Nones again

May 16, 2015

The Pew Research Center has a new study out on the “landscape” of religion in America. In just 7 years the percentage of American adults not claiming any religious affiliation has risen from 16.1% to 22.8%. The “Nones” now outnumber Roman Catholics, and way outnumber “mainline Protestants” according to Pew’s classification of denominational families; only the Evangelicals are more numerous, at 25.4%. At the same time total Christian identification has fallen from 78.4% to 70.6%

The increase in Nones seems to involve both generational change – the more religious older folks dying out and being replaced in the sample by youngsters – and a steady drift away from religion within each generational slice. There has been little sign of what used to be considered a “thing”: people drifting away from church in their late teens and twenties, but returning when they marry and have kids of their own. And while in the past a significant number of people raised as Nones eventually found themselves churched, this too is becoming less common.

As I see it, Nones have reached a self-sustaining critical density in many parts of the country, especially metropolitan areas outside the South. When I was a kid in the 1950’s, even though I myself wasn’t actually raised in a church (my parents were marginally affiliated with Greek Orthodoxy), I got the sense from people I knew, as well as from the media, that church-going was something normal, something most people did. This was the age of Eisenhower, who said it was important to have a religion, no matter which; I recently read somewhere that he was the only President to have been baptized while in office. It was the age when Billy Graham was always being mentioned in the media, widely admired by millions who didn’t share or even understand his particular beliefs. There were times I felt I was missing something, and once I was on my own I had to try to figure out what it was and how it worked. Today’s young people are much less likely to get that message, less likely to have close friends or relatives who are religious and who might inspire or at least enable them to give it a try at some point; moreover, most of the Christians and other religious-identifiers whom a young None is likely to encounter in daily life, in school or at work, are a lot less likely to be involved in their respective faith traditions than their predecessors were, more likely to have lifestyles and moral and political beliefs similar to those of the Nones rather than to those of the religiously more conservative, and therefore much less likely than in previous decades to pull their None friends into church (or whatever) with them. Back in the ’50s, even though there were plenty of differences among religious and denominational groups, they all seemed to share a certain mindset – a respect for traditional teachings, scriptures, and that hot topic for kids growing up in all eras, sexual morality; it was those who rejected religion altogether who were “marked” as a somewhat alien minority. Today it’s the Evangelicals who are isolated on the conservative wing, with Mainliners, Catholics, members of non-Christian traditions and Nones tending to agree among themselves on most issues.

Ross Douthat and others have published interesting reflections on the Pew results, which I may find time to comment on in days to come…



June 6, 2012

The Pew Research Center has just released a new survey showing what people have been saying all along, that our political parties have become increasingly polarized over the last few decades;  Republican voters have become a lot more consistently conservative, and  Democrats have become significantly more liberal. At the same time, differences of opinion between age groups, genders, classes, etc, have remained stable.

Part of this seems to be due to more moderate people leaving the parties altogether, becoming self-identified Independents; though even among Independents, those leaning Republican have gotten more conservative and those leaning Democratic have gotten more liberal.

It isn’t clear, at least from my cursory glance at the survey, to what extent people within each party have changed their minds about the issues, and to what extent people have kept their opinions and simply switched to the part that better reflects them. Clearly a lot of the latter has been going on; white Southern conservatives for instance used to be notoriously loyal to the Democratic party, and have now largely become Republican. A lot of moderate-to-liberal ex-Republicans here in New England, at the same time, have switched to Dem or Ind, saying that in fact their party has left them by pursuing a Southern/Evangelical strategy. But I think that on certain issues, like for instance matters relating to sexual morality, there has also been change within our partisan sub-cultures; positions have been evolving, as the President has said of himself.

To some extent this increasing polarization was a deliberate goal of the Conservative Movement in the 1950’s and 60’s; there was a feeling that we’d be better off if the parties stood for coherent ideologies, so voters could know what to expect when they elected someone from one party or the other. The Goldwater candidacy not only represented in itself a triumph of conservatism within the GOP, it sealed the triumph by beginning the abovementioned process of Southern white voters giving up their former (going back to the Civil War era) party loyalty. Once the Southerners were in the party, it became a lot harder for liberal/moderate Republicans to retain any influence at all. Of course Goldwater himself didn’t seal the deal for the party as a whole, he just created a rationale that linked opposition to civil rights with traditional Republican economics; he made it possible to say “I’m not a racist, I just don’t think government should be controlling who people can hire or do business with.” He opened the door, but in 1968 the Deep South reverted to its “Dixiecrat” voting habits; it took another four years for Nixon to sweep the whole South, including the parts that had shown Republican tendencies earlier but then reacted to Goldwater the way the rest of the country did.

And there was Vietnam. Failure of the Democratic party to manage the split in opinion between the anti-war youth and their “Greatest Generation” elders created a sense among many Americans that as extreme as Goldwater Republicanism was, the extremism of Democrats on the left was more dangerous. And there were the sexual issues. A lot of voters who never for a moment embraced GOP economic doctrines nevertheless embraced the party itself as being more patriotic and more devoted to traditional life-style values. To some extent we’ve gotten beyond that, as the sixties youth have aged into the demographic mainstream, at the same time mellowing in some ways – largely giving up our anti-capitalism under pressure of reality, while keeping our old belief in radical equality and sexual freedom; learning to respect those who serve in the military, while remaining dubious about militarism as an approach to foreign policy.

So here we are. That’s all I have time to write today; more later.


