Does Religion Decline When It Becomes Liberal?

Jana Reiss is a 48-year-old convert to the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints with a PhD in American Religious Studies from Columbia University. She recently penned this piece for RNS, “If Mormonism becomes liberal and progressive, won’t it decline even more?” Spoiler alert: the answer is yes… and no, mostly. It’s complicated.

Here’s a taste:

Popular sociological theory has long argued that conservative religions that make high demands of their members will flourish, while progressive ones that maintain more porous boundaries will inevitably decline. … More recent work has called this into question, driven by the reality that almost all religious traditions are now struggling — even conservative ones like evangelical Protestantism and Mormonism, which once seemed so reliably immune. …

If [the sociological theory] could explain why liberal religions seemed to decline in the 1990s and beyond, we would see evidence that the exodus from liberal traditions such as mainline Protestantism was matched by a corresponding growth in conservative religions that was not already due to those religions’ higher fertility – and the data don’t show that.

Religious decline is related to broader demographic patterns that are complex and ever-changing, from declining fertility and immigration to generational replacement. …

Hats off to Jana Reiss for a well-nuanced piece. She doesn’t simply dismiss the thesis that conservative religions grow, but looks at that dynamic in the context of larger and more important trends. I think she knows what she’s talking about.

We all have a stake in this important question, whether we’re mainline Protestant or Catholic or Evangelical or Orthodox, or…

Go read the whole piece here. Your comments are welcome below.




  1. A few miscellaneous thoughts and observations:

    * I agree with Reiss – and it’s not new news – that most religious affiliation is in decline in the US.

    * Almost certainly the trend is broader than just religious affiliation: I’m an adherent of Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone thesis that virtually all mediating institutions, which are the sources of our social capital, are in decline. The family is not exempt.

    * Her observation of inflated Mormon numbers during the last generation has its parallel in the Catholic church, in which Catholic identity was more nominal/cultural/ancestral than real. And now their children, the current generation of young adults, really aren’t grounded in Catholicism or any other religion. That generation is, in many ways, mission territory.

    * The mission of Christianity remains. In the US, that means that churches like the Catholic church need to rediscover how to evangelize.

    * I continue to believe that the Gospel is relevant, and that communal, sacramental life is a baseline expectation for discipleship. All we have to do is figure out how to initiate the uninitiated into that life.

  2. I got as far as this comment, then stopped:

    “Popular sociological theory has long argued that conservative religions that make high demands of their members will flourish, while progressive ones that maintain more porous boundaries will inevitably decline.”

    My own sense is that faith communities that set the bar high will flourish, be they conservative or liberal, Catholic, Protestant, or whatever. In the 70s and 80s I saw progressive parishes, and liberal subsets of parishes that flourished because they were deeply serious about Jesus Christ and following him. It doesn’t surprise me that many TLM communities also thrive. The intentionality keeps the blood pumping.

    If liberal Catholicism with liturgical reform was a minority in a mostly country-club membership Tridentine operation, they would be flourishing–as they often did in the immediate post-conciliar years.

    1. The historical model post-Toleration became to rely on religious orders to supply the fire of intentionality to warm the rest of the Church. Trent – more indirectly than intentionally – ignited a trend of religious orders devoted to more directly inflame the laity without incorporating them as third order members, and one might say Vatican II intentionally set a mission of enlarging on that vision. But, in the First World, it came in an age of plummeting respect for the authority (not just power) of institutions, courtesy of the carnage that was the 20th century. And, of course, other institutions stepped into the breach by adopting a consumerist framework – either directly moulding the appetites of consumers to desire what the institutions were offering to sell, or stroking the anxieties of consumers so that they would seek (temporary) relief in what was being offered for sale.

      1. Indeed, all that. I’m convinced our getting bogged down in Galatian-style in-fighting over the past few decades has done little to move against the darkness. I have to admit I’ve often been surprised at the readiness I’ve encountered from many Christians, left and right alike, to be decidedly intentional about their faith. In the end it has nothing to do with ideology. It’s always about relationship with God.

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