US Demographics and Church Attendance

I don’t think this is good news. It’s from CNN’s Belief blog, on “How church shopping is polarizing the country.” To oversimplify: Trads go to church the most; their presence drives the moderns away; the divide between traditional church goers and all others is getting sharper. I suppose some will say that we’re attaining better clarity about who’s in and who’s out. I’d sure hate to see any of those in the In-crowd congratulate themselves for having gotten rid of the Out-crowd. They need each other. If the Eucharist drew them together, I think we’d all be better off.     awr

In the ’60s, those showing up in church on Sunday might have represented a cross-section of American viewpoints; today, they are more likely to reflect traditionalist views, further driving modernists away from religion altogether – and intensifying what some have called the “devotional divide” in American politics.

The difference in viewpoints between traditionalists and modernists is profound – and has dramatic effects on today’s culture wars. David Campbell, a Notre Dame political scientist, explains that traditionalists believe in an eternal and transcendent authority that “tells us what is good, what is true, how we should live, and who we are.” Modernists, on the other hand, would redefine historic faiths according to the prevailing assumptions of contemporary life. They are less dogmatic, more tolerant, more open to change. …

In the era following World War II, both groups attended the same churches. … Today, we are more likely to shop for churches that express our individual values, and traditionalists – those searching for “an eternal and transcendent authority” – are much more likely to attend church at all.


  1. I think it is unfair to say that the traditionalists drive the modernists away. If they go away on their own volition, it must be narrow mindedness that has brought it about, a narrow mindedness which can afflict even modernists and perhaps today even more so than traditionalists.
    Look at the Episcopal Church, who has driven whom away? Seems like its okay for modernists to drive away traditionalists.
    But our culture is more stratified today not only in religion but also and most especially in politics which has become the new religion for so many and dictates what they believe more so than any magisterium.
    Jesus drove away many people too especially when you read St. John’s Gospel. Was Jesus worse off without those who didn’t believe in Him or His signs or His sacraments or His morals or His ethics? He let them go. Salvation is a gift to be received not something God imposes. I guess that’s where Augustinian “merit” comes to play, rather than semi-Pelagianism. If the modernists would stay, yes we’d be better off and so would they if their staying led to conversion, transformation of thought and oneness not only with the Most Holy Trinity which we celebrate this weekend in the OF, but also oneness with the Church. Do we want the tower of Babel or do we want Pentecost, this First Sunday after Pentecost in the EF?

    1. Fr. Allan, I’m sure you don’t try to drive away any moderns (I’ll use that term so as to avoid confusion with Loisy and the others). But yes, some traditionalist priests do exactly this. I’ve seen it and I know the people involved. Sometimes it may be that the moderns reject the faith. But more tragically, I’ve observed that some traditionalist priests are unnecessarily legalistic, have an unpastoral manner, have little sense of how to present difficult truths, and overemphasize truly secondary things at the expense of the essentials.
      The decline of the mainlines (eg TEC) is an exceedingly complex phenomenon, and can’t be reduced simplistically to theology or ideology. They’re more educated, on average, than some other segments of the US church, and they earn more. Such people tend to have less children. That explains much of the decline – and it has to do with socio-economic demographics, not what is preached.

      1. I do appreciate the distinction between “pastoral sensibilities” and presenting the faith in an appropriate way and in its fullness. In this regard I would have to agree that many traditionalist younger priests have no pastoral sensitivities. I think part of it with younger clergy is insensitivity or a lack of empathy and immaturity in ministry. Just to reassure you I do see myself as a conservative when it comes to doctrine and Church discipline but a liberal when it comes to pastoral sensitivity–how can you not be after 30 years of ordination!

  2. Nobody who rejects the concept of eternal and transcendent authority will be happy for long in the Catholic or Orthodox Church. It seems most other churches, a hundred years or so after the fact, are moving to the Unitarian Universalist model. Their numbers are in some ways still surprisingly small but in other ways not: the primary goal of the Church is to save souls. If we do not believe in souls, or believe in them but do not believe there is any doubt about universal salvation, then the urgency to ‘celebrate community’ in the form a worship service (instead of, say, one where one bows down before God) should logically diminish.

