Based on the influence that white conservative evangelicals have on the Republican party, you would think that churches are powerful because they have huge followings. But as a recent Gallup poll shows, that’s simply not true. Church membership in the U.S. has been dropping like a rock over the past two decades.
20 years ago, 70 percent of Americans said that they were members of a church. But in the Gallup poll released this month, that number is just 50 percent. Moreover, the decline seems to be accelerating. More than half the drop has occurred since the current decade began. Evangelicals are not exempt from the shrinking numbers.
What’s happening isn’t just that people don’t belong to a church any more. They’re not going to services either. Suffering the biggest drop is the Catholic Church, where fewer than four in ten Catholics attend church in any given week.
Even more significantly, more and more Americans say that they don’t belong to any religion. In 1999, the number who identified as having no religion was eight percent. Now it’s 20 percent. Other surveys put the number, at more than a third of the population.
There are plenty of reasons for the decline. The pedophilia scandal in the Catholic Church is one obvious explanation. More broadly, churches have largely failed at keeping up with the changes in society. At the same time, a broader interest in spirituality and individualism has undercut organized religion.
Those numbers have dramatic ramifications for LGBTQ rights. People with no religious affiliation are much more likely to support marriage equality, for example, than any church-going group. That no doubt extends to other LGBTQ issues as well.
Of course, the irony is that the presidential candidate who is talking the most about religion in public life is the gay one, Pete Buttigieg. Compounding the irony is that the people probably most receptive to him as a candidate are people with no religious affiliation.
On the flip side, the secularization of America drives fears among conservative Christians that their world is disappearing. That makes them push even harder to roll back on the community’s gains while they still have a chance.
The religious right has tacitly acknowledged the problem is has with the shrinking number of believers in the U.S. That’s why people like Brian Brown are looking overseas for more friendly venues to peddle their hate. It’s comparable to the efforts of tobacco companies turning to developing nations to find new markets that can help make up for their losses in the U.S.
It’s a different product, but both are deadly.