Religious decline in America? The answer depends on your timeframe

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Guest post by Elesha Coffman

In January 2014, a graph appeared on this blog depicting a 60-year “Great Decline” in American religiosity. The graph, and the conversation it sparked, seemed like great fodder for a session at the annual meeting of the American Society of Church History, so I began pulling together a panel.


Before the conference met, however, this blog posted an updated graph charting a rise before the fall.ARI 1945 to 2013

The research methodology for both graphs was the same. What changed was periodization. Start the clock at 1945 instead of 1952, and the line changes dramatically. In fact, the whole narrative changes. A decline becomes a rise and fall, with the uptick at the beginning begging interpretation as much as the slide at the end.

For my contribution to the panel, then, I experimented with starting the clock even earlier. Some of the survey data used to create the previous two graphs didn’t begin to be generated until the mid-20th century, so the comparison cannot be as neat. More than just the periodization shifts. Still, I was able to find two other lines introducing additional possible narratives for the history of religiosity in the United States.

Did the twentieth century see a rise and fall of religiosity within a larger pattern of stability?

Or does the late 20th-century religious decline shrink to insignificance when compared with the religious rise since the founding of the nation?

As I said, I know that the data sets and methods for these graphs are not identical, and neither are their underlying assumptions. The Gallup poll lets church attendance basically stand in for religiosity, while Tobin’s work complicates that association. A different disagreement separates Tobin’s work from the last graph, which rests on the work of Roger Finke and Rodney Stark, The Churching of America, 1776-1990. Finke and Stark advanced supply-side explanations for changes in religious behavior (more people go to church when there are more, and better, churches for them to go to), while Tobin favors demand-side explanations (when people get their needs met in other ways, they are less religious). Perhaps it took a while for religious supply to match demand, but, once the market was saturated, demand factors kicked in?

I look to my colleagues in the social sciences to pursue questions like this. As a historian, my questions are different, as are my tools for answering them. What I bring to the conversation is the reminder that even a long trend—60 years!—exists in a larger historical framework, and that shifting the frame also changes the picture.

Elesha Coffman is assistant professor of church history at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary. She is the author of The Christian Century and the Rise of the Protestant Mainline

  • Jack

    Wow, an intelligent and interesting article on RNS. That’s because she’s a guest writer. The regulars are cultural conformists. If it were hip to wear plastic bags over their heads and sing Forever Young in pig Latin, they’d all do it.

  • Karla

    A decline in people not sticking to what the Bible says. Being mean and/or
    sharp tongues,getting drunk,gambling,gossip,coveting/greed and jealousy
    along with sleeping around/premarital sex are now the norm because most
    people only want to talk about gay marriage or abortion so ther sin doesn’t
    seem so bad. 1 Corinthians 6:9-12 and 1 Corinthians 5 the whole chapter
    rebuke people/tell us all to Repent. The wine Jesus made was diluted and
    the Bible says in Ephesians 5:18 don’t get drunk with wine it’s debauchery
    so people who get drunk with wine are also wrong/go to hell because the
    Bible says in 1 Corinthians 6:10 all drunkards go to hell. John 2:10 says
    the cheap wine was brought out last so best for last refers to the poorer
    watered down wine. Luke 13 says Repent or perish! We all must Repent!

    Jesus said many will say to Me Lord,Lord and not enter heaven so many
    people are in for a shock on judgment day unless they all make a change!
    If you say you love Jesus then don’t follow Him/the Bible no Truth is in you!
    It doesn’t matter how spiritual the people are if they aren’t Biblical they are
    still lost and are headed for hell. We must follow the Truth and be Biblical.
    Bible says Repent and believe the Gospel to be saved! We all must Repent!

  • Shawnie5

    Refreshing to see a non-myopic view on this subject.

    Go all the way back to colonial America and you find a church attendance rate of less than 20% — not coincidentally, much like that of Europe, both then and now.

    Modern America is religious beyond the wildest dreams of the colonial parsons. Thank you, First Amendment.

  • Fran

    Many religions today are not providing spiritual food and refreshment to their souls, just as the Scribes and Pharisees, the religious leaders in Jesus’ day, did not provide.

    The difference was that Jesus provided people in his day spiritual truths, and gave them true hope in something better, or what God’s kingdom or heavenly government would provide to mankind.

    As Abraham was promised by God in earlier days, all nations of the earth would be blessed by a seed that would come through his line (Mattthew 1:1-16). That would prove to be Jesus, the son of God, and the Messiah.

    Jesus is also referred to as the “twig out of the stump of Jesse, and out of his root, the sprout will be fruitful.” The kind of rule Jesus would exercise as King is further detailed, and also the animal kingdom on earth will be peaceful with one another (Isaiah 11:1-9).

    A major reason why so many people are leaving religion today is because it does not teach them the truth about God and his kingdom, or heavenly government, and what marvelous blessings it will soon provide meek mankind (Revelation 21:1-4).

    It’s as though they have nothing to look forward to and are of the opinion, “let us drink and eat, for tomorrow, we are to die” (1 Corinthians 15:32).

    Many religions also teach “traditions as the commandment of God”, just as the Scribes and Pharisees did in Jesus’ day.

    It’s no wonder, then, why so many are disenchanted and leaving “religion” because it does not provide spiritual truths that they need or a real hope for the future that will only be realized through God’s kingdom or heavenly government (Daniel 2:44).

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  • Chaplain Martin

    I agree with you and history of the dissenters, John Leland, Isaac Backus, and political leaders like Jefferson and Madison and others led to our wonderful First Amendment.
    Some thought the church would die in America unless it received taxes revenue from the citizens, instead it grew greatly.

    Say does anyone know just what the “Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion” is about?

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  • Tim

    In spite of right-wing Christian attempts to rewrite history to make Jefferson into a Christian, little about his philosophy resembles that of Christianity. Although Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence wrote of the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God, there exists nothing in the Declaration about Christianity. I can get you plenty of quotes of Jefferson being against the cult of Christianity if you like. Stop lying. Just because God lied numerous times and even said he lied along with Jesus being a habitual liar, doesn’t make lying right. So grow up and stop pushing that iron age mythological garbage

  • Steve

    Big issue with this, not as intelligent as it appears. First Statistics are useless if they are not applied to a statement/answer. Secondly data needs to be validated. In this case the shorter range reflects the question is religion declining in America, and without a true analysis it appears to be true.
    The extended period suggests a growth in the 40s. The fact is there was a growth after the 40s, but what happens if you go back further, what happened in the 40s?
    WW2. The Catholic church in Italy was friendly to Hitler (Reality may suck to face, but Italy was their allies). US Catholics did not take this well, adherence went down, as well as general religious acceptance (Common in war even without special conditions). Soldiers have a hard time with religion after fighting a war.
    This may or may not be the sole cause, but as such this invalidates the data during and after the war.

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