Do we really wonder why so many people are leaving organized religion?
A new Gallup poll has found that for the first time, the proportion of Americans who say they are members of a church, synagogue or mosque has dropped below 50%. Both mainline and evangelical Protestant membership is in decline. The religious “nones” are growing and now represent nearly a quarter of Americans — that’s about the same percentage as evangelicals and Catholics. Younger people are much more likely to be religiously unaffiliated than older folks.
I can’t say I blame them.
The United States has long been an outlier among wealthier nations in continuing to be religious, and so perhaps some degree of secularization was inevitable. Significantly, however, we’ve also seen a growing sense of disillusionment with the church and a greater distrust of social institutions in general because of scandals, hypocrisy and failures to do the right thing, as in sex abuse scandals in the Catholic church and Southern Baptist Convention.
Many days I find myself standing on the threshold of the church door, looking out and considering joining the “nones” myself.
Monday, we learned that a jury in Minneapolis found Derek Chauvin guilty of the murder of George Floyd. Many rejoiced at that decision. And while that verdict brings some measure of accountability to that particular crime, the systems that led to this moment have not yet transformed, in the police precinct or the corner church.
University of Pennsylvania professor Anthea Butler traces the rise of today’s conservative white evangelicalism to its racist roots in the enslavement of Africans. Anti-Black racism, she argues, is at the core of every facet of white evangelicalism. But the evangelicals are not alone in white dominant traditions. Recently, the Episcopal church released its report on racism within the church, identifying nine patterns of systemic racism.
The Atlanta spa shootings reflect a trifecta of controversial topics among Christians — gender, race and guns. A man steeped in purity culture, a member of a Southern Baptist church, targeted Asian women because they were a temptation to him. For the month of April thus far, a shooting with multiple victims has happened on all but three days. Despite the epidemic of gun violence, evangelicals are more likely to own a gun than other Christians, and they, on the whole, oppose gun control.
“For the month of April thus far, a shooting with multiple victims has happened on all but three days.”
We also learned this week that state legislatures already this year have broken the record for anti-transgender legislation with 33 states considering more than 100 bills that would restrict the rights of transgender people. As conservative evangelicals face losing the culture wars on other fronts, they’ve found a new target in transgender people and seem intent on demonizing them for political gain.
In particular, the Right has focused on trans girls’ and women’s participation in sports, claiming they are trying to protect girls and women from trans athletes’ unfair advantage. That the same people who advocate for women’s submission would suddenly take up the mantle of women’s rights invites skepticism. They are not interested in preserving women’s rights; they’re interested in preserving the boundaries of gender.
Finally, this month we learned that 45% of white evangelicals said they would not get a COVID-19 vaccine. Distrust of government, embrace of conspiracy theories, scientific misinformation and illiteracy, news silos, and partisan politics have generated fear and hesitancy among white evangelicals that likely will extend the pandemic.
“They are not interested in preserving women’s rights; they’re interested in preserving the boundaries of gender.”
Being a “none” looks like a very rational decision to me.
When I was a student at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, religious education professor Findley Edge talked about the process of institutionalization. He said that someone would have an innovative idea. They’d share, and others would get excited about it. Then they’d organize around it and build structures to sustain it. Eventually, the structures would overtake the idea, especially as the founding generation moved on or died out, and, sooner or later, maintaining the structures would become more important than the original idea.
By my estimation, the church is thoroughly institutionalized. In fact, I’d say, not only have we gotten far afield from the original idea, we’ve actually set ourselves in opposition to it. After all, it was so simple as Jesus expressed it: Love God and love your neighbor. How hard could that be? And if we’d done that, would we be looking at the ascendancy of the “nones”? Would I perpetually stand on the threshold, one foot out the door?
Something is terribly wrong when racism is an epidemic in the church, when women of color are murdered for being a temptation, when trans people become targets for discrimination and bigotry, and when emphasis on individual “liberties” puts public health at risk. None of this falls under “Love God and love your neighbor.” If this is the church, people are right to leave it.
“It was so simple as Jesus expressed it: Love God and love your neighbor. How hard could that be?”
Something’s amiss in the progressive church too. The decline in mainline Protestant churches suggests needs aren’t being met there either. Findley Edge said that once something is institutionalized, someone has to have a new idea. We have to stop hanging on to the structures of church for the sake of the structures. We have to ask that really hard question of what we need to do to love God and love our neighbors. Church as we know it may not be the answer.
I don’t know what the answer is, hence my place on the threshold. I only stay because I found a community of faith at Ainsworth United Church of Christ in Portland where a group of multiracial, multicultural, open and affirming, justice-seeking people are doing their best to love God and love their neighbors, although I’m still not sure the institutional structures we’ve inherited are best for that.
Probably if I had not been born into organized religion (I was, after all, on the cradle roll at Shorter Avenue Baptist Church in Rome, Ga.), I would not have gone there voluntarily, especially now. So maybe it’s time for the church to lose its religion and find itself born into something new that embodies in every way the guidance of Jesus: Love God and love your neighbor.
Susan M. Shaw is professor of women, gender and sexuality studies at Oregon State University in Corvallis, Ore. She also is an ordained Baptist minister and holds master’s and doctoral degrees from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Her most recent book is Intersectional Theology: An Introductory Guide, co-authored with Grace Ji-Sun Kim.
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