In yesterday's column, Ross Douthat smacked the Episcopalians for selling their Christian birthright for a mess of secularist pottage. If only they had stuck to the old time religion, they wouldn't be shedding parishioners by the flockload. And yet, as RNS' humble aggregator Dan Burke notes, old-time religion-stickers like the Southern Baptist Convention and Douthat's own Catholic church have also been losing their sheep at a rapid pace. So what gives?
More things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in Douthat's philosophy.
One part of the answer is “no religion.” As the succession of American Religious Identification Surveys have demonstrated, the category that has gained the most since 1990 is the one composed by those who answer “none” when asked, “What is your religion if any?”–up from 7 percent to over 15 percent. Lots of adherents of all persuasions have simply decided to opt out of religious identification, but especially white Catholics.
Mainline Protestants like Episcopalians, Presbyterians, and Methodists have stopped working to keep their young people within the fold. Southern Baptists and other large conservative churches have been too doctrinaire. The Catholic abuse scandals, combined with retrenchment from the Vatican II, have alienated a significant number of the faithful. Not belonging, not showing up for worship, is an option that doesn't attract the neighbors' opprobrium these days, and many Americans are availing themselves of it.
In fact, the only sizable portion of the American Christian population that is growing at all these days turns out to be the one whose members simply identify themselves as “Christians” or “non-denominational Christians.” They go to megachurches and smaller places specializing in a generic style of evangelical faith. When it comes to belief, they tend to be neither too hot nor too cold. You might call them lukewarm.
Why are the lukewarm churches growing? I'd like to see Douthat try his hand at that one.