It is evident that the ethic profile of the United States is changing, but so is America’s religious profile. In the 1950s church attendance across all denominations was strong, with three out of four Americans attending church services at least three times a year. In this same decade over 85% of Americans considered themselves to be “religious”. In the mid 60’s dramatic shift that lasted for a little over two decades commenced with the growth in the conservative Baptist and evangelical churches as people left mainline churches for conservative congregations.
In August 2012 the Washington Post reported the number of Americans claiming to be “religious” had decreased from around 73% in 2005 to around 60%. That same article noted that atheists make up about 5% of the American public, up from around the 1% level of the late 80s.
As noted in a past post, the evangelical church is in decline, a decline that will become starkly evident over the coming decade. Many evangelicals argue the decline is a result of a lack of religious fervor and conviction in their churches and society as a whole. They argue that the church and nation is decline because prayer has been taken out of the schools, gay marriage and rampant disregard for biblical teachings.
While lack of broad fervor may be a factor in the decline of the evangelical church, it is a minor factor. The two primary causes for the decline are entangled somewhat. First, the group that flooded into the evangelic churches between 1965 and 1985 as a reaction to social changes occurring in that era are aging rapidly. Their children and grandchildren are not attending evangelical churches at the same rate. While not the only cause, significant declines in attendance, particularly amongst those below the age of 30 follow on the heels of periods of strident political activity within the evangelical church.
My intent here is not to judge one way or the other the appropriateness of such action on a particular issue or set of issues. My intent is to note that there is a correlation between the evangelical church’s manifest fervor on particular issues and the younger generation remaining within or being attracted to the evangelical teachings. What is evident is that there was a cost to the evangelical churches the more they became politically engaged on a host of social, cultural and financial issues. It increasingly appears that their political activity has left those who came into adulthood since the early 1990s feeling that the evangelical church has no answers for them. While some of the younger generation are returning to mainline churches, for a more balanced approach, more often than not the younger generation are not looking to any organized faith for sucker and guidance.
Hence, the evangelical finds itself with an aging membership. In many congregations the largest age block are those over the age of 60. Attendance is slowly declining, and will become more rapid as their largest block of members start to enter nursing homes and pass away.
This shift was evidenced in this past election, an election which on so many levels Romney should have won by a spread of at least 7. With this economy, if the values and the demographics of the late 80s and early 90s were in place Romney would have won easily. Then the evangelical church, the heart of the Republican base, was strong and the younger generation was still somewhat religiously connected.
November’s exit polls showed that those who claim to have faith of some manner but with no specific religious affiliation, called “nones” in the data, made up 12 percent of the electorate in 2012. This is up by 3 points from 2000 and double the 1980 level. Further, the number of people who say that they do not attend church or house of worship stood at 17 percent. The Republican base is shrinking.
That this level the “nones” make up a voting block as large as the Hispanic. These “none” broke for the Democrats by over 40%. If one adds into the mix the atheists, the voting block becomes more significant. The block will only grow. America is becoming more pluralistic. Hopefully the Republicans can make the adjustment.