Religion and the Social Crisis

Here’s Russ Douthat in the NYT on “Religion and the Social Crisis.” Excerpt:

The story of religion in America over the last two generations is a story, not of outright secularization, but of institutional decline. Contemporary Americans are as religiously-minded as ever, but the rise of church-switching and do-it-yourself faith and the steady weakening of the traditional churches and communions has left the country without religious institutions capable of playing the kind of social role [described above]. This organizational decline has been most pronounced within what’s often described as liberal Christianity — in the churches of the Protestant Mainline, and in the “Spirit of Vatican II” wing of the Catholic Church. But among more self-consciously conservative believers, too, constant church-shopping is commonplace…

Even in their weakened state, our religious institutions — with their far-flung networks of parishes and ministries and schools in need of leadership — offer a more plausible mechanism than most other professions for seeding middle America with the talented and energetic.


  1. Christianity in America has been built upon a different structure than the denominations that came from Europe. First, it has been build upon a personal relationship to God; hence the importance in its history of emotional religious renewals and new religious movements. Second, it has been upon voluntary associations, and local congregations. Denominations built upon these structures have become far stronger versions of Christianity than exist now or even in the past in Europe.

    We should not be surprised in an age when people have so many resources (money, education, internet, social media) that they are no longer confined to what the religious professionals in the denominations have to offer, i.e. they see all the resources in and out of denominations as an opportunity to relation to God, and network with other people within, across and beyond denominations over spiritual and religious matters.

    All this talk of the decline of religion is just clergy in denominations not facing the fact that their old time religious monopolies are declining, people are becoming free.

    The superiority of Conservative Protestantism is greatly exaggerated. Eighty percent was caused by their slower decline in birthrates than Mainline Protestants. The rest was likely caused by their greater amount of local autonomy and responsibility, i.e. their pastors are entrepreneurs, and the practice of emphasizing weekly church attendance with uniformly excellent services rather than liturgical years.

    This article is stuck in the cultural wars whose major contribution has been negative, namely alienating young people by combining conservative religion with conservative politics. If this continues more and more people, especially the young, are going to stay away from institutional religion because of its association with conservative politics, e.g. those who attend church are more likely to vote Republican.

    1. I’m interested in this phrase, “uniformly excellent services rather than liturgical years.” I realize that during the high seasons we add more festivity, but isn’t this true of all churches? No church puts on an Easter pageant 52 weeks per year.

      I do see where the lectionary cycle might be limiting. Many Protestant churches are free to have a several-week series on a certain theme, since they can choose their readings and prayers more creatively. Pros and cons of that approach.

      Perhaps this perception is hurt by our term Ordinary Time. I know that it refers to ordinal, or numbered time, but to almost every person in our society the word Ordinary means plain, boring, unimportant. I really wish we could change our reference to Weeks of the Year or something like that.

      1. The problem with Ordinary Time is programming for low attendance such as not having the choir during the summer, and not singing the Gloria, etc. Lent and Advent in Liturgical Churches are programmed to lead up to Easter and Christmas. That is exactly what happens to attendance. It grows from a seasonal average in October to a high at Christmas, falls quickly to a winter low; grows slowly in Lent to another high at Easter and declines quickly into the long summer low. Most liturgical churches program in ways that maintain this pattern. The result is an average yearly attendance equal to October.

        While non-liturgical churches have a slight peak at Christmas and Easter, their average yearly attendance is like liturgical year attendance right before Christmas and Easter. Their lows in winter and summer are equal to our attendance in October. Their seasonal weather cycle is small in comparison to the liturgical cycle. There also appears to be a small school year cycle. The cycle in Liturgical churches may reinforce the summer and school cycles to produce deeper lows in liturgical churches.

        Most non liturgical churches are conservative, local and very entrepreneurial. Some mega-churches reinvent themselves every six months. Large ones with choirs spread their talents over the whole year. However choirs are more a feature of Mainline and Catholic churches than Conservative churches. Strong congregational singing helps produce uniformly high quality services. Sermons are the central feature, a lot longer than Mainline churches. Most of these pastors are experts in life long bible study. While some of them may fashion their homilies around the continuous reading of Scripture, from the signs in front of their churches I suspect most pick a topic and bring in Scripture as needed.

        A local parish maintains a uniformly excellent service with a sung EP each Sunday. There are many paths to predicable quality. Seasonal low quality is not one of them.

    2. ” I really wish we could change our reference to Weeks of the Year or something like that.”

      Why not “Sundays After Pentecost/Epiphany?” It follows what many Protestants still do, links the seasons to major feast days, and is also grounded in our own tradition.