    1. There’s a Unitarian Church a block up the road, their minister preached at our Thanksgiving Interfaith Service a few years back. He has an extremely small congregation some of whom are modernist’s Catholics looking for a home, many of whom are professors at the Southern Baptist University in town, Mercer. Go figure! And in my rant above, I forgot my seminary days in the 1970’s. My class started off with about 60 men and by the time we were ordained it was down to 18. You know which ones were pushed out or simply couldn’t take some of the modern theology being taught? It wasn’t the modernists, I stayed.

  3. One reason I think so many “former” or “recovering” Catholics go to the Unitarian Church instead of to the (on paper) much closer Episcopalian Church is that, as a non-creedal denomination, they do not require any rejection of prior religious belief, including any residual Catholicism.
    Ultimately, I think the non-fundamentalist Christian (or post-Christian, for many of the Unitarians) future will coalesce around two broad groups: (i) the Catholics/Orthodox/traditional (former?) Anglicans and other Protestants who believe, not necessarily in a rigid legalism but rather in a transcendent God who has passed on an eternal truth for all times which it is their bounden duty to preserve and transmit and (ii) a realisation on the part of most (other) Protestants that they are now effectively united in belief with non-creedal Unitarian Universalists, with shared values for this world, agnosticism on the next, and an optional belief in the transcendence of however the Divine may be defined. The only real issue I see among (ii) is the extent, if any, to retain traditional Christian language to reflect this new non-creedalism.
    Both (i) and (ii) are very respectable viewpoints. The problems arise when people in (i) wish to change it into (ii) and vice versa.
    Good relations, dialogue, and respect rather than an attempt to drive out what is distinctively (i) from (i) or (ii) from (ii) or enforcement of a false unity by intellectual sleight of hand are keys in my view.
    But, as I always add on here, I am only a layman and perhaps I am wrong and the future will turn out to be very different.

  4. It seems “moderns” have been driving non-moderns away from the Church wherever they’ve had control. A good non-Episcopalian example can be found in most LCWR religious communities. Fr. Anthony points to priests who are unnecessarily “legalistic” but, as Dorothy Sayers would say, what does that mean? Is it unnecessarily legalistic to place the stole under the chasuble or is it unnecessarily legalistic to say “we don’t need to ring a sacring bell during the EP because its use is optional.” Other traditional priests are said to be “unpastoral” in their “manner”. “Unpastoral” is a term also in need of definition. A priest who ad-libs during the liturgy might seem both lax and unpastoral to a Catholic struggling to share a Catholic identity & worldview with his family while a priest who wears proper vesture might appear “unpastoral” to his pastor who prefers a more casual style in dress and liturgy. Lastly, emphasizing the “essentials” at the expense of the “secondary” sounds like the path toward minimalism.

    1. There are several good points here. I want to take up (and dispute) only one thing, the last sentence.
      At least in the way I understand the “essentials,” it wouldn’t necessarily be a path toward minimalism to emphasize them more than secondary things. If the essentials are – these are just some examples -“love God, love neighbor, be self-questioning about your little idolatries, work for justice,” then such as these are infinitely more challenging than any secondary aspects.

  5. David Campbell’s article, though undated, is clearly at least a few years old, because it’s analyzing the 2004 election. Would he revise his conclusions today, after the 2008 election?

    I know that this subject has been studied and discussed a lot among social scientists. The SSRC blog, the Immanent Frame, has an entire sector devoted to the phenomenon of “nones” (the people who claim no religion), the numbers of which, it seems, are dramatically rising. And some of this literature does back up the assertion that traditionalism is pushing moderns out of organized religion.

    To Fr. MacDonald’s contention that traditionalists don’t drive moderns away, I reply, how would you know? They don’t have exit interviews, do they. That’s why we have researchers, to liberate us from judging on the basis of anecdotal information and our own, limited observations. Preceded by the hypothesis that these folks leave because they are narrow-minded, and followed, as it was, by the example of Jesus as the great alienator, the foundation has been laid for absolving traditionalists of all possible blame. This sounds a bit too easy to me.

    1. Rita, I am more concerned about the double standard that traditionalists drive people away but moderns don’t. I think there is plenty of evidence that both are good at it. But I might add that traditionalists are more passionate about their beliefs and can easily go into a schism that is well organized whereas moderns/liberals are so much all over the place that they could never really pull off any organized schism, so they just stop going to Church–it’s the easier way out.

