Flagging Faith

Despite persistent faith-based conversation in our political culture, a Duke professor, drawing on extensive national surveys, finds few signs of growth in American religiosity.

Time Magazine

Classic cover: an old question, still relevant.

In the spring of 1966, as America was entering a prolonged period of selfdoubting, Time posed a haunting question in a couple of lines of type on its cover. The magazine asked, in a classic, stark, and attention-grabbing palette of bright red letters on a black background, “Is God Dead?” During World War II, the story pointed out, the anti- Nazi Lutheran martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer had written to a friend from his Berlin prison cell, “We are proceeding toward a time of no religion at all.”

More than forty-five years beyond that cover story, with sustained high unemployment, political paralysis, an intractable war or two, and even monster hurricanes, America is not feeling all that robust. While innumerable sermons explore what the endless series of ills signifies about God’s feelings toward America, Mark Chaves, a Duke professor of sociology, religion, and divinity, is more concerned with America’s feelings toward God.

Religion, American-style, is a study in paradox and ambiguity. Chaves notes, for example, that on the one hand, there are relatively few large congregations, and many more people say they attended services than actually did. On the other hand, those large congregations contain a disproportionate share of the churchgoing population, and the very biggest churches have become even bigger.

And a Chaves colleague, Grant Wacker, says that the historical church-state divide notwithstanding, “almost every reform in American society can be traced back to religious impulses.” From the push for desegregation to the protests against the Vietnam War, “the lines blur between where religion ends and where secular reform begins,” says Wacker, a professor of Christian history in the divinity school and director of graduate studies in the religion department. Speaking of President Obama’s mid-October bus tour through North Carolina, he adds, “Listen to his speech and how it ends. It’s ‘God bless America and God bless North Carolina.’ This is not just Michele Bachman or Rick Perry. This is America, and God is all over the place.”

Mark Chaves

Mark Chaves: documenting a decline in “meaningful attachments to religious traditions.” Jon Gardiner

Chaves’ new book, American Religion: Contemporary Trends, which Wacker calls emblematic of the “gift for taking lots of complex data and making it clear and accessible,” draws on two large surveys. They are both based at the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago: the General Social Survey (GSS), a snapshot of Americans’ changing attitudes and behavior; and the National Congregations Study (NCS), which looks at American religious congregations across the religious spectrum. The longer-running of the two, the GSS has been conducted at least every other year since 1972. Directed by Chaves, the NCS surveys were carried out in 1998 and 2006-07. All of his findings point to one conclusion, which perhaps isn’t good news for God: No indicator of traditional religious belief or practice is going up.

Back in the 1950s, a striking 99 percent of Americans said they believed in God. Now, the figure is closer to 92 percent. It’s not easy to say something firm about the significance of that decline, Chaves says. “It’s a really good example of an interpretive conundrum. You could look at those figures and emphasize that 90 percent say they believe in God, compare that to rates you get in Europe, and conclude that we remain way more religious. That’s one side. The other side of the argument is that it’s been a steady, if slow, decline since the 1950s. So it’s a little like global warming, in the sense that a very gradual change over a long period of time can produce a major impact.”

The U.S. is not Europe: As one commentator observed some years ago in The New York Times, the conventional narrative is that “a battle plan for the war of attrition against religion” began with the French Revolution and the Enlightenment, and what emerged as contemporary Europe “is the closest thing to a godless civilization the world has ever known.” But Chaves notes that the proportion of Americans who claim no religious affiliation has been rising for a long time. In the 1950s, only 3 percent of Americans said they had no religious affiliation. Today, it’s about 18 percent, a minority, but an increasing minority. “The increase probably reflects a growing willingness among the least-religious people to say that they have no religion,” he says, “as well as a decline in meaningful attachments to religious traditions.”

That trend toward lack of affiliation hasn’t been going up in a straight line; it has gone up faster from 1990 to today than it did from 1950 to 1990. There’s a big generational component, Chaves says, meaning younger people are more likely than older people to say they have no religion. And each successive generation seems a little more likely to say that than the one before. “So it’s not just people who used to say they had some religion who stopped saying it. It’s that young people today are saying they have no religion at higher rates than young people before them.”

Chaves’ findings dispute some popularly accepted measures of religiosity—notably the assumption, based on polling results, that 40 percent of Americans attend religious services. He pegs the actual figure at 25 percent. The difference represents the gap between how people respond to direct questions about their attendance, on the one hand, and what they note about their behavior in time diaries, or day-by-day listings of their activities, on the other. Congregation headcounts, he says, also point to the lower figure.

“This phenomenon is very similar to what political scientists have discovered with voting,” says Chaves. “People kind of think of themselves as voters and mainly they are voters, but they just didn’t happen to vote in the most recent election. Still, they’ll say they did. It’s the same thing with church attendance. They are trying to answer truthfully what they think the question is really asking. They think they’re being asked, ‘Are you a church person?’ And if they say, ‘No, I didn’t go to church this week,’ they’ll think they’re misrepresenting their identities to the pollster.”

