The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life has announced that, for the first time in the United States, less than half of us identify as Protestants. The "mainline" has been in decline for some time, but they are not alone; Evangelicals, Fundamentalists, and Pentecostals all have had their numbers decline sharply.
Roman Catholics have held steady. A decrease in American-born Catholics has been offset by immigrant Catholics. The third largest religious group in the US is neither religious nor a group. They are the "nones," people who may or may not believe, but do not claim any religious affiliation.
Some of attributed this sharp growth in disaffiliation with frustration regarding the politicization of spirituality. While causation is hard to ascertain, there is clearly a correlation. Yet while churches have certainly harmed themselves and driven away members by embracing political platforms, powers, and politicians that bear little resemblance to the message that Jesus proclaimed, the problem is deeper than that. Actually, the growing number of religiously unaffiliated people is a symptom of a problem that affects us all, regardless of our faith (or lack thereof).
In "Coming Apart," Charles Murray analyzes the changes among white Americans from 1960 to 2010. (He limits his study to white Americans to demonstrate that the divisions he observes are occurring along class lines, not racial ones.)
Among higher income individuals, there is not a significant decline in religious membership and/or attendance. Lower income whites, on the other hand, are far less likely to attend religious services, marry, delay gratification, or pursue a higher education.
Murray argues that each of these things are important tools in escaping poverty, but that people in upper income brackets don't "preach what they practice," so private charity and public assistance alike lack the leverage that comes with these values.
While I believe it will take more than these "old-fashioned" American values to affect real change, Murray's analysis does lead to some other conclusions:
First, the decrease in American religiosity is tied to the decline of the American middle class. Many of the people who are upset about the record lows in non-affiliation supported the policies that created record highs in income inequality. People in "survival mode" often have little time for church attendance. It could be that the politicization of the church not only pushed people to disaffiliate but it also reduced the number of people in the churches "key demographic."
2. Secondly, even if upper-income church goers "Preaching what they practice," was sufficient to affect social change, it would not matter, because they would be "preaching to the choir." Income and class segregation has led to the phenomena of people making six-figures and considering themselves "middle class." Simply put, rich people and poor people interact less than ever.
Finally, This segregation hurts both communities. Marriage, education, and yes, even church attendance have been demonstrated to contribute to rising incomes and an increase in happiness. Likewise, when wealthier people live apart from poor people, they marginalize themselves, and it takes more and more of their resources to support the institutions they love (not only churches, but also symphonies, parks, museums, universities, etc.) Sometimes, these institutions work harder to appeal to the fewer, wealthier donors, and further alienate themselves from the "customer base." That they will need if they want to expand in a world with fewer and fewer wealthy people.
The first step in reversing this decline in these institutions, both religious and secular, is also the first step in sharing the values that are such an important part of escaping poverty. Rich people and poor people need to interact and grow friendships.
This simple, yet difficult solution is not impossible. This interaction was a point of pride in social clubs like the Elks and the Moose. It once happened naturally in urban areas, and could happen again (depending on the willingness of people like me to get out of our cars and get to know our neighbors). Communities and architecture can be designed to re-introduce populations that have started to live in separate worlds.
[Stop reading here to avoid a shameless plug.]
That's what I love about Lafayette Church, the community I serve. I've seen people who would otherwise never cross paths become friends. Often, one of our mentally ill and living on government assistance members gets a ride home from a retired, middle-class, Republican school teacher.
The Church's logo features a lamppost, and lampposts are what we need today. Public, safe places, where people who may not intrinsically trust one another can meet to grow relationships and trust. Even though a church is a great place for this to start, it certainly doesn't have to happen there. Feel free to plug your own "lamppost" in the comments. In a world paralyzed because it is polarized, we need them more than ever.