important but overlooked intellectual and political tradition that she calls “spiritual socialism.” Spiritual socialists emphasized the social side of socialism and believed the most basic expression of religious values—caring for the sick, tired, hungry, and exploited members of one’s community—created a firm footing for society. Their unorthodox perspective on the spiritual and cultural meaning of socialist principles helped make leftist thought more palatable to Americans, who associated socialism with Soviet atheism and autocracy. In this way, spiritual socialism continually put pressure on liberals, conservatives, and Marxists to address the essential connection between morality and social justice.
Cook tells her story through an eclectic group of activists whose lives and works span the twentieth century. Sherwood Eddy, A. J. Muste, Myles Horton, Dorothy Day, Henry Wallace, Pauli Murray, Staughton Lynd, and Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke and wrote publicly about the connection between religious values and socialism. Equality, cooperation, and peace, they argued, would not develop overnight, and a more humane society would never emerge through top-down legislation. Instead, they believed that the process of their vision of the world had to happen in homes, villages, and cities, from the bottom up.
By insisting that people start treating each other better in everyday life, spiritual socialists transformed radical activism from projects of political policy-making to grass-roots organizing. For Cook, contemporary public figures such as Senator Bernie Sanders, Pope Francis, Reverend William Barber, and Cornel West are part of a long-standing tradition that exemplifies how non-Communist socialism has gained traction in American politics.

The Kids Are Alright

That young Americans affiliate with religion much less than past generations seems irrefutable. But does that mean twentysomethings lack interest in religion? Maybe–but most Nones, young and old, say something different. Nones lack interest in traditional religion, but typically say they believe in God and think it possible to follow their own, individuated, spiritual paths. A new book out this month from Oxford, The Twentysomething Soul: Understanding the Religious and Secular Lives of American Young Adults, by sociologist Tim Clydesdale (College of New Jersey) and religious studies scholar Kathleen Garces-Foley (Marymount), explores the phenomenon. I wonder how it compares with Smith and Denton’s Soul Searching, from 2005? Here’s the description from the Oxford website:

Today’s twentysomethings have been labeled the “lost generation” for their presumed inability to identify and lead fulfilling lives, “kidults” for their alleged refusal to “grow up” and accept adult responsibilities, and the “least religious generation” for their purported disinterest in religion and spirituality. These characterizations are not only unflattering — they are wrong. 

The Twentysomething Soul tells an optimistic story about American twentysomethings by introducing readers to the full spectrum of American young adults, many of whom live purposefully, responsibly, and reflectively. Some prioritize faith and involvement in a religious congregation. Others reject their childhood religion to explore alternatives and practice a personal spirituality. Still others sideline religion and spirituality until their lives get settled, or reject organized religion completely.

Drawing from interviews with more than 200 young adults, as well as national survey of 1,880 twentysomethings, Tim Clydesdale and Kathleen Garces-Foley seek to change the way we view contemporary young adults, giving an accurate and refreshing understanding of their religious, spiritual, and secular lives.

The City of Churches

“Brooklyn is peculiarly a city of churches, and what is better, they are generally well filled.” So proclaimed The Brooklyn Evening Star in 1841, and the nickname has stuck–even if, alas, the borough’s religiosity has fallen somewhat over time. Brooklynites historically thought of themselves as more pious and sober than their wild neighbors across the East River. Who’s to say? But the borough still hosts lovely, vibrant churches–and synagogues, mosques, and temples–in a way that belies easy assumptions about godless New York

Last week, Princeton University Press released a new history, Brooklyn: The Once and Future City, by Cornell professor Thomas Campanella (Urban Studies and City Planning). Looks very interesting. Here’s the description from the Princeton website:

America’s most storied urban underdog, Brooklyn has become an internationally recognized brand in recent decades—celebrated and scorned as one of the hippest destinations in the world. In Brooklyn: The Once and Future City, Thomas J. Campanella unearths long-lost threads of the urban past, telling the rich history of the rise, fall, and reinvention of one of the world’s most resurgent cities.

