Demography, Culture, and the Decline of America's Christian Denominations
by george hawley
lexington books, 238 pages, $95.00
It’s no secret that the churches are shrinking. We all have our theories. Bad music, Pharisees, infighting, Trump voters, tattooed lady pastors, kids’ soccer on Sundays, scandals in excelsis, millennials, theodicy, Folgers coffee at Bible class: These are the crimes that fry men’s souls. Enjoyable as such discussions are, most of us are probably due to check our facts. A great many such facts are collected in George Hawley’s Demography, Culture, and the Decline Of America’s Christian Denominations.
The news is not good, and Hawley shoots down one armchair theory early: It is not only liberal mainline Protestants who face serious decline. Socially conservative evangelical churches and the Roman Catholic Church are also losing ground, and often fail to put up better numbers than mainline churches in measurements associated with denominational health.
Hawley begins with an examination of the current state of Christianity in America using data from the 2014 General Social Survey (GSS). The number of Americans who identify themselves as Christian is below 75 percent (down from around 90 percent in the 1970s and 1980s), and 20 percent do not identify with any religion (the “nones,” up from 5 percent in 1972). Over 26 percent of Americans never attend church services (up from 10 percent in 1972); only 43 percent attend at least once a month (down from 57 percent). Of those who attend regularly, 23 percent are over 65 years old; people under 30 make up 13 percent of regular attenders. Christians have lost absolute numbers among the young, the college educated, and all racial groups (including the children of devout Latin American immigrants).
Hawley establishes historical context, and goes on to analyze data from the GSS, the Cooperative Congressional Election Study, and the 2015 Pew Report “America’s Changing Religious Landscape,” in order to identify demographic trends in American denominations, including Roman Catholics, Baptists, Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and Pentecostals. Mormons are also included, due to their social relevance. Hawley identifies three factors that support a denomination's viability: personal commitment of individual members, racial/ethnic diversity, and natural growth.
Checked against the numbers, no tradition can claim to have it all. Catholics, Methodists, and Baptists have higher diversity for historical reasons (only Seventh Day Adventists have done well at increasing their diversity, though virtually all traditions are trying). However, Catholics do not manifest personal commitment either through church attendance or member retention, nor do they live out the Church’s notoriously staunch teaching on the conjugal union. Methodists do not convince members to come to church, remain there, or generate Sunday schoolers. Baptists score better in member retention, personal commitment, and fecundity. But Hawley notes, “Performing better than other Christian groups is not the same as performing well.” The Baptists are disappearing, too.
There are few simple explanations. Even liberal mainline churches resist pigeonholing. Mainline Presbyterians feed deserters into their evangelical counterparts (like the PCA and the OPC), keeping Presbyterian numbers steady overall. However, the mainline Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) and the evangelical Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LCMS) are both in decline, providing a counterexample to the “liberal shrinking, conservative OK” theory. The mainline American Baptist Churches actually grew between 2014 and 2015, while the much larger evangelical Southern Baptist Convention contracted.
Hawley acknowledges that the terms liberal and conservative are better suited to politics than to churches. Ethical questions complicated by multidimensional components of Christian theology dovetail with few public policies (obvious points of difficulty include capital punishment and abortion, or personal generosity and national security). It is not surprising, then, that data reveal no association between political conservatism and a healthy denomination. Hawley notes that one fact of American political life may skew this connection: Black Christians who hold conservative ethical positions are historically aligned with the Democrat party. Additionally, Hawley says, “it is a mistake to assume that the famously ‘liberal’ mainline denominations are full of partisan Democrats. Although many of these denominations officially take liberal positions on hot-button social issues, the average parishioners in these denominations apparently do not.”
Hawley economizes on language rather than information, allowing for no adjectival mildness. The Methodist apostasy rate is “terrible,” the ELCA’s decline has been “catastrophic,” and Episcopalian family size is “devastating.” This brings us to a recurrent point: “In those denominations where large families remain common, the future looks bright. Among other denominations where later marriages and small families are the norm, and have been the norm for a generation or more, it is unclear whether they will have a future at all.” Hawley quotes Episcopal Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefforts Schori, who told the New York Times that rather than promoting natural growth, Episcopalians “encourage people to pay attention to the stewardship of the earth and not use more than their share.” Episcopal leaders can see the implications of the church’s replacement rate, Hawley says; “What makes them particularly interesting is that they are apparently unconcerned.” But other Christians still consider ongoing existence a blessing to some extent.
Personal commitment, cultural diversity, and natural growth are not easy to come by. Breakneck social changes have altered popular opinion drastically, leaving the churches to compete rather than cooperate with conventional wisdom. Population growth is propped up by immigration for now, but Hawley’s research shows that Christian outreach to immigrants has returned low yields. Migratory gain in population has not extended to the churches.
That leaves us with the word “birthrate,” at which many eyes glaze over. But Hawley, the social scientist, understands that disciples are mostly made at home. Here, another set of numbers is informative: “Catholics were 1.6 times as likely to have [three or more children] compared to the irreligious; non-denomination evangelicals were also 1.6 times as likely, independent Baptists were slightly more than twice as likely; members of the LCMS were 2.8 times as likely; Pentecostals were about three times as likely, and Mormons were an astonishing 5.3 times as likely.” The sum of Christian couples’ personal decisions to keep their families small, combined with denominations’ less quantifiable failure to retain those brought to the font, has amounted to a tragedy of the ecclesiastical commons. Another theme of Hawley’s book is the difficulty of raising an intact family nowadays. History will show which denomination’s form of investment against this challenge pays off.
Rebekah Curtis has written for Touchstone, Modern Reformation, and Salvo.