Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Let the church say "Amen."

That the fourth estate has a congenital bias against and/or aversion to organized religion is largely a foregone conclusion. In their reporting on a recent Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life survey on changes in the religious affiliations of Americans, media outlets as (ostensibly) varied as the Chicago Tribune, the Houston Chronicle, the Associated Press, the Christian Science Monitor, the Boston Globe, NPR, and Time all found themselves more than capable of pointing out the declines that have been seen in the numbers of self-identifying Catholics and Protestants.

The Tribune noted that "[t]he catholic Church has lost more members than any other religious group... making roughly 10 percent of all Americans former Catholics" (although it did concede that the percentage of Catholics nation-wide remained stable largely due to immigration.) Time warbled about the fact that the "fastest-growing religious group is people without any religious affiliation," although it was careful to add that most of these people are not atheists, but that "they just describe their religion as 'nothing in particular.' "

And for its part, when the AP made note of the fact that "[n]early half of American adults have left behind the faith traditions of their upbringing," it also took the step of quoting Boston College's Alan Wolfe who opined "[i]t would be wrong to view what's happening as a shift from one religious identity to a different religious identity," adding that "what we've been witnessing is a shift from a fixed identity to a fluid identity."

As is evident with others, my own life is a testament to the fluidity of religious affiliation (as discussed elsewhere.) But even I would take care that the wrong conclusions are not drawn from either the report itself or the reporting that flowed therefrom. To be sure, the fortunes of all religious denominations have not been the same over time. While the Pew research makes it clear that "each religious group is simultaneously gaining and losing members," as a whole, mainline Protestant denominations (to include my own ELCA) have suffered some of the steepest declines in overall membership.

For example, while 2.4 percent of adult Americans joined the Methodist faith from other denominations, 4.4 percent left to go elsewhere. Similar percentages are noted for Lutherans, Presbyterians and Episcopalians.
Meanwhile, Evangelical churches comprise the largest (26.3 percent) and one of the fastest growing segments of Protestantism. When factoring in childhood religion as well as persons who joined and left the denomination, Pentecostals had a net gain of nearly 13 percent. Similarly, non-denominational Protestants (largely made up of independent churches with an Evangelical bent) had a 300 percent increase in membership.

For longtime observers, these trends do not surprise. Sadly, rather than tending to the spiritual longings of their flocks, many mainline religious bodies have gotten sidetracked on issues such as openly gay clergy/gay marriage and "social justice." A good bit of wisdom on the matter comes to us from the Wall Street Journal. A recent op-ed observed the following:

The Pew survey confirms what scholars have been saying for years about the winners and losers in this religious economy: Religions that demand the most of people are growing the fastest. The mainline Protestant churches -- with their less exclusionary views of salvation, looser rules for sexual conduct and sermons about social justice -- have lost membership, especially since the early 1990s. The more traditional evangelical churches keep growing.

There's a similar dynamic in the Catholic Church. Broadly, it has been losing members rapidly -- as much as a third of the native-born Catholic population. Meanwhile, it has gained members among foreign-born (mostly Hispanic) residents, who are often attracted to more conservative pastors and parishes.
While many in the media were quick to surmise that the Pew report portended a general decline in public piety, the opposite seems to be the case. To be sure, there was no meaningful increase in atheism or agnosticism, and Americans are still far more like than not to say that religion is "very important to them." What has fallen out of favor is religiosity that is divorced from reality. Denominations that navel-gaze over the rights of gays, or that do not inculcate the disciplines of faith, tend to fall on hard times sooner or later.

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