Column: Is Christianity Moribund?

Sunday, May 24, 2015
Several days from now, at the invitation of the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, I will head to Washington to participate in discussions about intercommunion between Episcopalians and United Methodists. Although I am new to the conversation, these two Protestant denominations, the Episcopal Church and the United Methodist Church, have been engaged in these ecumenical negotiations for many years now. In light of a recent survey, however, it is difficult to escape the impression that these two once-powerful religious entities are managing decline, especially in the Twin State area.

The headlines of the Religious Landscape Study, conducted by the Pew Research Center, are striking and, for people of faith, disturbing. The percentage of Americans who identify themselves as Christians has dropped from 78.4 percent to 70.6 over the past seven years. During the same period, those who identify as atheists, agnostics or “nothing in particular” has risen from 16.1 percent to 22.8 percent. Nearly one in five Americans, 18 percent, were reared Christian but now count themselves either as “nones” or members of another religious tradition.

How do we explain such findings? First, it depends very much on your perspective. If you take the glass-is-half-full approach, we Americans are still very much a religious people, and our rate of belief in God or a Supreme Being, consistently in the 90 percentage range since World War II, is far higher than other Western nations. For decades, America’s persistent religiosity has confounded sociologists and secularization theorists who posited that as any society modernized and industrialized, religion would be pushed to the periphery. The United States, arguably the most modern and industrialized nation in the world, defied that prediction.

But this new wide-ranging survey, based on conversations last year with over 35,000 Americans, suggests that the fabric of American religiosity is fraying. The number of Roman Catholics is down 3.1 percent since 2007, and the number of mainline Protestants, which includes both Methodists and Episcopalians, is down 3.4 percent. Even evangelical Protestants, a growth sector in recent decades, declined 0.9 percent.

A variety of explanations come to mind: the priestly pedophilia scandals in the Catholic Church, a general suspicion of institutions dating to the Vietnam era, the crass politicization of religion that followed the emergence of the Religious Right in the late 1970s, the embrace of civil rights and gay equality. Add to that the difficulty of passing faith from one generation to the next; a growing number of younger Americans identify as “nones” or simply describe themselves as “spiritual, but not religious.”

Here in New England, and especially in the Twin States, the survey findings are even more dramatic. The Pew survey finds that only 59 percent of people in New Hampshire and 54 percent in Vermont claim to be Christian, considerably lower than the national average. Among those who profess to be religiously unaffiliated (the “nones”), Vermont tallies 37 percent of the population and New Hampshire 36 percent.

How does this affect my conversations in Washington later this week? On the face of it, there seems to be little reason to consolidate denominations simply for the purpose of managing their decline — and mainline Protestants have seen their share of decline ever since the mid-1960s. The competing argument is Christian unity; Jesus, after all, expressed his aspiration that his followers “may all be one,” a circumstance that hasn’t existed, at least institutionally, since the break between Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy in 1054, and that was only exacerbated by the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century.

But there are perils here as well, especially the danger of reaching for a theology of the lowest common denominator. I believe, in fact, that this unity-at-all-costs ethic among mainline Protestants has accelerated decline by settling for a watered-down faith so bland and inoffensive that its very blandness is an offense. We Americans are looking these days for definition, theological and otherwise, and the cultural trend is toward differentiation, not uniformity. Consider, for instance, that there were three television networks until relatively recently (four if you count PBS); today, there are hundreds, all of them reaching niche markets. For Protestants at least, the marketing of religion is no different, and one of the reasons for the resurgence of evangelicalism (at least until recently) was theological definition. You may or may not agree with most evangelicals, but you generally knew where they stood. That has not always been the case with mainline Protestants.

I wonder, though, if the Roman Catholic Church can provide some guidance. Although the number of Catholics in America has also declined, Pope Francis is enormously popular with Catholics and non-Catholics alike. Seven in ten Americans view the pontiff favorably. That number rises to 90 percent among Catholics, and 57 percent of those view him very favorably.

Maybe, just maybe, that can be attributed to Francis’ radical embrace of the gospel. He has called for peace and reconciliation among ancient enemies, and his statements on matters of sexual orientation suggest an attitude informed more by love and compassion than by judgment and censoriousness. He has called attention to the scandals of hunger and poverty, and all indications point to the release of an encyclical in a few weeks that will address the issue of climate change from a moral perspective.

Whereas the bishop of the Diocese of San Francisco installed a sprinkler system to flush homeless people out of the portals of St. Mary’s Cathedral, Francis, on learning about the homeless in St. Peter’s Square, sent out 400 bedrolls and ordered the construction of showers. Which cleric better understands the command of Jesus to care for “the least of these”?

Imagine a faith more interested in ending religious bigotry than condemning same-sex marriage. Imagine churches more concerned about the state of the poor than the status of their endowments. Consider the possibility of a faith whose followers aspired to be peacemakers and who treated the environment as if it were indeed God’s creation rather than a vehicle for exploitation and enrichment.

That is the message of Pope Francis. It is also the message of the New Testament — and maybe instead of engaging in clever advertising campaigns or church-growth gimmicks, those who claim the mantle Christian should reappropriate the radical demands of the Gospel. Such a posture may not revive sagging numbers, but I find no evidence that Jesus himself was very concerned about statistics.

Besides, faithfulness has its own rewards.

Randall Balmer, an Episcopal priest and a professor of American religious history at Dartmouth College, is one of the authors of Religion in American Life: A Short History.