  6. This article is misleading because the media loves to frame things in terms of polarization of left and right.

    People are not going around shopping for a church like they shop for a restaurant, as this article implies.

    People are motivated to withdraw from a congregation or a denomination, or religion in general when they find themselves in disagreement with strongly held values.

    Many Catholics withdrew from Mass attendance after the birth control decision. The media and many in the Church had created a great expectation, forcing people to make this one item a key factor in their thinking about their relationship with the Church.

    There is some sociological evidence that most of the people are leaving mainstream Protestant churches for no religion because they have been alienated from religion in general by the role of fundamentalists and evangelicals in politics. (That fact should send a strong caution to our bishops about getting involved in politics).

    Some people leave mainstream Protestant churches for more conservative churches when they see the liberal leadership promoting social issues that don’t support.

    Getting polarized about issues drives people from participation, sometimes even membership and perhaps even from God. It drives people to choose churches like politicians, someone who promises not to be as bad as the last guy. Recognize it for the great evil it is, just like sexism and racism. The media drives it, now including the blogs.

    1. In fairness to Campbell, he is not a media pundit, he’s a political scientist. I don’t think he is approving of polarization, he’s describing it. Is the media driving polarization in the church? Sure, conflict gets media attention. But they don’t invent this stuff. I think they are reporting on it.

      1. America’s Crisis of Values: Reality and Perception. By Wayne E. Baker (2006)

        This book is based upon the American data from the World Values Study series are makes the points below. Another sociologist once explained to me that there is a lot of research indicating how distorting media is about social movements.

        The Amazon site reviews summarize the points.

        Is America experiencing a crisis of values, as popular media and politics claim? In a word: no. Wayne Baker . . . give[s] the most comprehensive empirical analysis of the topic to date. (Contemporary Sociology

        Wayne E. Baker tries to explain why a gap has opened between the public perception that the U.S. is sharply divided and the empirical reality that it is not. . . . America’s Crisis of Values is an important book that ought to be included in any seminar designed to provide background reading for our elected politicians. (Alan Wolfe Christian Century )

        I understood the author was a political scientist. Others probably interpret the data differently as I do and wanted to alert you.

    2. Having said this, I do agree that the way the alternatives are framed (authority v. tolerance) is unsatisfactory.

  7. I know there has been a great deal of blame placed on HV for the decline in Mass attendance since the very late 1960s but, to borrow from Rita, that “sounds a bit too easy to me”. It’s too simplistic because, while the Church’s teaching on birth control remained a constant before and after HV, the Church’s liturgical practice did undergo a dramatic shift during that same period under the direction of the moderns. It seems far fetched to imagine that a parishioner would attend Mass habitually every Sunday and holy day only to abruptly stop after July 25th 1968 because of a Roman encyclical that changed nothing in his experience of Church.

    1. You would be quite wrong to think that. The expectation that the Pope would lift the ban was years in the making, and it was a commonplace that long lines of women (for some reason – which I leave for others to comment on – men did not bear the spiritual burden as conscientiously) at the confessionals of the “pastoral” priests who were lenient on the issue in confession. Whatever was nominally unchanged a the top of Mt Olympus, down in the valley there was a revolution of expectations, such that HV was experienced as a volte-face.

    2. The Center Doesn’t Hold: Church Attendance in the United States, 1940-1984
      Michael Hout and Andrew M. Greeley
      American Sociological Review, Vol. 52, No. 3 (Jun., 1987), pp. 325-345
      (article consists of 21 pages)
      Articles cost $14.00

      Theories about the secularization of society notwithstanding, basic indicators of participation in organized religion show little change over the 50 years covered by the survey research record. Among Catholics, attendance rates fell rapidly between 1968 and 1975 but not before or after. Since there are few other trends in the data, we focus on this period of falling attendance among Catholics. The key to falling attendance was the conjuncture of vocal defense of traditional sexual teaching by the Pope and other leaders in the face of rapidly growing opposition to that position among the church-going population. Many Catholics who disagreed with Church teachings on sexuality reduced their attendance (very few actually left the Church).