      1. The Orthodox tradition in the local OCA church numbers almost all Sundays after Pentecost (SaP).

        December 18 this past year, our 4th Sunday of Advent was their 27th SaP.
        January 1st was the 29th SaP,
        January 8th was the 30th SaP.
        January 15th was the 31st SaP,
        January 22nd was the 32nd SaP.

        January 23rd was the 33rd SaP also called Zacchaeus Sunday after the Gospel because it is one of the pre-Lenten Sundays.
        February 5th the 34th SaP is also called the Publican and the Pharisee,
        February 12th the 35th SaP is also called the Prodigal Son.
        February 17th the 36th SaP is also called Meatfare Sunday.

        February 24th the beginning of Lent is simply called Forgiveness Sunday because Lent begins at Forgiveness Vespers (the liturgical beginning of Monday).
        March 4th the 1st Sunday of Lent is also called Triumph of Orthodoxy Sunday.
        March 11, the Second Sunday of Lent is also St. Gregory Palamis Sunday,
        March 18th the Third Sunday of Lent is also Veneration of the Cross Sunday,
        March 25th this year is celebrated as the Annunciation,
        but last year was the 4th Sunday of Lent also know as Saint John Climacus Sunday.
        The fifth Sunday of Lent is also Saint Mary of Egypt Sunday

        The Sundays after Easter are called Sundays after Pascha and also by the names of their Gospels. There is no Trinity Sunday; it is celebrated as the feast of All Saints as well as being the 1st Sunday after Pentecost.

        I like this system. We do live after Pentecost rather than in ordinary, cyclical or secular time.

        The Lord’s Day is the primordial feast, the first day, the day of creation, the day of light, the day of the new time, the last day, the eight day, the day beyond all days, the day of jubilee, the day of the end-time, the day of resurrection, the day of Pentecost, the day of Eucharist, the day of baptism, the day of ordination, etc. (cf. Porter, Taft, Dies Domini).

        We should give the daily-weekly cycle(, Vespers, Matins, and Eucharist) priority over the annual and life cycles.

  2. The danger of the sociology of religion disconnected from revealed truth is precisely that, the study of the sociology of religion disconnected from divine or revealed truth. This disconnection from divinely revealed truth has opened Americans to the “Oprahfication” of religion which is the “morphfication” of religion into some feel good, contemporary experience of a nebulous spirituality. It is also based upon the exaltation of “fierce and rugged individualism” inherited from America’s frontier culture. If Christianity isn’t about temporal and eternal salvation and divine truth, I suggest joining the Kiwanis Club or some other fraternal organization that helps create relationships and sustains friendships in a service-oriented way.

    1. Then too, a Christianity so singly oriented toward temporal and eternal salvation that it tends only to its familiar formulas and certitudes, overlooking charity and failing to mark out a path toward holiness through this secular vita activa in which most of us are living today, is a Christianity that will find a fitting space safely behind a glass pane in a museum. It will look pretty and offer endless arcane fascination. It will save no one.

      1. Temporal salvation implies an active Christian charity where Christians cooperating with God’s sanctifying and actual grace bring Christ (salvation) to the world. There are many examples of this, Blessed Teresa of Calcutta is a good example and many other less famous witnesses.

      2. With reference to your two postings on this thread, what theology of revelation are you working from, Father? And what do you mean by ‘salvation’?

      3. What the catechism of the Catholic Church teaches. I hope I’m not being too presumptuous about that being the foundation or at least the starting point for all of us who call ourselves Roman Catholics and thus I would suggest you read those portions of the CCC rather than have me quote them here concerning your questions to me.

      4. Opining as you do, in terms such as “some feel good, contemporary experience of a nebulous spirituality” should have made me more aware how unlikely it was that you would provide an answer to the questions posed.

  3. The research done for American Grace made a very strong case that family relationships, close friendships, and small groups associated with worshiping congregations were far superior to civic organizations in promoting healthy and satisfying lives, and contributing time, talent and money not only to religious but also civic organizations. The authors even called them “super charged relationships.”

    However, the same research showed that if you only sat in the pews without any religiously oriented family relationships, close friends in the congregation, or participating in small church groups you got none of the above benefits. You would have been better off going to a civic organization.

    Jesus summarized the Law as love of God and our neighbor. This research gives us wonderful confirmation that worship of God and Christian community go together. Social science and the Scripture reach similar conclusions although by different methods and using different language.

    However, the same research failed to show any significant effects for religious beliefs and values whether between denominations or within denominations. Whether you were educated to believe in love of neighbor or hear it regularly in the pulpit does not matter; it is how many religiously significant relationships you have with your family, friends, and small groups in the congregation.

    If I were a cultural warrior, a theologian or a religious educator I might be very disturbed by the lack of relationship of beliefs and values to health, life satisfaction, and good deeds in church and society.