Spanning centuries and neighborhoods, Brooklyn-born Campanella recounts the creation of places familiar and long forgotten, both built and never realized, bringing to life the individuals whose dreams, visions, rackets, and schemes forged the city we know today. He takes us through Brooklyn’s history as homeland of the Leni Lenape and its transformation by Dutch colonists into a dense slaveholding region. We learn about English émigré Deborah Moody, whose town of Gravesend was the first founded by a woman in America. We see how wanderlusting Yale dropout Frederick Law Olmsted used Prospect Park to anchor an open space system that was to reach back to Manhattan. And we witness Brooklyn’s emergence as a playland of racetracks and amusement parks celebrated around the world.

Campanella also describes Brooklyn’s outsized failures, from Samuel Friede’s bid to erect the world’s tallest building to the long struggle to make Jamaica Bay the world’s largest deepwater seaport, and the star-crossed urban renewal, public housing, and highway projects that battered the borough in the postwar era. Campanella reveals how this immigrant Promised Land drew millions, fell victim to its own social anxieties, and yet proved resilient enough to reawaken as a multicultural powerhouse and global symbol of urban vitality.

A New Book on Methodism

Methodism, with about 80 million adherents around the world, has had an enormous influence in American culture, ever since George Whitfield preached during the Great Awakening. Like many mainline Protestant churches, the United Methodist Church, the movement’s American branch, is experiencing internal strains right now, over issues like same-sex marriage, which divide some American Methodists from their co-religionists in Africa and other regions. Earlier this year, the General Conference of the UMC sustained global Methodism’s opposition to same-sex marriage–a surprise, given the pattern in other mainline churches, though the controversy probably isn’t over. So this seems an opportune moment for a new book from Oxford University Press, released earlier this month, Methodism: A Very Short Introduction, by theologian William Abraham (Southern Methodist). Here’s the description from the publisher’s website:

Beginning as a renewal movement within Anglicanism in the eighteenth century, Methodism had become the largest Protestant denomination in the USA in the nineteenth century, and is today one of the most vibrant forms of Christianity. Representing a complex spiritual and evangelistic experiment that involves a passionate commitment to worldwide mission, it covers a global network of Christian denominations.

In this Very Short Introduction William J. Abraham traces Methodism from its origins in the work of John Wesley and the hymns of his brother, Charles Wesley, in the eighteenth century, right up to the present. Considering the identity, nature, and history of Methodism, Abraham provides a fresh account of the place of Methodism in the life and thought of the Christian Church. Describing the message of Methodism, and who the Methodists are, he also considers the practices of Methodism, and discusses the global impact of Methodism and its decline in the homelands. Finally Abraham looks forward, and considers the future prospects for Methodism.

Movsesian on Masterpiece Cakeshop

For those who are interested, the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy has published my article, Masterpiece Cakeshop and the Future of Religious Freedom, in the most recent issue. Here’s the abstract:

Last term, the Supreme Court decided Masterpiece Cakeshop, one of several recent cases in which religious believers have sought to avoid the application of public accommodations laws that ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. The Court’s decision was a narrow one that turned on unique facts and did relatively little to resolve the conflict between anti-discrimination laws and religious freedom. Yet Masterpiece Cakeshop is significant, because it reflects broad cultural and political trends that drive that conflict and shape its resolution: a deepening religious polarization between the Nones and the Traditionally Religious; an expanding conception of equality that treats social distinctions—especially religious distinctions—as illegitimate; and a growing administrative state that enforces that conception of equality in all aspects of our common life. This article explores those trends and offers three predictions for the future: conflicts like Masterpiece Cakeshop will grow more frequent and harder to resolve; the law of religious freedom will remain unsettled and deeply contested; and the judicial confirmation wars will grow even more bitter and partisan than they already have.

Readers can also download the article from the SSRN website, here.

