May 2021 Church & State Magazine | Editorial

The Gallup organization in late March issued a poll showing that fewer than 50% of Americans say they belong to a house of worship.

Gallup has been asking this question since 1937, and the figure has never been this low. In the mid-1990s, the number was 70%. It dropped to 50% in 2019 and now stands at 47%.

Christian nationalists were alarmed. On the website of the Am­eri­can Family Association, Alex McFarland, a radio host, remarked, “We will be a secular police state, like so much of Europe is, like so much of the world is becoming.” (One has to wonder whether the people who say these things have ever actually traveled to Europe.)

Yes, the face of religion in America is changing. Why? Sociologists and professors of religious studies are grappling with that question, but what we’re seeing may be nothing more than the logical culmination of the broad spirit of religious freedom embraced by the founders. In other words, Americans are doing what they’ve always had the right to do, but in larger numbers than ever.

That is nothing to fear; indeed, it is squarely within our traditions. Despite what religious extremists assert, religious freedom in America was never intended to be defined as, “You can be anything you want – as long as you’re Christian.” The “Christian nation” myth has no historical foundation and is debunked by many things, chiefly the text of our own Constitution.

America’s version of religious free­dom has always encompassed the right to doubt, to debate, to argue, to change your mind, to blend traditions and to create your own personal theology outside the walls of any house of worship – or to reject religion entirely. Today, growing numbers of Americans are taking that spirit and running with it.

Our founders would approve. Reflecting on his pioneering religious liberty statute in Virginia, Thomas Jefferson wrote that the measure was designed to protect “the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo and infidel of every denomination.”

Jefferson himself indulged liberally in this freedom. He questioned the claims of Christianity, edited the New Testament to remove the portions he did not accept and considered Jesus to be a moral teacher, not a divine figure. Asked to describe his religious beliefs, Jefferson replied, “I am of a sect by myself, as far as I know.”

Or consider Roger Williams, the 17th-century founder of Rhode Island and an early religious freedom advocate. During his lifetime, Wil­liams explored several spiritual paths. He was raised in the Church of England, became a Puritan minister, then briefly embraced the Baptist faith before ending up as a spiritual seeker, not fitting into any box. Was Williams our first “none”?

Growing numbers of Americans are traveling the path that Williams, Jefferson and others blazed. They aren’t necessarily jettisoning belief in God; they’re just less interested in organized religion.

The decline of organized religion will affect church-state issues. For starters, fewer souls in the pews means fewer dollars in the collection plate. Some religious leaders might be tempted to turn to public support for their schools and other institutions to make up the difference. That would be a mistake. It’s not the government’s job to bail out religious entities if the people no longer wish to support them.

Secondly, we could see an important shift in how social services are provided in America. Some scholars have bemoaned the decline of institutional religion, noting that houses of worship sponsor things like food banks, homeless shelters, centers for substance-abuse counseling and so on.

That’s true, but outsourcing social services to faith-based groups is something our political leaders have chosen to do; there are other options. Countries in Western Europe, Scandinavia and other parts of the world that have become more secular have found ways to help people in need without funneling services through religious groups. If they do it, we can, too.

Whenever polls like this are released, religious extremists raise a great hue and cry about the decline of the country, as if national morality can’t exist without institutionalized religion. They are unable to grasp that Americans are quite capable of being decent people and making moral judgments within the framework of many faiths and philosophies.

These alarmists need to remember that how, when or whether people worship has never been any of the government’s business. Increasingly, growing numbers of Americans are, by their actions, making that clear.