What the decline in religious affiliation means for America

Mike Bebernes
·Senior Editor
·6-min read

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

Just 47 percent of Americans say they are members of a church, synagogue, mosque or other house of worship, according to a new survey released by Gallup late last month. It’s the first time churchgoers have dropped beneath 50 percent since Gallup began recording data on the subject more than 80 years ago.

The new finding continues a sharp decline in religious affiliation that started at the turn of the century. In 1937, the first year Gallup asked about membership, 73 percent of respondents said they attended a house of worship. By 1999, that figure was 70 percent. Ten years later, however, it had dropped to 60 percent and has continued its downward trajectory over the past decade. It’s important to note that the survey measures a drop in membership in houses of worship, not religious belief. Seven in 10 Americans say they are affiliated with some form of religion. Only about 4 percent of Americans describe themselves as atheist.

The trend is driven by a substantial increase in the number of Americans who have no religious preference — up from 8 percent in 2000 to 21 percent in 2020. But other recent surveys suggest that nearly three-quarters of those people say they believe in God or some other higher power. Rates of religious affiliation have also dropped among people who say they belong to a specific religion.

Membership in houses of worship has declined in every group, but the trend is most significant among younger people. Only 36 percent of millennials belong to a church, compared to 58 percent of baby boomers. Limited data shows Gen Z is on a similar track with millennials. Political affiliations make a difference too. Over the past two decades, membership has fallen at twice the rate for Democrats as it has for Republicans.

Why there’s debate

The U.S. remains a religious country, especially compared to much of Europe. But experts say the drop in active participation in houses of worship may still have profound implications for the country.

Some sociologists fear that Americans will become increasingly distant from each other without the connections that come from regularly gathering to worship. The trend may also have significant implications for U.S. politics. Over the past several decades, the Christian right has been a potent political ally of the Republican Party. A dip in the church’s influence could hurt the GOP’s chances of winning elections in the future. Others see signs that Americans are directing the intense devotion they once reserved for their faith into politics — a trend that could make already intense partisan divisions even more severe.

Not everyone sees the dip in religious affiliation as a bad thing. Some scholars argue it’s a sign that people have more freedom to practice their faith as they choose without the often strict protocols of organized religion. Others say it will ultimately lead to a more progressive society that is more accepting of LGBTQ people and other groups that are often maligned or marginalized among traditionalist faiths.

What’s next

The coronavirus pandemic could also affect the place of religion in the society in the near future, but it’s unclear how. Researchers say it’s too early to know whether the closure of houses of worship will accelerate Americans’ shift away from organized religion or whether the challenges and isolation of the past year will make people seek out in-person religious practice.

Perspectives

Americans are losing their sense of togetherness

“Whatever changes are in store, religious observance is one barometer for gauging social cohesion and resilience, and the fate of faith in a post-pandemic America may be an early indicator of the social contagions of the ‘new normal.’ ... That’s a dispiriting outcome for a society that will need all the solidarity it can get.” — David Gibson, Religion & Politics

A drop in church membership is bad news for the GOP

“The challenge that declining religiosity poses to the Republican Party is therefore twofold. First, the trend directly shrinks the party’s core constituency of white Evangelicals, while expanding the core Democratic constituency of the irreligious. … The second problem is that the GOP’s most loyal and best-organized mass constituency — the Evangelical right — is increasingly out of touch with mainstream opinion.” — Eric Levitz, New York

The U.S. remains a deeply religious country

“American faith, even after so many waves of secularization, still retains large numbers and a zealous core.” — Ross Douthat, National Review

A more secular society will be a more equal one

“The long-term outlook is for public morality to be less determined by traditional religions, and increasingly shaped by the culture of growing acceptance of outgroups, gender equality, and environmentalism that has been emerging in recent decades.” — Ronald F. Inglehart, Oxford University Press blog

Houses of worship can regain followers if they adapt to changing times

“The religious landscape, in other words, is changing in dramatic and complex ways, and America’s religious life will be shaped not by secularization alone but by whether existing religious institutions simply retrench and atrophy, or whether they refashion themselves through a creative engagement with the changing culture.” — Wesley Granberg-Michaelson, Religion News Service

Many on the left have replaced religion with a devout commitment to social justice

“On the left, this could help to explain the quasi-religious character of the Great Awokening — the fervent devotion of so many young progressive activists to the cause of ‘social justice,’ which tends to involve the redrawing and policing of the bounds of morally acceptable thought and speech in institutions of civil society rather than the enacting of changes in public policy, as political activists have typically aimed to do.” — Damon Linker, The Week

Americans are rejecting religious institutions, not religion itself

“You shouldn’t take the new survey as proof that America is going through a spiritual crisis. Instead, take it as further evidence of an institutional crisis. Houses of worship are failing to connect with folks who, in previous decades, might have happily attended and joined a religious organization.” — Kelsey Dallas, Deseret News

Politics is increasingly replacing religion in Americans’ lives

“American faith, it turns out, is as fervent as ever; it’s just that what was once religious belief has now been channeled into political belief. Political debates over what America is supposed to mean have taken on the character of theological disputations. This is what religion without religion looks like.” — Shadi Hamid, The Atlantic

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