The religious landscape of the United States continues to change rapidly.
The General Social Survey (GSS), by the Nonpartisan and Objective Research Organization (NORC) at the University of Chicago, has been asking US Americans, since 1988, what they believe about God. For decades, the answer did not change very much. Around 70 % of the Silent Generation, people born from 1928 to 1945, said they “know God really exists” and “have no doubts.” That same sentiment was shared by about 63 % of the baby boomers and the generation after them, Generation X.
In 2018, however, the millennials, people born from 1981 to 1996, expressed much less certainty about belief in God. Only 44 % had no doubts about the existence of God. More doubtful were members of Generation Z, people born from the mid-to-late 1990s to the early 2010s. Only 30% claimed certain belief in God.
No segment of US society, in fact, has been immune to the rise of religious disaffiliation. While it can be easy to say religious belief changes are driven by young people, is also strong evidence that older Americans are moving away from faith communities, as they enter their “twilight years.” A big factor is lost credibility in institutional religion. This is a strong factor in US Catholic church-departures but it is hardly just a Catholic issue.
Religious voters, especially white evangelical Protestants and conservative Catholics have been the bedrock of the modern Republican Party. It’s well known that Donald Trump enjoyed overwhelming support from white evangelicals in 2020. Religious “nones” (people whose religion is “none”) backed Biden.
It now appears, however, that the US conservative Christian tide is changing. The big change factors are that (1) the United States has become more multiracial; and (2) that larger shares of US Americans are simply leaving Christianity. Former Christians are either joining other religions or leaving entirely and joining the ranks of the religious “nones.”
These trends in US religious belief create a consequential socio-political situation. In 2021, when about 26 % of US Americans have no religious affiliation, just 0.2 % of members of the US Congress identify as “nones.” Given the rapid religious change in the United States, it’s clear that the US political establishment does not represent what is truly a seismic shift in US society. Even more significant, however, is the fact that the declining far-right US Americans are becoming more angry, volatile, and violent. There is a real danger that US democracy will be immobilized by hostile polarization.
But why are more US Americans becoming “nones”?
Some observers think the churches need more “evangelization.” I think that response is analogous to saying “take an aspirin if you have Covid-19.” The issue is more complex. The Christian share of the population is down and religious “nones” have grown across multiple demographic groups: white people, black people, and Latinx; men and women; in all regions of the country; among college graduates; and among those with lower levels of educational attainment. Religious “nones”are growing faster among Democrats but their ranks are actually swelling in both parties.
David Campbell, chair of the University of Notre Dame’s political science department, says a key reason for the Christian decline is an “allergic reaction to the religious right.” Many US Americans he stresses “see religion as bound up with political conservatism, and the Republican party specifically.” Christian nationalists, who believe the United States was established as, and should remain, a Christian country, have gone overboard with a broad range of measures to thrust their version of religion into US life.
I think another key reason for Christianity’s US decline is the way Christians have been behaving: individually and institutionally. In Matthew 22:36-40, Jesus was asked about which commandment was the greatest. He replied: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.” Christians are called to walk alongside struggling people: an expectant mother facing an unintended pregnancy; a young man recovering from substance use; impoverished parents hoping to keep their family together; immigrants seeking a safe asylum; gay, lesbian, and trans people seeking acceptance. The human needs are great. How do Christians respond to them? How does institutional Christianity respond to them? Last week I read about a young woman, a greatly liked and effective teacher in a Catholic high school, who announced that she is pregnant and the soon-to be-father is her boyfriend. The local diocesan head of education ordered the school principal to fire her immediately.
A great Christian revival could break out if Christians focused more on loving God and caring for the most vulnerable.
I am not a pessimist. I suspect many people today are not necessarily rejecting God. They just feel that many religious organizations have lost touch with reality and are too concerned with their own money, power, self-preservation, and official doctrines. Those religious organizations are spiritually bankrupt. They are no longer able to speak to and address some of the big questions of our time. I really do think many people today, of all ages, want to be a part of something larger. They seek a new life-giving perspective. Many may not even know how to express it but are looking for a renewed spiritual belief, what I call a taste of the Divine. A meaningful church must listen and journey with them.
A good friend joked, rather mockingly, about people who say they are “spiritual but not religious.” I don’t joke about it. I understand what is happening. Many of these people have a desire to live with integrity. They want to work for transformation and a more just, compassionate, and responsible world. Religions are good at giving answers. The spiritual quest begins with the opposite. It begins with the questions. Sometimes I fear that organized religion is not really listening to the questions of today’s searchers.
I often think about the questions of the young husband and wife on the road to Emmaus, as reported in Luke. Jan Lambrecht (1926), my friend and Professor Emeritus of New Testament at our Catholic University of Leuven, calls it “one of Luke’s most exquisite literary achievements.”
The two disciples are returning from Jerusalem after Jesus’ death. On the way they meet Jesus raised from the dead but don’t recognize him. They discuss with him their great sadness about recent Jesus events. They also invite the stranger to eat with them. Only later in their spiritual quest do they discern who their traveling companion is. They say: “Did not our hearts burn within us, while he talked with us on the way, and while he opened to us the scriptures?” (Luke 24:32)
On their life journeys, I am convinced many “nones” are indeed continuing their spiritual quests. We can help by traveling with them. I know, because I was once there.