  8. I might be wrong on this and certainly I haven’t read any studies on it, but it seems to me from my personal experience of people who get offended by Church teaching, that that is the problem, they take offense at Church teaching, whether it is the birth control issue that makes them feel excluded, or the pro-life teaching that makes them feel excluded, or the priest who brings the parish into a more vertical form of worship that makes them feel excluded. I tend to think that moderns are a bit more narcissistic when it comes to feeling excluded and marginalized by official teachings of the Church that are taught to them. Those who expect the 1970’s “I’m okay, you’re okay” brand of psychology and theology tend to be a bit sensitive when someone says you’re not okay, their self-esteem suffers and they wallow in their feelings of “exclusion.” Other moderns, though, just don’t buy what the Church teaches or the direction the Church is going in and cease attending–that’s their right and from a traditionalist’s point of view, they have to live with it and any consequences that their self-exclusion brings upon them in the eternal scheme of things.

    1. There is more than a bit of truth to that, but it’s a partial truth. Another truth is that people won’t cooperate any more in a self-muzzling silence. That genie is not going back into the bottle, and I think that is on the whole a good thing.

  9. “Trads go to church the most; their presence drives the moderns away. . . .”

    With respect to the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, how many trads do you suppose attend St. Joan’s, Cabrini, or maybe the other 30-40% of the parishes that could be considered modernistic?

    How many moderns attend St. Agnes, St. Augustine’s or maybe 10 or 15% of the parishes that might be considered traditional?

    It was the trads that were driven out of the seminary during the 70s and 80s and I expect now that the moderns are not making it there so easily these days.

    That statement might apply in rural areas far from neighboring parishes. But people have been “church shopping” for forty years. If they don’t like a pastor, they leave for another parish.

    Or, in the case of St. Stephen’s in Minneapolis, when a traditional pastor was assigned, the vast majority of the English speaking parishioners formed an exodus procession and left to form their own religion. But those people hadn’t practiced the Catholic faith for a long time. St. Joan’s or Cabrini wasn’t modern enough either for them.

  10. What the Polls Don’t Show: A Closer Look at U.S. Church Attendance C. Kirk Hadaway, Penny Long Marler and Mark Chaves American Sociological Review, Vol. 58, No. 6 (Dec., 1993), pp. 741-752 (article consists of 12 pages)

    Abstract: Characterizations of religious life in the United States typically reference poll data on church attendance. Consistently high levels of participation reported in these data suggest an exceptionally religious population. This picture of vitality, however, contradicts other empirical evidence indicating declining strength among many religious institutions. Using a variety of data sources and data collection procedures, we estimate that church attendance rates for Protestants and Catholics are, in fact, approximately one-half the generally accepted levels.

    Who are the people who report they are attending weekly but actually only attending some times? It would be interesting to know more about them. Among Catholics they could be liberals who are disaffected with the church. In one study of a conservative Protestant congregation that keeps records they were people who identified themselves as strong members of the congregation. Maybe a lot of the people being attracted to these Churches are going there for their values agenda (marriage, etc) but basically don’t care about theology, the bible, or worship.

    We need to know more about those who report that are attending but are not before we interpret attendance.

  11. I think, perhaps, that the pendulum swings. From what I have seen and experienced, and please feel free to disagree based upon your own experiences, that the current generation of seminarians is more “traditionalist” than the previous generation or the one before that (as in, the priests who are currently ordained and serving.) In the same fashion, I think that the generation of future church leaders (I speak from an ecumenical point of view) are more “modernist” than those currently in seminary. I was a participant at an ecumenical festival of young preachers this past January and found my colleagues to be very “modernist”–even the ones in the more “traditional” denominations (Roman Catholic, Southern Baptist, etc.) There were very few Roman Catholics in the group, so perhaps that is not the case in the RCC world.

    Also: I think it is unfair to say that the folks at St. Stephen’s “left to form their own religion” (as Ray Marshall said.) They are very clearly Christian. I will concede that they have, perhaps, formed a new denomination. Perhaps that’s what you meant, Mr. Marshall?