In the Pew Forum study I linked to the other day it is shown that while there were 97 Methodists in the 87th Congress (1061-62), 18% of the total membership and a close second to the Catholic contingent, in the new Congress they’re down to 50, a reduction of nearly 50%, the largest decline of any major denomination other than the Congregationalists (who plummeted from 27 to 4) and the group labeled “Restorationists” (from 18 to 2)  – I assume this last category includes the entire Campbell-Stone family of churches: the Disciples of Christ, Churches of Christ and Christian Churches/Churches of Christ.

Meanwhile, what about the general public? This table shows a membership decline for the United Methodist Church of 23.6% from 1960 to 2004, not quite the largest decline of mainline denominations; however, I can’t tell whether this takes into account the merger with the Evangelical United Brethren in 1968. The UCC (mostly former Congregationalists) are down 35.9%, the Episcopalians and Presbyterians are in the same range, and the Disciples of Christ come off the worst, going down 56.4%, the only denomination in this period to fall from above to below one million members.

What does this all mean? In my post last year on this subject I presented my notion that all else being equal, the denominations that did the worst over the past decades were the ones with the weakest regional concentration; as children grow up they are more likely to retain a sense of denominational identity (even if they quit going to church in their young adult years) if they have a number of school friends and neighborhood friends who go to the same church. Now I would like to raise a related but broader point.

I used to think of the Methodists as the model of what a middle-American church was. It made sense to me that they were overrepresented in Congress because all across the Midwest and Border South they were the church that gathered the most civic-minded citizens, the church that did the most to cultivate civic mindedness in its members, with a commitment to social justice and community improvement shared with other denominations, to be sure, but uniquely central to their very identity. But this was largely a small-town phenomenon in its golden days; the model of “church” they represented was one that worked best when political and cultural communities were themselves closer knit than they are in today’s metropoles. The Congregationalists (though confined largely to New England) and the Restorationists seem to fit the same paradigm. This is not quite a question of “congregational polity,” which technically the Methodists do not have; it is a question of how the church relates to civic society, and how the latter has evolved.

I would like to see someone figure out a way to quantify how many times a week the average church-going American meets his/her fellow congregants outside of church, outside of church-related activities. I think it will be found that the world in which our mainline Protestant churches prospered was one in which there was simply a lot more such interaction than today. Members of the same church were more likely not only to send their kids to the same public school, but to live on the same street, go to the same library, shop in each other’s stores, see each other on line at the bank, belong to the same social and political clubs; there was an intensity of mutual interaction which the churches were part of and which gave a certain meaning to their existence.

I believe the mainline denominations have declined not because of any loss of faith in the population as a whole, or (as many would have it) a yearning for a stricter, narrower faith; or at least, I don’t think “faith” is an independent variable. It seems to me they have declined because the whole way of life which provided them with a secure and prominent niche has declined.

No Nones in Congress?

January 8, 2011

The other day the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life published Faith on the Hill, a study comparing the religious affiliations of members of our new Congress with those of the general public. I first became aware of it via this post on Friendly Atheist; then today Charles Blow did an op-ed on it in the NY Times, so I figured I really should mention it here.

Interestingly, the Times piece picked up on the same detail which – understandably – concerned our atheist friend: the total lack of any representation for the growing minority of religiously unaffiliated, a category including atheists, agnostics, seekers, spiritual-but-not-religious, etc. As the Pew article puts it,

Perhaps the greatest disparity between the religious makeup of Congress and the people it represents, however, is in the percentage of the unaffiliated – those who describe their religion as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular.” According to information gathered by CQ Roll Call and the Pew Forum, no members of Congress say they are unaffiliated. By contrast, about one-sixth of U.S. adults (16%) are not affiliated with any particular faith. Only six members of the 112th Congress (about 1%) do not specify a religious affiliation, which is similar to the percentage of the public that says they don’t know or refuses to specify their faith.

(However, one of the two Unitarian Universalists listed in the summary table as “Other Faiths,” Rep. Pete Stark (D-CA), has declared that he doesn’t believe in a Supreme Being; and six members of Congress have simply declined to answer the question.)

“For perspective,” Blow observes

there are almost two-thirds as many unaffiliated people as there are Catholics in this country and nearly as many as there are Baptists. Their number is more than twice that of Methodists, and more than nine times the numbers of Jews or Mormons.

He adds,

I don’t for a second believe that all those members are religious. I believe some are trapped in the religious closet of American politics where nonbelief is a nonstarter. It’s not only seen as unholy, it’s also seen as un-American.

Now, the growth in the None population is relatively recent and concentrated among the young, and so it can be expected that in future decades it will become increasingly acceptable for an “out” non-affiliate to run for office. Other minorities have also faced a certain lag-time in gaining a fair reflection of their numbers in Congress; and for a long time after women obtained the vote there were never more than two of them in the Senate at once, but now no-one seems to think twice about voting for one.

The survey includes a table showing changes in congressional religion over the past 50 years, and a number of these are of interest: the largest growth in representation has been for Catholics (Latinos?), followed by “unspecified Protestants” (non-denominational evangelicals?) and Jews; Baptists and Lutherans have trended slightly up, while Methodists and Presbyterians have declined drastically (170 between them in ’61, 95 today), Episcopalians slightly less so (from 66 to 41), and Congregationalists have virtually been wiped out (from 27 to 4). The first Muslim and Buddhist members joined Congress in 2007, the same year Rep. Stark “came out.”

In a similar vein, it has been noted that with the retirement of Justice Stevens last year there are no remaining Protestants on the Supreme Court.