The Boom and Bust of American Religious Life
What happens when no one believes in god anymore?
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“How long can a people or a government endure without that simple bond under a watchful God?,” asked minister John Cotton, worried about church attendance and religiosity. Recent polling raises this question anew, with reports from Gallup and Pew Reports showing a “new low” in Americans who expressed belief in God. According to Gallup, only 81 percent of Americans answered affirmatively on whether they believed in the existence of God. Many lament this seeming decline in religious belief among Americans, and some openly fear the consequences of the erosion of a common bedrock like faith at a time when American society seems riven with so many public fissures on, well almost everything.
But America’s relationship with faith has never been steady. When Cotton first asked that question, the year was 1650 — not 2022. And much as then, our worried fascination with a perceived declension of God in American life might very well be premature, incomplete, or simply wrong. Cotton certainly was. He and other Puritan leaders feared that a precipitous decline in church membership in colonial New England would doom their fledgling theocracy, or at the very least secularize it to the point of ruin. Their fear of a collapse of faith in America was actually more a concern for their collapse of power.
He was right to suspect Puritan authority (and thus, his authority) was eroding among younger generations of Americans, but not that they would suddenly abandon God. Their rejection of orthodox religious worship, it was said, would lead to the implosion of society. In fact, early America prospered. And it was precisely the younger generations who were overrepresented in the wave of religious revivalism and renewal that swept the country during the Great Awakening. Young people responded enthusiastically to a movement that promised them greater political and religious autonomy in a society that had denied them both to some degree. The Awakening called into question existing institutions and representations of God, fundamentally rupturing American religious and social normatives, a process known as schism. On the other hand, it also left in its wake a society more democratic, more empowered, and especially more religious.
The cycle continued: the people in power feared the collapse of religion in America, their assumptions were wrong, and belief—new and old—reasserted itself in American life. In the wake of the American Revolution, and accelerating into the antebellum period preceding the American Civil War, Americans feared that a perceived decline in religiosity would inevitably accompany social and political decay. Many, especially a new group called evangelicals, interpreted cataclysms like the Civil War or economic downturns as signs that the country was being divinely punished for a growing lack of piety and subservience to God. Throughout the 19th century, slavery or opposition to it, immigration, economic and social change, were all seen at times by different interest groups as unmistakable signs that the country was falling apart. Even among those who disagreed on the symptoms, it was widely agreed that the cause was the perceived decline in American religiosity; the same “simple bond under a watchful God” that Cotton had referenced two centuries before.
Had American piety always been on a steady, if slow, retreat for 250 years by the time the United States emerged on the world stage as an economic and political empire in the 20th century? Certainly not. In fact, more Americans identified themselves as members or adherents of some religious system or institution than ever before. Religious belief and the desire to spread it were formative components in the construction of the American empire around the world and in our exporting of the beliefs, culture, and economy we’d constructed to new, somewhat captive audiences. Belief in God was at the forefront of both our perceptions of ourselves and the world. And it would surge back and forth in the national consciousness multiple times again between the turn of the 20th century and the beginning of our own. How then, do we explain this perpetual American obsession with measuring our relative religiosity, or in predicting what its potential future decline will cost us?
The answer is two-fold, but shockingly straightforward. First, American religiosity is not defined the same way across time periods. Much like other commodities and identities, both of which American religious belief has become, American religious life can best be understood in terms of boom and bust cycles. These cycles begin with the decline in authority or legitimacy of a standing status quo. In the colonial period, this status quo represented existing theology and the institutions that guarded and enforced it. In the antebellum period, this status quo was the increasingly untenable detente between opposing religious views on the morality of slavery. Later, it was the despised concession of “truth” and “knowledge” to the advance of science and industrialization; both arenas previously monopolized by religious beliefs and their adherents. In our modern times, it is the perceived “secularization” of an increasingly liberal American body politic.
In each of these cases, observers have noted with alarm the perceived retreat of God from American hearts and minds. But in each case, the erosion of the status quo and its defenders has been followed by a resurgence in religious belief and public expression of it. What changed were the vehicles, the institutions, the leaders, and sometimes even the conceptualization of religious belief and the idea of God itself. This leads to the rise of new institutions of belief; new denominations of believers advocating new practices, political and social perceptions, and economic pursuits that more fully meet the changed and changing moment of a new generation’s lived experience. Like all religions must do to avoid extinction, American Christianity simply reinvents itself to maintain its relevance and potency in a new form and with new generations of followers.
Second, we must question the premises underlying our fascination with declining American belief in God. The very fluidity of American religion makes it hard to measure, and the methodology behind asking such questions is key. The recent polls suggest a “new low” in Americans who responded that they believed in God. But a new low from when? This question has only been asked since the last century. Since pollsters like Pew began examining belief, the framing of the question has evolved but always with old presumptions. Participants are polled by phone, which over-represents certain demographics. Participants are asked to choose from a list of belief systems, glaringly focused on traditional, Christian denominations (over half of the provided options). The polling also assumes strangers are willing to be candid over the phone about an existential question, “Do you believe in God,” with a follow up that focuses on Western understandings of God and religion. Pew has acknowledged that they have a hard time polling smaller religious groups, leaving out numerous traditions in their surveys, and the survey data lumps large groups together, or doesn’t survey them.
