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New poll finds sharp decline in US church membership since 1999

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Diocese of Arundel & Brighton | Flickr CC by ND 2.0

J-P Mauro - published on 04/20/19 - updated on 04/20/19

“Religious Americans in the future will likely be faced with fewer options for places of worship."

Research by Gallup has found that the percentage of US adults who formally belong to a church or other religious institution has dropped by 20 points over the previous two decades, reaching a record low of 50% last year. The sharpest decline was observed in Democrats and Hispanics, but the numbers have dwindled across the board.

In 1999, and throughout the 20th century, about 70% of Americans practiced some form of organized religion, but as the percentage of faithful is dropping, the amount of religiously unaffiliated (nones) has more than doubled, from 8% to 19%.

In Christian denominations the sharpest decline was seen in Catholics (dropping from 76% to 63%), while Protestants only experienced a 6% drop.

From a political perspective, the 20 year period was hardest on Democrats, who fell from 71% to 48%. Comparatively, Republicans saw a much more modest drop of 8% (77% to 69%).

University of Notre Dame political science professor David Campbell studies the role which religion plays in U.S. civic life. He attributes the partisan divide to “the allergic reaction many Americans have to the mixture of religion and conservative politics.” Campbell told the Associated Press:

“Increasingly, Americans associate religion with the Republican Party — and if they are not Republicans themselves, they turn away from religion.”

Among cultural groups, Hispanic Americans, who have been historically religious, saw the greatest decline, of 68% to 45%, since 2000. This was the largest drop in the study of ethnicity, more so than non-Hispanic White or African Americans.

Nancy Ammerman, a professor of the sociology of religion at Boston University, believes the decline in church membership is due to cultural and generational factors. She told AP:

“Culturally, we are seeing significant erosion in the trust people have for institutions in general and churches in particular,” she said. “We are also seeing a generational shift as the ‘joiner’ older generation dies off and a generation of non-joiners comes on the scene.”

Gallup found the disparity between the old and young was also quite large, 64% and 41% respectively in 2016-2018. Jeffery Jones, an analyst from Gallup, cautioned that the decline may not be over yet:

“How do they find ways to convince some of the unaffiliated religious adults in society to make a commitment to a particular house of worship of their chosen faith?” “These trends are not just numbers, but play out in the reality that thousands of U.S. churches are closing each year,” Jones added. “Religious Americans in the future will likely be faced with fewer options for places of worship, and likely less convenient ones, which could accelerate the decline in membership even more.”

Scott Thumma, a professor of religion at Hartford Seminary, says the generational disparity is more complicated because of a change in the pacing of when young people reach certain milestones. More young faithful than ever are delaying marriage and having kids, and when they finally do settle down, they have fewer children than the previous generations.

Thumma also considered the lax social pressures to officially join a congregation.

“I’ve encountered many persons in churches that have attended for several years but did not officially join or become a member,” he said. “This is also evident in persons switching from one congregation to another without joining any.”
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