Let Us Be Frank About Our Future

Fifty years ago, the percentage of religiously unaffiliated Americans was about five percent of the population, meaning that in just two generations that cohort has increased 500 percent, and most of that has been just in the last twenty-five years.

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The religiously unaffiliated—also known as “nones”—today account for about one quarter of American adults, or about 59 million people. The majority of those are what sociologist Stephen Bullivant calls, in his new book, “nonverts”: those who go from identifying with a religion to identifying as a “none.” And sixteen million of those nonverts were raised Catholic.

Do you have any serious proposal for bringing those millions of nonvert Catholics back to the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church? I sure don’t. What we are looking at, I’d submit, is an unprecedented catastrophe in American Catholicism. And if anyone tries to sell you an easy way out of this crisis, well, brother, I’ve got some swampland in Florida to sell you.

Bullivant writes:

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If this book contains any single, summarizable argument it is that the USA is in the midst of a social, cultural, and religious watershed—one that today’s Americans are not merely living through, but millions have actively lived out in their own stories. 

Hopefully the above numbers are enough evidence to appreciate the force of that argument, but if not, here’s more. Fifty years ago, the percentage of religiously unaffiliated Americans was about five percent of the population, meaning that in just two generations that cohort has increased 500 percent, and most of that has been just in the last twenty-five years. And it’s not just that the number of nones are precipitously rising; the proportion of the U.S. population who are what we would call committed religious persons is experiencing a commensurate crash.

What happened? Bullivant believes a combination of factors in the ’90s and early aughts coalesced to explain this massive societal shift. The end of the Cold War brought the demise of the atheist communist boogeyman, which had served as a foil to reinforce American Christian identity. The sexual revolution’s antagonism toward traditional morality—and the acceptance of that revolution’s major tenets among middle America—undermined the authority of religious institutions. 

Furthermore, Islamic extremism after 9-11 gave the so-called “New Atheists” almost limitless ammunition to expend against religious belief writ large. And the digital age exposed people to new ideas, while fostering online communities for people to question and ultimately repudiate the faith of their youth. “One of the most striking features of the internet,” says Bullivant, “is the endless possibilities it throws up to find a ‘tribe,’ no matter how esoteric one’s interests are.” Secular media and the entertainment industry, of course, aggravated many of these trends.

This reminds me of a social reality that existed as recently as my undergraduate days twenty years ago: religion, and specifically Christianity, used to be held in esteem by the general populace. Yes, if you were particularly outspoken about your faith, you might be considered eccentric; but as long as you were perceived as faithful, and not hypocritical, religious adherence engendered a certain begrudging respect even from many areligious. Today, religious observance carries less extra-ecclesial social capital, if not often negative capital—evangelicals, for example, are viewed with condescending opprobrium by our elite class. 

And nonverts, unsurprisingly, can be quite antagonistic toward Christianity, as they often feel invested in repudiating what they have abandoned. This will undoubtedly influence the future of American politics, as the “nones” question why religious groups which they view as intolerant, backward, and even harmful are given special privileges and immunity from various laws. “It seems likely that America’s growing pool of nonverts means that we can expect many more of these controversies both in the courts and in the wider culture,” observes Bullivant.

Bullivant’s chapter on ex-Catholics—including quotations from several interviews—is sad, if not terribly surprising. Nonvert Catholics offer complaints about the sexual abuse scandal; about the Church being absurdly rich and corrupt; about it promoting archaic, patriarchal, and oppressive dogmas. Lapsed Catholics love Pope Francis because he is, in their view, a tolerant, progressive, and reform-minded pontiff. Nevertheless, as many commentators have noted, the so-called “Francis Effect” has not lured many of these people back to the pews. 

What, then, is to be done? Mainline Protestantism has at least taught us one lesson: trying to accommodate the Church to the culture won’t do us much good. The so-called seven sisters of American Protestantism have been doing that for generations, with embarrassing rates of failure—some of these denominations have lost almost half their members just in the last decade. As Dartmouth historian Randall Balmer observes, mainline Protestantism is “so careful not to offend that its very blandness has become an affront.” It would seem that the more churches adapt themselves to populations less interested in attending church, the quicker their demise.  Mainline Protestantism has at least taught us one lesson: trying to accommodate the Church to the culture won’t do us much good. Tweet This

One thing Bullivant only briefly discusses is that the rejection of Christianity reflects a broader socio-cultural trend: the abandonment of all civic institutions. As Robert Putnam argues in his classic Bowling Alone, we have witnessed a profound atomization of the American polis, as its citizens reject organized social institutions, be they softball teams or the PTA. It’s not just our churches that are crumbling but civil society more broadly as America turns inward.

That means our crisis is even more acute than a failure of our churches, as disastrous as that alone is. It is a failure of the very nation itself. Distrust, conflict, anxiety, and depression are our collective national future. Perhaps in that discomfiting fact lies one long, hard road back to a resurgent church: if people feel betrayed not only by organized religion but the government and even society, they are going to be looking for something that can provide them that sense of belonging, of meaning in an era of distemper. This is, and can be, the Church.

Sure, those who themselves have determined to deny Christ and His Church will prove difficult to coax back. But their children, and their children’s children, will reap the terrible fruits of a society with no grounding or sense of hope. They will not feel the visceral loathing nonverts hold toward Catholicism. They will simply want to love and be loved, to feast on something more weighty than empty platitudes about diversity, tolerance, and realizing “your true self.”

That’s where the faithful come in. We must do our best to keep the hearth, to fan the flames of our faith while our friends wander in the wilderness. We must be longsuffering in prayer, humble and gracious in our treatment of one another, and strong in our commitment to the ancient teachings of Christ and the Church. We must, as much as possible, present a strong, united front of faith that overlooks minor offenses and grievances, in favor of our survival. In other words, we must be saints. It’s a difficult charge, no doubt. But we do have God on our side.

[Image Credit: Shutterstock]


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