Why, then, can’t we measure American religiosity by membership in religious institutions? That’s how it was done in the Protestant-Christian dominated colonial period, and that’s why compelling data eludes historians: membership alone is possibly the worst and most misleading source of evidence to answer such a question because it served so many other political, economic, and personal purposes aside from belief, and only for a segment of a religiously diverse society. Given the realities of American religious life wherein vast numbers of new groups are perpetually founded and dissolved, measuring pre-existing organizations for growth or decline only tells part of the story. Can we measure American religiosity by the professed belief in God in any form? Not entirely. As numerous writers and commentators have noted, Americans are peculiarly consumerist with their choices of religious belief, often opting later in life for more appealing traditions than those into which they were born or raised. And as others have pointed out, Americans find it very easy to believe in the belief in God without actively participating or expressing specific religious beliefs or practices in their daily lives. Even the question “do you believe in God” drastically miniaturizes an analytical and cultural framework among Americans that can often simply not be answered in a dualistic “either, or” way. Such is the pervasiveness of the structural, procedural, and conceptual reality of belief in American life. Yet, the question is repeatedly framed this way, at least since the inquiry behind this “new low” in American belief in God has been publicly asked (Even questioning someone’s belief in God or publicly advocating atheism was taboo in American society until very recently). Even as formulated, these same polls point out that the percentage of Americans who answered “yes” to whether they believe in God was 81 percent, five to seven times more than other Western European nations and arguably the largest percentage of agreement Americans have on almost any issue before them at the moment. Hardly a precipitous collapse.
If the past of American religiosity defies an easy sense of progression, what is the future role of faith in American society? As a rule, it must be said that historians do not predict the future, and we will not attempt it here. But we have reached a point of inflection. Political evangelicalism has, effectively, taken over governance—the Supreme Court has shown this, as have the governors and legislatures in numerous states. It is being wielded by institutions to push forward the agenda of the previous generation onto the nation, based on a particular theological vision that does not enjoy widespread popularity. Christian nationalism, right-wing identities, and conspiracy theories are wielded by institutions to push forward an agenda that most Americans do not believe in. In fact, most young Americans are leaning the opposite way. Gen Z is the most racially and ethnically diverse generation, and on track to be the most educated. Politically they are similar to millennials, dislike Trump, want the government to be more active, and celebrate diversity. And surveys suggest they are the least religiously affiliated. But the question itself is problematic: 34 percent are “religiously unaffiliated,” but only 9 percent identify as atheist.
The most interesting question in all of this is why we look at a metric like church attendance or belief in God as a desirable metric for viewing the strength of a society. For people who believe that to be American is to be Christian—a declining group, dropping from 33 percent of those surveyed in 2015 to 17 percent in 2022, according to a PRRI poll—the Christian nationalism of the discourse is evident. But then, how do they quantify the religiosity of our laws, customs, traditions, and lived experiences? Despite perceived declines in belief, we structure our calendar and our holidays on Christian time, we reference Christian ideologies and texts in our laws, we embody Christian customs and traditions into the organization of our work week. Church attendance, institutional links, belief in specific ideologies wrapped up in ecclesiastical groups clinging to influence–this is not a metric of belief. This is a metric of power.
What comes next? We cannot say with predicative certainty, but all of the ingredients for the next “Great Awakening” are right here. After decline comes revival, and new religions, new institutions, new modes of interaction and belief and engagement. The “none”s in American religious life include everyone from the nonaffiliated, to the nonbelievers, to the many who simply say “no thanks” to the question. More than anything else, the rise of this incredibly diverse group suggests a simple failure of existing structures and systems to articulate a younger generation’s sense of God and themselves. We’ve seen this before, over and over and over again. And none of it has destroyed or deterred the recreation of an organized vision of a past, present, and future, with new values, systems, structures, and understandings of our place in the universe. That is where God is, if it is anywhere. And American Christianity always seems to find it. There will be schism. Existing power dynamics will change, and current institutions will decline. That is not merely about perceptions of the existence or nature of God. It is religious, yes, but it is also political and cultural, the changing belief structures of succeeding generations, not only of their faith but their place in society and the world and the universe. But that schism is a natural part of the evolution of any religion and of any society.
We have mostly discussed American Christianity here. This is not a phenomenon linked to a single faith tradition. Atheism seems to be growing among Americans born into Islam and Judaism. The continued destruction of Native American land and traditions has accelerated a decline in youth participation in Native cosmologies as well. Indeed, as these polls suggest, a decline in religiosity may be perceived across demographics and faith traditions. What makes American Christianity important, in our political and institutional context, though, is not sole access to the divine, or a monopoly on morality, or a unique vision of God. What makes it important is that the levers of power in our country have traditionally been in the hands of Christians, of churches, of Christian institutions and organizations and parties. It is the shaking of that grip that provokes such anxiety; the possibility of a society that goes from being at best multi-denominational to perhaps multiconfessional, or even one where the separation of church and state becomes a reality. That is where the fear lies for those still clinging to traditional power dynamics, and where hope lies for the rest of us.
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