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Church Attendance Wasn’t Always Robust in Past

Suddenly it has dawned on pundits and publics that decline in religious affiliation and participation demands notice.
Editorials on the subject abound. Some of these celebrated the liberation of society from religion, though descriptions of what is replacing it are seldom seen as satisfying (spiritually, philosophically, politically). We’ll talk about that some other day.

Others use the statistics of decline to scold those whom the editorialists blame: liberals, secularists, compromisers, sell-outs.

Still others use the data to inspire counteraction: a search for new strategies, fresh theological statements, understanding the alienation of so many of the young from religious and other institutions.

You will even find some of the Catholic and other churches who argue that statistical decline might leave the nation and its churches with leaner, purer memberships and affiliations.

Comparing church membership and participatory decline with data from the past calls for the question: which past?

Saturday’s Wall Street Journal features an op-ed by David Aikman, author of the new Baker book, “One Nation Without God: The Battle for Christianity in an Age of Unbelief.”

Despite an occasional sneer, for example about “a secular orthodoxy clank[ing] its way peevishly through academe, the media and popular culture,” Aikman’s tone is that of a sincere and sincerely worried believer.

One might suggest, however, that the past he chooses is more complex than he recalls.

Colonial America was not as church-bound and church-moved as he suggests. He does better with the 19th century, when religious practice did take hold not only among Catholic newcomers but also revived Protestants.

So how were things in the good old days? A consensus questioned by a few serious scholars – Patricia Bonomi among them – is that fewer than 20 percent of the colonial citizens were active in churches.

Change came after 1776, so that, in one common estimate, church participation jumped from 17 percent to 34 percent between 1776 and 1850.

A better past, more illuminating for comparison in present concerns, is between the early 1960s, when participation crested, and today.

Problems abound: Aikman and all other observers reckon that religious vitality is not simply tied to church and other-institutional membership.

Thus, for example, Douglas and Rhona Hustedt Jacobsen, in an important new book, “No Longer Invisible: Religion in University Education,” see religion not simply confined by the “peevish” but is all over the place in many sectors of academe.

Religion, for better and for worse – often for worse – gets more space and time in media than at any time in memory.

Usually, stories of decline focus on “Mainline Protestantism,” which has taken many hits even as it scores some others.

But the demographers reveal that decline is also measured in many large evangelical Protestant churches, which are no longer exempt from the trends.

Also, if one takes out the Mexican American population membership, almost everything one can say about Protestant decline is matched by losses in Catholic participation in worship and activity.

Aikman, though his work is tinged by nostalgia for a nation that was never as faithful or godly or “together” as he suggests, does a favor by connecting decline with faltering in or rejection of “belief.”

“Being spiritual” is hardly an address to that, if spirituality lacks ties to communities of faith and services provided by often derided “institutional religion” whenever it was healthier, as the Aikmans of today measure it.

Now, for the future?

Martin E. Marty is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus at the University of Chicago. His column first appeared in Sightings.

Readers may find much useful statistical and historical information in this article from Gale Encyclopedia of US History: “Religion and Religious Affiliation.”