  12. The 1960’s was a time of cultural and religious revolution and the two really can’t be separated. Authority was being questioned and not just Church or Biblical authority. H.E. came out at the height of questioning and despising authority, religious or secular. Catholics had seen change within the course of only three years, between 1965 to ’68 to the one thing they never thought would change, the Mass, from Latin and very complex to English and quite simplified. If that could change when they thought nothing could change, then why couldn’t the Church’s teaching on artificial birth control change given the signs of the times and the advent of the pill only eight years earlier?
    Today is a whole different ball of yarn. The Episcopal, Methodist, and Presbyterian Churches are losing members at an alarming rate, mostly traditionalists. Officially their teachings on sexuality and birth control allow for almost anything and you would be hard pressed to hear anything on the topic from their preachers on Sunday morning. These things are not even on the radar screen. It’s the golden rule and do whatever you please in the bedroom. There really is no authority except the person’s conscience and personal interpretation of the Bible.
    It all boils down to a loss of faith, not personal subjective faith, but the objective faith that is handed on and can be codified for all to see and learn, like the “Deposit of Faith” contained in the Catechism. This doesn’t hinge on some “gnostic, subjective spirituality” but is out in the open and radically pragmatic and objective. I suspect moderns are more gnostic than Catholic and being spiritual is all about the “me” generation and the superiority of what “I” believe versus what the “Church”, “They” teach(es) and believe(s).

  13. I really have to believe that many are no longer an active participant in any denomination…that is where the “I’m not religious, I’m spiritual” has arisen; people aren’t finding what they need in denominational religion…the “religions” haven’t given us much to enliven and grow in our spiritual lives…insistence on a strict doctrine doesn’t do a whole lot for one’s prayer life, relationship with God (except as narrowly defined by doctrine)…start helping people into individual and group spiritual direction and see what becomes of them…help people actually have a spiritual life, not just an “I follow doctrine/rules” type of religion”…look where religion has gotten us…our country and our world is divided…it’s time we realize that strictly enforced (forced?) doctrine doesn’t create peace..not in the world, not in one’s soul.

    If doctrine doesn’t lead readily and directly to good acts (Do unto others what you would have them do unto you) of what good is it?

    1. It is not just about good works, it is about salvation, eternal life. This life is short and for some extremely short. We’re not only about ethics but about the Divine Person of Jesus Christ and His salvation. If you don’t believe in Hell, not much point in believing in Christianity. Become a Hindu. They’re good people too.

      1. This, btw, is just as much a reduction of Christian discipleship to mere moralism as the kind that obsesses about sexual purity and obedience. Both tend to focus on following rules about doing good, rather than the less linear and self-satisfying path of theosis.

  14. The Church does not insist on rules just to be meany old authoritarian white men. It believes these rules are God’s rules. If one agrees that they are God’s rules, it makes no sense to stay outside the Church. If one does not agree they are God’s rules, it makes absolutely no sense to stay in the Church. If one really thinks they are wrong, staying in the Church to force them to change is an insult to those of us who do really truly literally believe that the Church is a divine institution, made up of flawed humans, but who are passing on God’s law and Jesus’ teaching based on the Holy Bible and 2,000 years of unbroken sacred tradition. I fully understand those who reject that and leave.
    Refusal to relax those rules isn’t being “legalistic” or “unpastoral”. It is fidelity to the word of God, as seen by the Church He instituted. The only alternative I see to that is that the whole thing is a human construct – but if one accepts that……why bother getting out of bed o n Sunday?
    Some of the posts here remind me of when I used to attend a nearby Unitarian church. Some old atheists, wonderful people, used to attend: I asked why they did. The answer: to ensure the word “God” was not being used. It wasn’t enough for them not to believe, their ‘charism’ was to ensure no one else could use the term in public worship either as it was not ‘inclusive’.

  15. On a lighter note, I asked the old atheists if hymns referring to God were acceptable: they confirmed that they were. I then asked if hymns referring to Mary were acceptable: they were most indignant and said that they could not accept that since that would be idolatry! You can take the Christianity out of Unitarianism but you can’t take the Protestantism out!

    1. In Sacred and Secular one of a series of books on the World Values Study the authors report than an Estonian colleague explained the cultural differences with his Russian colleague by “We are all atheists, but I am a Lutheran atheist, and they are Orthodox atheists.” This underlies the profound effects that Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox heritages have on national values, even when people no long practice their faith, or even affirm belief.

      In other studies some agnostics and atheists have even checked that they pray! Often these identifications as well as “None’ for religion mean that people just do not like the religion they experienced and/or see around them.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *