Americans lose their faith, as church membership sees downward spiral
A poisonous political climate is increasingly driving Americans away from organised religion.
Despite being governed by a party steeped in political Christianity over the past fours years or perhaps because of it, Americans are increasingly abandoning established churches.
In a first, church membership in the US has declined to below 47 percent, according to a survey by Gallup. The figures are down from 70 percent two decades ago and speak to a trend of declining religiosity and how Americans process religious identity.
The apparent shift represents a seismic generational divide pitting millennials, who are more likely to disavow church membership, with only 36 percent saying they are church members, choosing instead to be unaffiliated.
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This stands in contrast to the traditionalist generation, born before 1946, and the baby boomer generation born between 1946-1964, whose church membership stands at 66 percent and 58 percent, respectively.
The move away from church membership, which hovered around 70 percent from the 1940s to the 2000s, has been driven in part by growing political polarisation in the country.
Polls increasingly show the stark religious divide running through the country’s two main political parties.
More than 56 percent of Evangelical Protestants vote for the Republican Party, whereas more than 54 percent of the religiously unaffiliated vote for Democrats.
The Republican party has increasingly, over the last 20 years, adopted what some have termed a form of “Christian Nationalism.”
Many religiously inclined Americans, in particular an older generation, have come to see an America that is dominated by a political and media elite pushing left-leaning or liberal policies on the country.
The Republican party has become the repository of that sentiment which has only deepened religious rhetoric in the country and resulted in young millennials seeing the church as being attached to a particular political identity.
The polling bears that growing trend with Gallup saying that “Protestant, declines in church membership are proportionately smaller among political conservatives, Republicans, married adults and college graduates.”
In contrast, “Over the past two decades, declines in church membership have been greater among Eastern residents and Democrats.”
Research has shown that this level of religious polarisation wasn’t always significantly present in American politics.
“The religious Right did not begin as a political movement; it began as a moral reaction to the sixties,” says the American political scientist Robert Putnam, who has been looking at changing American attitudes towards religion.
“It became a political movement, and with the rise of the religious Right, abortion, followed later by homosexuality, became a major public issue dividing the parties,” added Putnam.
On this and a whole host of issues, both parties stand on opposite sides of the debate. When the Republican political elite noticed the increasingly vocal religious bloc, they began to appeal to it, says Putman.
“For the people in the religious Right, that was terrific news because at last, the institutions of the country were beginning to take seriously the values that they cherished in their private moral and religious lives.”
“But starting in about the 1990s, a growing number of young people, especially, began to get upset about that increasing mixture of religion and politics,” Putman finally added.
All this naturally has implications for the future of organised religion in the US.
The Gallup poll found that there are increasing numbers of people who would describe themselves as non-religious. And as the Christian faith has become a regular battleground feature of American politics entwining itself with the Republican party, there has been an increasing aversion to organised religion.
For Republican and Christian churches who believe that the US was built on Christian values and principles, the public’s growing estrangement towards church membership is unlikely to diminish their perceived defense of the country.