12 Trends That Shaped U.S. Religion Since the '70s


Philip Jenkins, Church Trend

What are the most significant changes and megatrends that have occurred in the U.S. since the mid-1970s?

If you imagine someone time traveling between the eras, what would strike them? What was not tolerated then but is quite normal and accepted today? Conversely, what did people then do without comment that today could get you arrested or thrown out?

So many such impressions are subjective, but a few obvious broad themes do emerge. Together, they constitute a remarkable revolution in the most basic assumptions of life - of family and intimate relationships, of work and residence, of thinking and speaking, of getting and spending.

Often, these changes have been so significant as to constitute a revolution - change so vast that it is almost impossible for later generations even to imagine what the preceding "normality" actually was like.

Let me focus here on American religion. In no particular order, here are 12 such changes:

1. Gender revolutions.

Religions of all kinds have been shaken, revived or transformed beyond recognition by the rise of new sensibilities involving gender and sexual identity.

In the mid-1970s, ordaining women was a revolutionary and wildly controversial step for most denominations. Today, it is absolutely commonplace for many if not all traditions - Christian, Jewish and other.

That gender shift echoes through so many aspects of religious life and thought, including theology, liturgy and Bible translation.

2. Revolutions in sexual identity.

Attitudes toward homosexuality and sexual identity have been transformed, obviously, with far-reaching consequences for religious movements of all kinds. Religious groups have had to confront gay-related issues in their own ranks and also had to decide their attitudes to public policy.

Same-sex marriage has represented a core index of changing attitudes, which represents a massive generational divide within even conservative religious movements. They also threaten to place religious organizations on a collision course with secular laws.

3. Shifts in family structure.

This has many aspects, including a decline in marriage rates, a rise in people living alone, and a very steep decline in children living with both parents. All these affect the role of churches and their perceived functions, notably in defining the families they are trying to serve.

4. Abuse and authority.

It is difficult to imagine a time when child abuse issues were not a pressing concern for churches, but they were unheard of in the public sphere before the mid-1980s.

Rising concern with abuse had multiple roots, but a major source was the shifting gender attitudes noted earlier, and the resulting perceptions of sexual dangers.

We can only speculate how U.S. history might have been different if such scandals as the Roman Catholic Church faced had not erupted, but it is at least possible that an untainted church might have organized more effectively against social and political changes, including same-sex marriage.

Associated with the abuse issue has been the impact of new concepts of legal responsibility and the threat of litigation. Insurance and risk management have become critical forces driving the life of religious institutions.

5. The rise of the "nones."

The proportion of those claiming no religious affiliation has certainly grown, but the jury remains out as to what those figures actually mean.

No religious affiliation certainly does not mean no religion, and many "nones" seem to hold pretty standard religious attitudes. Also, the number of actual atheists in the U.S. remains very steady and actually pretty much where it has been over the past century or so.

Part of the explanation is that people who a generation ago would have defined themselves as generically Christian or as Catholic now respond "none."

Thus, I would be very careful about associating the rise of the "nones" with actual tendencies toward secularization.

6. Diversification within Christianity.

The U.S. has become massively more diverse in terms of ethnicity, race and national origin, especially with people stemming from Latin America, Africa and Asia. That influx has transformed Christian denominations of all kinds, introducing many new churches and augmenting existing ones.

Most affected has been the Roman Catholic Church, which continues to be by far the nation's largest religious community. As the U.S. moves toward majority-minority status, those trends will accelerate.

7. Global awareness.

Christian churches are much more conscious of the faith in other parts of the world.

That has a rhetorical function, in suggesting the kinds of religion that are growing and succeeding, and also has a practical impact when U.S. groups seek the protection and support of international allies.

8. The vanishing mainline.

The Protestant mainline was never the "mainstream" of American religion, but the rapid numerical decline of mainline churches since the mid-1970s really has been impressive.

The collapse is all the more awe-inspiring when set against the fast growing national population. The U.S. in 1975 had around 220 million people, compared to 320 million by 2015.

Even if mainline churches had grown in numbers by 50 percent or so since the mid-1970s, they would only be keeping their share of the religious market. Most have fallen dramatically in absolute numbers since then, never mind relative share. That decline also echoes through the seminaries.

9. The return of tradition.

Traditional and conservative religious forms have grown massively, and in many cases became the mainstream. This is true of evangelical and charismatic Christians, and of Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jews. In both cases, demography accounts for part of the story, but not all.

10. The politics of God.

This is less a megatrend than a story of rise and fall.

In the mid-1970s, cross-faith alliances like the Moral Majority and the Religious Right were barely imaginable, but both enjoyed huge power in their day. Arguably, the heyday of conservative religious politics has passed, but on specific issues, it might easily return.

One positive consequence of the "culture wars" has been a radical change in interdenominational attitudes, especially when set against long American precedent.

From the 1970s, conservative Protestants, Catholics, Mormons and Jews found they had common cause on many basic political issues, and that de facto alliance promoted the ongoing quest for cultural and theological common ground.

11. The age of the megachurch.

New religious structures and assumptions, for example, about weakening denominational loyalties.

New ways of identifying and appealing to audiences, reflected by new institutions such as megachurches.

New stress on individualized, personal and subjective approaches to belief, worship and devotion, and a drift toward institutions that offer such forms.

These trends might not be wholly new in American history, but they have become more marked in recent decades.

12. Language.

So much of today's familiar church-speak would need a lot of explanation to our visitor from the past. Look at a typical mission statement or bulletin, and see how many words or phrases might fall into that category. Inclusiveness, yes - but what else?

Philip Jenkins is distinguished professor of history at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and serves as co-director for the program on historical studies of religion in the Institute for Studies of Religion. He is the author of numerous books, including "The Great and Holy War: How WWI Became a Religious Crusade." A longer version of this article first appeared on The Anxious Bench, where he blogs regularly and is used with permission.

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