In America these days, more houses of worship are closing than opening. A 2019 study by Lifeway Research analyzed 34 Protestant denominations and found that while 3,000 new denominations opened that year, a larger number, 4,500, shut down.
“Even before the pandemic, the pace of opening new congregations was not even providing enough replacements for those that closed their doors,” said Scott McConnell, executive director of Lifeway Research.
A growing trend
This trend bothers some people, and not just religious conservatives who have long considered attendance at (preferably right-leaning) congregations as essential to America’s survival. E.J. Dionne, a progressive Catholic and Washington Post columnist, expressed concerns recently, arguing that as the social bonds provided by religion erode, growing numbers of people will become isolated. Other commentators have asserted that because houses of worship provide so many social services in America, if they continue to close, Americans will lose access to needed services.
Dionne identifies what he considers to be a problem, but he doesn’t offer a solution. And that’s where we start to wander into a potentially troubling area: If what houses of worship have to offer is so vital, some might argue, the taxpayer needs to start propping them up.
But that’s the wrong answer. If a growing number of Americans have decided, for whatever reason, to step away from organized religion, it’s not the job of the government to persuade them differently. If we are indeed facing a significant cultural shift in how Americans view houses of worship, the government needs to adapt to it, not resist it.
Examining other models
It’s time to start looking at other models. Scholar Phil Zuckerman has examined countries in Scandinavia that are largely secular but where people report high degrees of happiness. Denmark and Sweden, two nations Zuckerman has focused on, have low crime rates, egalitarian policies, excellent public schools and strong social programs – all while most of their populations express indifference toward organized religion.
One of the reasons people in these nations may be so happy is that they feel secure. In the face of a serious life crisis – loss of a job, addiction, mental health issues, etc. – there’s likely to be a government-run program to help them. In America, people are often left to rely upon a tattered safety net of government services augmented by “faith-based” programs that may make them uncomfortable by engaging in heavy-handed forms of proselytism or discriminating against certain groups of people.
It’s not Americans United’s job to applaud or assail these current trends concerning attendance at houses of worship. After all, the whole purpose of the First Amendment was to give Americans a choice: to attend services or not as guided by conscience. If growing numbers of Americans have decided to walk away from organized religion, that is absolutely their right and none of the government’s business.
But it would be short-sighted not to recognize that if current trends continue, the day will come when houses of worship simply won’t have the bandwidth to act as the main provider of social services, let alone the glue that holds society together.
“Faith-based” initiatives were problematic from the start for lots of reasons. Americans’ shifting attitudes about church attendance will force us to confront their continued viability eventually. It would be best if we started now.