Racial Equality

What America’s Changing Religious Demographics Mean For Church-State Separation

  Rob Boston

A new poll from Gallup shows 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%.

What’s going on? 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.

Despite what Christian nationalists may say, 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, including 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.” (Long before Jefferson, Roger Williams, founder of Rhode Island and an early religious freedom advocate, explored different spiritual paths. Williams 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.) 

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, substance abuse counseling and so on.

That’s true, but outsourcing social services to faith-based groups is something our political leaders have chosen; 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. If we’re smart, we’ll start now.

Christian nationalists are already bemoaning recent trends. A commentator for the American Family Association has opined, “We will be a secular police state, like so much of Europe is, like so much of the world is becoming.”

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

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