In 1907, a delegation of ministers from the New York City Federation of Churches visited President Theodore Roosevelt to ask his assistance in halting an alarming decline in the churches’ “hold on the people.” Roosevelt promised “to aid the cause in every way possible.” Ministers in the early 20th century frequently raised such alarms. They blamed scientists who taught evolution, congregants who spent Sunday mornings in their tin lizzies, and popular culture. “The modern novel . . . is responsible for our empty pews. . . . [It] has taken the place of the pulpit,” complained one priest – and that was before movies, radio, television, and the internet.
Less than 50 years later, the popular reaction was quite different. The Methodist Council of Bishops proclaimed in 1954: “Our people are attending public worship in larger numbers than we have ever known . . . . A new spirit has fallen upon our people.” Commentators remarked on the boom in church building, the flocking of families to churches, the fascination with religion.
If we went by the common wisdom, the story should have been told in reverse, as a decline in religiosity from the 1900s to the 1950s, rather than an increase. What happened then? What is happening now?
Theory and History
Since time immemorial, it seems, people have described – some have decried – the loss of that “old time religion.” Modern scholars call it secularization. With the coming of science, industry, and urbanization, faith had to crumble, they argued. There must have been a time when everyone believed deeply and that time has presumably passed.
The actual history of church adherence and of religious faith in America is much more complex. As I described in an earlier post, in the era of the Founding Fathers most Americans were “unchurched,” not members of any congregation; average Americans’ familiarity with various occult folk beliefs was probably greater than their knowledge of the Gospels; and many among the elite, who were knowledgeable, adhered to a fashionable, semi-scientific deism rather than to theologically approved versions of Christianity. Then, over the 19th century and into the 20th, religion spread and thrived. Americans became overwhelmingly “churched” in a Christian fashion. (See, for example, this.)
Americans’ religious engagement did not follow a simple trajectory up or down. There were periods of more intense religious activity and of less; faith movements have come and gone. In the early 19th century, some sects spread in part by loosening their doctrines, moving away from strict Calvinism. About a century later, Protestant fundamentalism emerged. It grew partly as a reaction to mainstream denominations’ concessions to science and to “modern” interpretations of the Bible. A decade or so after the New York ministers visited Teddy Roosevelt, organized religion entered what historians have termed a “religious depression,” with declining involvement. Yet, by mid-century, the Methodists – and others – were celebrating a religious expansion. There is no simple story of religious decline.
What historians of religion know about 400 years of Americans’ religiosity is largely based the record of ministers, revivals, church establishments, buildings, membership, and attendance. It is hard to track the faith, the beliefs, and the religious sentiments of average Americans because very few people left any written accounts. Still, by at least the middle of the 19th century the general impression, among, for example, European visitors, was that Americans were an unusually religious people. (Why they were – and they still are – will be the subject of a later post.)
With the advent of public opinion surveying in the early 20th century, we get a better grasp of average Americans’ religiosity – to the extent that people actually know and tell researchers what they believe. To be sure, some survey respondents bend their answers in the direction they think is more appealing; and some do not decide what they believe until asked by the survey researcher. Still, this is the best tool we have for measuring the faith of most Americans.
Since the 1960s, some indicators show declines in religious involvement; church membership and attendance may be off a bit – especially among Catholics. (For more, see Ch. 8 here.) My Berkeley colleague, Michael Hout, and I published research about 10 years ago on the jump since about 1990 in the percentage of Americans who answer the question “what religion are you?” by choosing the answer option “none.” We have an explanation of the increase in “nones” – it has a lot to do with politics – and plan to revisit the topic soon. But the point here is that whether someone is attached to or disaffected from organized religion does not itself tell us much about his or her faith. It turns out that few of these “nones” are atheists or agnostics; many claim to believe what church-goers believe. What are those beliefs?
Below is a graph that shows trends since 1972 in what adult Americans said when asked about their beliefs. At the top is the percentage of Americans 18 and older who said that they believed in life after death; below that, the percentage who, when given six options to describe their beliefs about God chose the one saying that they believed in God with “no doubts”; next, the percentage who said that religion was “very important” in their own lives; then, the percentage who, when asked whether they thought the Bible was the literal word of God, a human document inspired by God, or a book of fables, picked the first option, literalism; and finally, the figure shows the percentage who reported being members of fundamentalist denominations.
Even with small fluctuations, Americans in 2010 displayed, based on the three longest-term indicators, about the same level of faith as they did in 1972 – despite the social changes of the last 30-plus years. (A couple of the indicators hint at very recent dips; we will need to check back in several years to see if they presage deeper changes or just temporary fluctuations.) Importantly, we see this consistency in expressions of faith even though the early surveys include many respondents who had been born around the end of the 19th century and in the later surveys these elderly folks are replaced by respondents who had been born in the 1970s and ‘80s. Swapping the World War I generation for Gen X’ers hardly changed average levels of faith.
Faith among Americans endures, surprisingly so to many casual observers — even to professional observers. When I once pointed out to my Berkeley colleagues that over one-third of American respondents since 1988 (with no change through 2010) report having had a “born again” experience in which they committed themselves to Christ, many among the learned were taken aback.
Had the ministers who visited Teddy Roosevelt in 1907 known that a century later this would be the level of American faith, would they have been less alarmed? I suspect not. Except when the evidence is too overwhelming — for instance, during the Great Awakenings around 1800 or during the 1950s — people just assume that faith is one of those things we are always in the process of losing.
(This column was cross-posted on The Berkeley Blog on April 27, 2011.)