Episcopalians’ Influence in American Culture

Speaking simply in terms of social status, Episcopalians have traditionally been at the top of America’s informal religious hierarchy. This was much more the case a few generations ago, perhaps, and even more so in the early part of the 20th Century. (When Golden Age Hollywood wanted to portray the upper class at church, it almost invariably depicted Episcopalians–just think of The Philadelphia Story and The Bishop’s Wife). A forthcoming book from the University of North Carolina Press, Religion, Art, and Money: Episcopalians and American Culture from the Civil War to the Great Depression, by Peter Williams (Miami University), explores the influence of wealthy Episcopalians on urban culture in America. Here’s the publisher’s description:

This cultural history of mainline Protestantism and American cities–most notably, New York City–focuses on wealthy, urban Episcopalians and the influential ways they used their money. Peter W. Williams argues that such Episcopalians, many of them the country’s most successful industrialists and financiers, left a deep and lasting mark on American urban culture. Their sense of public responsibility derived from a sacramental theology that gave credit to the material realm as a vehicle for religious experience and moral formation, and they came to be distinguished by their participation in major aesthetic and social welfare endeavors.

Williams traces how the church helped transmit a European-inflected artistic patronage that was adapted to the American scene by clergy and laity intent upon providing moral and aesthetic leadership for a society in flux. Episcopalian influence is most visible today in the churches, cathedrals, and elite boarding schools that stand in many cities and other locations, but Episcopalians also provided major support to the formation of stellar art collections, the performing arts, and the Arts and Crafts movement. Williams argues that Episcopalians thus helped smooth the way for acceptance of materiality in religious culture in a previously iconoclastic, Puritan-influenced society.

Divided America

9780815736912_FCTo say that we have yet another book to post on religious and political divides in America sounds a bit sarcastic, but I don’t mean it that way. The fact that so many serious books are appearing on polarization in America reflects something that all of us recognize. Deep fissures are appearing in our culture and no one knows quite what to do about them–assuming that we want to do something about them, which also is unclear. A new book from Brookings, Divided Politics, Divided Nation: Hyperconflict in the Trump Era, by Brookings scholar Darrell West, offers a personal perspective, from someone who began life in conservative Christian culture and now works in elite progressive culture. Here’s the description from the publisher:

Why are Americans so angry with each other? The United States is caught in a partisan hyperconflict that divides politicians, communities—and even families. Politicians from the president to state and local office-holders play to strongly-held beliefs and sometimes even pour fuel on the resulting inferno. This polarization has become so intense that many people no longer trust anyone from a differing perspective. Drawing on his personal story of growing up as a fundamentalist Christian on a dairy farm in rural Ohio, then as an academic in the heart of the liberal East Coast establishment, Darrell West analyzes the economic, cultural, and political aspects of polarization. He takes advantage of his experiences inside both conservative and liberal camps to explain the views of each side and offer insights into why each is angry with the other. West argues that societal tensions have metastasized into a dangerous tribalism that seriously threatens U.S. democracy. Unless people can bridge these divisions and forge a new path forward, it will be impossible to work together, maintain a functioning democracy, and solve the country’s pressing policy problems.

American Saints

9781469649474Last October, I posted a new biography of Elizabeth Ann Seton, the Catholic Church’s first native-born American saint. This month, the University of North Carolina Press releases A Saint of Our Own: How the Quest for a Holy Hero Helped Catholics Become AmericanJudging from the publisher’s description (below), this book focuses not so much on the inner lives of Seton and other American saints, but on why American Catholics believed it so important to have the Church recognize them. American saints, the author maintains, helped American Catholics feel more at home in their culture. The author is historian Kathleen Sprows Cummings (University of Notre Dame):

What drove U.S. Catholics in their arduous quest, full of twists and turns over more than a century, to win an American saint? The absence of American names in the canon of the saints had left many of the faithful feeling spiritually unmoored. But while canonization may be fundamentally about holiness, it is never only about holiness, reveals Kathleen Sprows Cummings in this panoramic, passionate chronicle of American sanctity. Catholics had another reason for petitioning the Vatican to acknowledge an American holy hero.

A home-grown saint would serve as a mediator between heaven and earth, yes, but also between Catholicism and American culture. Throughout much of U.S. history, the making of a saint was also about the ways in which the members of a minority religious group defined, defended, and celebrated their identities as Americans. Their fascinatingly diverse causes for canonization—from Kateri Tekakwitha and Elizabeth Ann Seton to many others that are failed, forgotten, or still under way—represented evolving national values as Catholics made themselves at home. Cummings’s vision of American sanctity shows just how much Catholics had at stake in cultivating devotion to men and women perched at the nexus of holiness and American history—until they finally felt little need to prove that they belonged.

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