Although weekly attendance rates have been relatively stable since 1990, the percentage of those who never attend religious services has increased. Older people have long been over-represented in American congregations, but that over-representation has been exacerbated lately. In the 1970s, frequent church attendees were about three years older, on average, than the general population; today, they are about five years older. Most striking of all, Chaves says, is a steady decline in the percentage of people who report growing up with religiously active fathers—from nearly 70 percent for those born before 1900 to about 45 percent for those born after 1970. “There can be little doubt that Americans are increasingly less likely to grow up in religiously active households.”

Spiritual questing and the American landscape

Spiritual questing and the American landscape: Thomas Cole’s “The Pilgrim of the Cross at the End of His Journey.” © Brooklyn Museum/Corbis

Chaves himself grew up in a religious household. His father was a pastor for Presbyterian churches in Jersey City, New Jersey, and Queens, New York. Beginning in third grade and right through high school, Chaves went to Missouri Synod schools in Queens. “At school, we were taught biblical inerrancy and creationism,” he recalls. “Evolution was false. At home, we were neither inerrantists nor creationists. We believed in evolution. I also remember debates with my grade-school teachers about the idea that everything that happened was God’s will. They said yes. I didn’t think so.”

As a Dartmouth College undergraduate, he discovered social science as a research assistant to a psychology professor. His main project evaluated the impact of Dartmouth’s off-campus programs on students who participated in them. “I remember being amazed at the power of rigorous social- science methods to help us learn about how experiences like this shape people. And I thought it would be interesting and useful to apply these methods in efforts to understand how religious programs—like Sunday school curricula, youth programs, and mission trips—shape people.”

Chaves went on to Harvard Divinity School with that kind of applied focus in mind. He also took a year’s worth of methodology courses at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education. “I knew from undergraduate days that I wanted to somehow combine social science and the study of religion, and the rest was figuring out exactly how to do that.” He came to Duke in 2007 from the University of Arizona, where he headed the sociology department. As a committed social scientist, he’s prone to stick to his data; he’ll remind a listener, for example, that he’s not a political analyst.


One finding in the data is that Americans have become more accepting of religious diversity and more appreciative of religions other than their own. Increasing religious intermarriage probably is the best indicator of this embracing of diversity, says Chaves, but it shows up in other ways, as well. The percentage of Americans who say they would vote for a Catholic, Jew, or atheist candidate for president has increased dramatically since the middle of the twentieth century, to the point that today almost all say they would vote for a Catholic or Jew, and about half say they would vote for an atheist. (“Not all religions are equally appreciated,” Chaves writes, and he mentions indications of deepening suspiciousness toward Muslims.) Today, three-quarters of Americans say “yes” when asked if they believe there is a religion other than their own that offers a true path to God.

Chaves’ Duke colleague Grant Wacker says that trend is notable among his students. “What has become so key for so many young people is resistance to the notion of exclusivity.” If they are religious believers, he adds, “they can buy the whole package except the notion that we’re right and all the others are wrong. That’s one thing they can’t deal with very well. Historically, of course, most Western religions have had very little problem declaring exclusive knowledge.”

While belief in God has fallen off gradually, confidence in religious leaders has declined precipitously. And that’s the case not just for the Pat Robertson-like leaders whose sometimes extreme pronouncements have pushed them to the margins. (Robertson announced this fall that he’ll no longer endorse political candidates.) The drop is more dramatic for religious leaders than for leaders of other social institutions. In the most recent General Social Survey, organized religion was in the middle of the pack, just above financial institutions and organized labor but well behind the military, the scientific community, and medicine.

More and more, the American public wants religious leaders to, in essence, stick to their pulpits. Those in the category of strongly agreeing that “religious leaders should not try to influence government decisions” jumped from 22 percent in 1991 to 31 percent in 1998, and then to 38 percent in 2008. “Political moderates and liberals are significantly more likely than political conservatives to disapprove these days of religious leaders’ political involvement,” Chaves says. With the rise of the political right, moderates and liberals would naturally push back against the mixing of religion and politics. But the surveying points to a more complex reality: Disapproval has increased across the political spectrum, including among regular churchgoers.

Such findings don’t quite square with the recent experience of the Reverend Will Willimon, bishop of the North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church, and for twenty years dean of Duke Chapel and a professor at Duke Divinity School. This fall Willimon joined a lawsuit against aspects of an immigration-enforcement law in Alabama that, among other things, would have made it a crime to transport or harbor people who are known to be in the country illegally. To Willimon and others, the law threatened to essentially criminalize basic parts of Christian ministry. “We’re just trying to help Christians practice their faith,” says Willimon, who adds that many conservative and evangelical ministers aligned themselves with his position.

“Everyone writes you a letter when they’re upset about some controversial issue,” says Willimon. “You don’t always think about all those people who languish out of boredom in churches and just wish they could show up some Sunday and have a preacher say something that is interesting. And I did get some touching letters from people saying how proud they are that our church is standing up for people and that’s what we should be doing, particularly in a state with the history of Alabama.”

