Referring to grandiose claims made by American religious zealots as “fake news” feels a little redundant, but let’s do it anyway. Vice President Mike Pence recently made an extremely bold claim on Twitter about the current popularity of Christianity in the United States.
Here’s Pence in his own words, “The percentage of Americans who live out their religion on a weekly basis … has remained remarkably consistent over the decades. Religion in America isn’t receding … faith is gaining new life across America every day.”
The zealously religious Pence — who refers to his wife as “Mother” — tweeted the statement above, plus some others, after an apparent burst of confidence from his commencement address to the graduating class of a Michigan Christian college.
The thing is, absolutely none of this is true.
Every Generation Is Less Religious Than the Last
It might surprise the vice president, but it shouldn’t surprise you, that lots of people make a decent living studying how Americans spend their time — up to and including praying to higher powers. Suffice it to say, there is an amazing quantity of peer-reviewed research available that refutes every claim Pence made about Christianity’s status, popularity and general trajectory in the United States.
Just one study — although there have been many others — studied religious practices across Baby Boomers, Generation X and Millennials. That is people born in America between 1946 and the 2010s. This study incorporated data relating to socioeconomic status, political affiliation, gender and race to draw even more decisive conclusions from across American society as a whole over these several decades.
The study’s authors summarized their findings saying, “Recent cohorts of American adolescents are less religiously oriented than their predecessors, although the majority are still involved with religion.”
Between 1976 and 2013, the number of students in the twelfth grade reporting that they “never” attended religious services fully doubled. Students attending college in the 2010s were twice as likely as their 1970s counterparts to report no church involvement whatsoever.
Millennials Widen the Gap
According to the study, this shift is more pronounced after millennial data is available. What this means is that while religious practitioners still enjoy their apparent majority in America, each new generational “cohort” has been less likely to practice religion than the previous generation. Among tenth and twelfth graders, almost all the drop-off in churchgoing happened in the years between 2000 and 2013.
Not only are young Americans less likely over time to practice religion, but this shift appears to be accelerating measurably.
God Isn’t Going Away — but Religion Probably Is
It’s unlikely that religion — or at least the idea of God — is totally going away anytime soon. We don’t have to like it, but as pattern-seeking animals, human beings are always going to look for shortcuts that provide answers to difficult questions. Religious doctrine is also a convenient way to package up the rules and expectations we wish to live by.
But it’s well-known by now that not all of Christianity’s — or Islam’s, or Judaism’s or democracy’s — “rules” and “expectations” aged well. We can bicker all we like about the Bible as a moral framework for the treatment of women, but the truth is many congregations in the U.S. are still wringing their hands about appointing female pastors.
And this brings us to what Mike Pence isn’t interested in talking about. He’d like to believe his brand of Christian fundamentalism is enduring the test of time, but the truth is this — Pence’s version of God was never going to survive democracy. No, the general concept of a “Christian God” isn’t going anywhere, but the church is most definitely trying to rebrand Him.
It’s very common these days to come across references to “Republican atheists,” “pro-life Democrats” and many other ideological chimeras. There is a very strong correlation between religion and politically-conservative thinking, but not an airtight one. Likewise, Democrats are folks who, by and large, want abortions to be safe and rare and legal — but some of them are okay with making abortions illegal and unsafe again.
The point is, there seems to a huge force at work, both within and outside of the Christian church, that’s forcing this religious majority of ours to reconsider its stance on basic social issues. Churches in America are more likely today than ever before to hang signs on their doors reading, “ALL are welcome” than they are to, for example, turn away would-be gay practitioners. You are also quite likely today to find some liberal-leaning voters get hot under the collar about federal funding for Planned Parenthood.
I’m not saying any of these groups is right. In fact, I think many of them are confused about a few key points. What I’m saying is that a lot of the labels we cling to — including “Christian,” “Republican” “Liberal” and even “Socialist” grew obsolete before our eyes.
In Christianity’s case, the transformation is a bit of a paradox. To remain relevant, Christianity is less openly hostile toward equal human rights. As a consequence of this shift away from its ideological foundations, Christianity as an institution makes itself less relevant with each passing year.
In other words, Christians and Godless Liberals are equally culpable for God’s excellent vanishing act.
Religion Doesn’t Equal Values
I think what we’re saying is that evangelicals are starting to figure out they don’t have the moral high ground on every single issue. So are Republicans and Liberals. So are oligarchs and Marxists. I’m not saying the truth is mutable, but I am saying that the most ideal version of human values isn’t within any one of our religions or institutions — instead, it’s going to borrow liberally from the best of the bunch.