    But I am just someone whose has had a life long love of liturgy with family, friends and colleagues who share my religious interests, spending my time serving marginal people in our society.

    My advice as a social scientist and Christian is to spend more time having better liturgies, and better ecclesial and civic communities.

  4. The danger of the sociology of religion disconnected from revealed truth is precisely that…

    The danger is that church managers think they have nothing to learn from sociology. Social scientists are mainly interested in people and practical problems. When they provide very practical results, managers (not only bishops but priests, pastoral associates, and lay volunteers) ignore the data.

    Take, for example the Vibrant Parish Life Study. The results of this study for a large parish (with about a thousand respondents) were identical to the overall results for the diocese, e.g. people said liturgy and community were the most important items but they were ranked half way down the list of 39 items in being well done. This parish denied the problems.

    They claimed better liturgies than most parishes, even though the parish council repeatedly discussed the many people arriving late and leaving early. The people not the liturgies were the problem. In the bulletin, the pastoral staff had scolded the people for not singing, i.e. “they were not even picking up their hymnals.” No possibility that the songs might be ones that the people did not know or did not like. Again the people not the management were the problem.

    This same parish prides itself on the many small groups and ministries they have; they therefore rejected the data that they did poorly in creating community even though they heard a constant refrain that the parish was just too big. The pastoral council also heard many complaints from group and ministry leaders that the same people were always showing up and doing the work. These leaders saw the problem as lazy people that would not volunteer rather than the fact they themselves were hogging leadership roles. A friend of mine joined this parish a year or two ago. I asked her how it was going. She said all the organizations in the parish were dominated by cliques and she didn’t feel a part of it.

    1. Jack, I have no problem with sociology, its my undergraduate degree. If it helps us to be better Catholics and better parishes by all means bring on the data. But if it is about changing our core beliefs to accommodate those who want a different product, then I say, go find another product. But the sociology of parishes and keeping people involved (and small groups are very good) needs to be emphasized as your post above indicates.

  5. The Orthodox tradition in the local OCA church numbers almost all Sundays after Pentecost (SaP).

    As does the Lutheran tradition in which I grew up.

    In the bulletin, the pastoral staff had scolded the people for not singing, i.e. “they were not even picking up their hymnals.” No possibility that the songs might be ones that the people did not know or did not like. Again the people not the management were the problem.

    I can relate. I have to admit that the state of Catholic music is abysmal, to put it mildly. It’s the same situation at my parish, and since our current music director has introduced evangelical praise songs it’s gotten worse. The few who bother to sing are far outnumbered by those who don’t, including, I confess, myself.

    If anyone wants to read an interesting tale about this check out the conversion story of Jennifer Mehl Ferrara, a former Evangelical Lutheran Church in America pastor who became a lay Catholic. The culture shock she experienced as regards music in the Catholic Church today is understandable.

    But then, historically non-Catholics have had hymnals and Catholics missals, they are not the same and for some preconciliar Catholics music is seen as an intrusion into the Mass.

    1. It was when I attended a Lutheran service with a friend that I discovered just how many of the older names were used by many Protestants. I think it was Septuagesima Sunday.

      The singing was amazing. I picked up a hymnal even though I didn’t know the hymns being sung just so I wouldn’t stick out. They were all old hymns too, with “thee and thou” language even though the “ordinary” of the service was in gender-inclusive modern English.

      I would say most Catholics see singing at Mass as an intrusion. It’s a holdover from the pre-Vatican II low Mass culture and perpetuated by the low-Mass-nature of the Novus Ordo and the illogical way music is employed at it.

  6. It was when I attended a Lutheran service with a friend that I discovered just how many of the older names were used by many Protestants. I think it was Septuagesima Sunday.

    Indeed. Some parishes in the conservative Lutheran Church Missouri Synod still use the one-year lectionary and language is generally not gender-inclusive. The Lutheran Church is famous for her rich hymnody and is rightly called the singing church, and although it does serve to strengthen “communal” ties the major emphasis is on how those hymns catechize the people.

    My preconciliar husband would agree that many Catholics even after Vatican II still see singing as an intrusion so you can imagine his reaction at the first “guitar Mass” he encountered. He always preferred to attend a low Mass on Sundays and I agree that the low-Mass nature of the Novus Ordo has perpetuated this.

    On the other hand, although I still have deep appreciation for Bach chorales it wasn’t until I became Catholic that I discovered the riches of Palestrina and Victoria, whose music can send me straight to heaven although I recognize that sacred polyphony is not designed for communal singing.

    There are some fine contemporary hymns written for Catholics but far too many of them are banal. Hopefully that will improve.

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