Wacker, who has written on the impact of evangelist Billy Graham, says the ongoing debate over values-laden issues is “vigorous and strident.” It’s a reflection, he suggests, of the fact that neither side is clearly winning. Liberal-leaning religious believers, once agitated over civil rights and Vietnam, are now energized by the income gap in the U.S. and climate change globally. Conservative-leaning religious believers push back against eliminating prayer in schools, the continuing legitimacy of abortion rights, and acceptance of homosexuality.

“The civil rights movement was a big deal for me as a college student,” says Willimon. “When I came into the ministry, mainline liberal Christians were criticized for mixing religion and politics. Then it flipped, and conservative and evangelical ministers were criticized. What I pick up now in my travels is a kind of buyer’s remorse—the realization that these alignments are complicated and that no party is synonymous with the Christian church.”

Aging congregations

Aging congregations: Attendance at religious services is skewed toward an older demographic.
Robert Wallis/Corbis

Willimon’s from-the-field perceptions notwithstanding, Chaves notes a tie between religiosity and political identification. In the 1970s, 19 percent of those who attended congregations weekly said they were conservative or extremely conservative; the figure for those who attended less often was 13 percent. Today, 33 percent of the congregation regulars are in the conservative column; the figure for the not-so-regular congregation participants is 16 percent. As Chaves writes in his book, “Over recent decades, infrequent religious- service attendees have become only slightly more politically conservative while weekly attendees have become much more conservative. The gap between these groups has widened considerably. That wider gap—which political scientists call the ‘God gap’—is the essence of religiosity’s tighter link to political conservatism.”

Congregation attendance also tracks with views on social issues such as abortion and homosexuality and church attendance. Around homosexuality, “regular churchgoers and non-regular churchgoers alike have been trending in a more liberal direction,” says Chaves. “But non-churchgoers have been trending much faster in a more liberal direction. For abortion, both groups have been trending in a more conservative direction, with churchgoers trending more strongly.”

The God gap may seem to explain why there are now almost two conservative Protestants for every mainline Protestant. But according to Chaves, the overall percentage of evangelicals is not rising; rather, the percentage of mainline Protestants has declined sharply. “This shift is more a story of liberal losses than of evangelical gains. The causes have very little to do with people switching from mainline to conservative groups,” even though conservative denominations do a somewhat better job at hanging on to their youth. He highlights not a God gap, but a fertility gap: Conservative Protestants have more children than mainline Protestants.

Still, evangelical birth rates, too, are declining, and those congregations are losing more of their members now than in the past. The trajectories for conservative and mainline membership, then, may converge.

Chaves does identify one religion-related phenomenon that is clearly on the rise: attachment to what he labels “diffuse spirituality.” Particularly in a younger demographic, a small but growing minority— almost 20 percent of people under forty, up from 10 percent in 1998—describe themselves as spiritual but not religious. It’s difficult to know exactly what the distinction between spiritual and religious means, he says; he considers the spirituality end of the belief spectrum vague, unfocused, and anti-institutional.

The fluid borderlands of belief in America are sketched in writer Jeff Sharlet’s new book, Sweet Heaven When I Die: Faith, Faithfulness, and the Country in Between. Sharlet gave a reading from the book earlier this fall through Duke’s Center for Documentary Studies. One of his chapters begins this way: “I first met Bhakti Sondra Shaye, neé Shavitz, B.A., M.A., J.D. guide, teacher, and adept member of the Great White Universal Brotherhood and Sisterhood of Light, ritual master in the High Council of Gor, universal kabbalist, Reiki master, and metaphysician, at the New Life Expo at the Hotel New Yorker. The gathering billed itself as ‘America’s Largest Mind, Body, Spirit Expo,’ four floors of alternative spiritual options.”

To Chaves, these individuals may identify somehow with spiritual matters—“whatever that means” —but they are not interested in organized religion. “If this interpretation is correct, then this growing segment of the population is unlikely to reenergize existing religious institutions. Nor will it provide a solid foundation for new kinds of religious institutions or new religious movements.”

“It’s still true that the traditional family—two parents with kids—is the main demographic backbone of congregations,” Chaves says. The cohorts now coming of age are “less likely to be married, less likely to have kids, less likely to form traditional households, and all those factors will accelerate the trend toward less religious participation.” But there’s a countervailing force, which is that as people age, they become more religiously active. And the U.S. is skewing toward an aging population. Throughout American history, immigration has helped sustain American religiosity. Immigration policies, though, are caught up in political currents, and it’s not clear whether it will be a growing or diminishing phenomenon in the future.

“So there’s a bunch of moving parts,” says Chaves. “It’s difficult to know how it all plays out. I think the big question is whether we are on the same trajectory religiously as Western Europe, just slower, or whether we are in fact a qualitatively different situation, meaning we’ll remain much more religious.”

Chaves says he doesn’t have the answer to that question. Maybe it’s something known only to God. Though if God is brought into the picture, almost one in ten Americans would disagree.


Share your comments

Have an account?

Sign in to comment

No Account?

Email the editor