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Rick Warren at TED in 2006

Is the United States in the throes of another religious revival?  The high visibility of traditionalist-Evangelical Christians in their political guise—the Christian Right—gives the impression that their numbers are growing at exponential rates.

According to reliable survey data there are, today, twice as many Evangelical Christians as mainline Protestants (Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Lutherans, United Church of Christ, etc.).  In 1970, however, the number of Evangelical Christians was equal to the number of mainline Protestants.  On the surface, then, it appears that in only forty years, the number of Evangelicals has doubled.

The numbers are misleading.  The Evangelical-mainline teeter-totter has clearly tipped but mostly because the number of mainline Protestants has plummeted.

Of church-goers, 40% are Evangelicals.  Church attendance is more highly correlated to political conservatism today than in the 1970s.

On any given Sunday, 40% of Americans report that they are not sitting in pews.  The actual numbers of church-goers is closer to 20-25%.  The disparity indicates that some Americans who believe they go to church are, in fact, staying home; if they over-report, it may be because their religious identity is important to them.

Not just any pews are nearly empty.  The data suggests a dramatic decline in mainline congregations since 1972 when relevant data began to be collected.

While church attendance declined between 1950 and 1980, since then, the decline has been slight.  In other words, there is no data to suggest that attendance is increasing.

To the question of whether the United States is in the throes of another great religious revival—the answer is a decisive no.

Why has the number of mainline Protestants collapsed?  This is a difficult question to answer.  It’s easier to answer the other obvious question—why have Evangelical Christians maintained steady numbers?  In the past, when children of Evangelicals sought upward social mobility they switched to mainline churches.  This is no longer the case.  Overall, Evangelicals are better at hanging onto their children than more liberal Protestants.

If a person raised as a traditionalist-Evangelical becomes more liberal theologically, s/he usually drops her or his congregational membership altogether.  S/he skips church on Sunday mornings along with the growing numbers of “nones” (called “nones” because when asked about their religious preference on questionnaires, they answer “none”).  As a result, the mainline churches can no longer count on a steady stream of incoming ex-Evangelical Christians to take the place of the members they lose.

Suppose that traditionalist-Evangelicals and mainline Protestants sang in the same church choir; in 1970 the right-side and the left-side were balanced.  Now half of the left-side is gone.  The people from the missing half are doing their own thing on Sundays.  If they sing, they sing when they’re moved to sing.  And when they sing, they sing whatever pleases them—a Mozart aria or a song by Katy Perry or a tune by the Mamas and the Papas.

Even if the nones or the unchurched were to be moved to sing on cue, imagine the dissonance of a Mozart aria alongside a Katy Perry song alongside a Mamas and the Papas tune.  However lovely individually, these tunes would send listeners (and probably singers too) scrambling for the nearest earplugs.

Credit: Marion S Trikosko via Wikimedia Commons

In essence, then, ex-mainline and ex-Evangelical congregants have fragmented into millions of units of one.  The Christian Right didn’t get loud by converting mainline religionists; all it had to do was remain firmly seated in its pews and continue singing as a block while the theologically-liberal churches lost members.  If their voices sound stronger, it’s not based on growing numbers but due to a lack of synchronized countervoices.

Could the nones and the unchurched be led by someone like Martin Luther King Jr.?  Let’s not forget that King did not start alone.  He rose from the ranks of that substantial singing block, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and although one would hope that he could galvanize the nones and the unchurched today, he spoke in the language of the Bible:

“I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made straight and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.”

“I just want to do God’s will. And he’s allowed me to go to the mountain. And I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the promised land! I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the promised land.”

Without a recognized leader to choose songs and coordinate run-throughs, the nones and the unchurched aren’t likely to sound like a choir with a common purpose and common goals in two weeks, or a month, or a year from now.

Perhaps another leader, religious or not, will emerge and inspire enough one-person-choirs to sing together that their combined voices will match, in strength and power, that of the Christian Right; or better yet, ring more loudly.  After all, as King said, Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

Sources:  Dr. Mark Chaves, “Continuity and Changes in American Religion,” a talk given at the University of Chicago’s Divinity School Conference, “On the Edge of Glory:  Making Disciplines in a ‘Secular Age’,” 13 April 2012 (Dr. Chaves’ remarks were based on data collected by the National Congregations Study and by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago);  brainyquote.com/quotes/authors/m/martin_luther_king_jr_2.html#gri7ak01Ig25DzmL.99, accessed 09 Aug 2012.