Recent studies show that the future of American religion faces two massive obstacles: most young people don’t believe in God, and only about one-fifth of Americans attends a religious service on a weekly basis. Time and again, statistics like these bring the question of religion to the forefront of cultural decline.
Downward trends in religious belief and church attendance began decades ago, and we continue to see its effects on our civic institutions, communities, and politics. It’s a chicken-or-the-egg situation: does the loss of faith lead to the chaos around us, or has culture led people away from God? I suspect that the answer is “yes” to both cases. The decline in religiosity is particularly concerning for American conservatism and the “religious Right” that has animated politics for decades.
Data Shows Decline in Religious Engagement
The results of the 2022 General Social Survey (GSS) were recently released, offering last year’s responses to questions that have been asked of American adults since 1972. Ryan Burge, an assistant professor of political science at Eastern Illinois University and author of The Nones: Where They Came From, Who They Are, and Where They Are Going, drew particular attention to GSS responses regarding religion.
The number of both the Silent Generation and Boomers who say they believe in God has decreased by 5 percent since 1988, with the Silent Generation falling from 70 percent to 65 percent, and the Boomers decreasing from 65 percent to 60 percent. Unlike other generations, Gen X displays a slight increase in belief in God, edging up from just less than 60 percent to 61 percent.
In the younger generations, belief in God has fallen far more. First surveyed in the late 90s, only 43 percent of Millennials believe in God today, compared to about 53 percent in the first survey. Gen Z, too, shows steep decline in the brief period that it has been surveyed, falling from around 45 percent saying they believe in God around 2014 to 31 percent today.
What percentage of each generation has a certain belief in God in 2022?
Silent: 65% (down ~5% over time)
Boomers: 60% (down ~5% over time)
Gen X: 61% (actually increased a bit as they aged)
Millennials: 43% (down ~10%)
Gen Z: 31% (down at least 10 pts, maybe 15 pts) pic.twitter.com/7ypTvG9ky3
— Ryan Burge (@ryanburge) May 17, 2023
The same survey measured religious service attendance over fifty years, from 1972 to 2022. In 1972, 41 percent of adults in the United States attended a religious service on a weekly basis, with an additional 16 percent attending monthly. Twenty-five percent of people attended only yearly, while only 8 percent seldomly attended and 9 percent never attended at all.
Today, the numbers are all scrambled up. Weekly and monthly attendance has fallen off, and greater numbers of respondents say that they seldom or never attend a religious service. Weekly church attendance has decreased 19 points over the intervening decades to 22 percent today, and monthly attendance has decreased to 10 percent. Approximately 33 percent of adults in the United States never attend religious services, and 11 percent only seldomly attend.
Big data in the religion data world. @GSS_NORC just released some of their survey results from 2022!
Here’s religious attendance in 1972 vs 2022:
Never: 9% -> 33% 24%
Seldom: 8% -> 11%3%
Yearly: 25% -> 23% 2%
Monthly: 16% -> 10% 6%
Weekly: 41% -> 22% 19% pic.twitter.com/n16fWL96cV
— Ryan Burge (@ryanburge) May 17, 2023
Religion and the Future of the Right
The loss of faith doesn’t just mean that Americans are more likely to spend their Sunday morning at bottomless brunch instead of in the pew — it also means that the political future of the “religious right” is less certain than it has been in years past.
The decline of religious affiliation is particularly prominent in flyover country. While the coasts have traditionally been less religious and more liberal, middle America is experiencing a pronounced de-churching. And, as religious affiliation declines, those same areas become more politically progressive. In 2020, non-religious voters composed 46 percent of total support for Biden. (RELATED: Biden Administration Goes After Campus Religious Groups)
Drawing on county-by-county statistics about the change in religious affiliation, Burge predicts that “Democrats will continue to gain ground in suburban counties that are predominantly white and where religion is fading in size and importance,” pointing specifically to states like Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania.
“On the other hand,” Burge explains, “the shifts in the religious landscape make it more likely that the GOP can hold off Democratic advances in important states like Texas and Florida” due to the continued influx of religious Hispanic immigrants.
The religious right still exists — and Burge indicates the correlation between religious populations and right-leaning politics — but conservatism today has coalesced more notably around anti-woke principles. As writer Nate Hochman pointed out last spring in the New York Times, “The conservative political project is no longer specifically Christian.” We’re fighting a culture war, not a holy war.
Yet, the culture war can’t merely be an opposition to the cutting edge of progressive politics. The right doesn’t win by ceding issues like gay marriage now that transgenderism has arrived on the scene. Conservatives are liable to slide down the slippery slope themselves without a firm grounding in a positive vision of politics and reality. For decades, Americans have received that vision, at least in part, on Sunday mornings.
Traditional religion has given the Right its moral imagination, explaining that gay marriage is wrong because marriage between a man and a woman is good, that abortion is evil because life is sacred, that woke classroom indoctrination is bad because parents are the primary educators of their children. Religion gives conservatives something to be for; it orients the culture war.
Now that religious disaffiliation is on the rise — particularly among young people — the moral imagination doesn’t just dry up and vanish. People who think themselves unburdened by religion actually treat something else as their god, be it politics, money, pleasure, or their own egos.
This is the heart of the culture war; it is nothing less than a battle to restore religion in America — to once again love the Lord with heart, soul, and mind. Maybe it’s a holy war after all.
Mary Frances Myler is a postgraduate fellow with the Center for Citizenship and Constitutional Government.
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