Why Americans Are Really Leaving Church

Why Americans Are Really Leaving Church

Last year, a Gallup poll attracted considerable attention for discovering that for the first time in 80 years of surveys, Americans’ membership in houses of worship had dropped below 50 percent. That event marked a few decades of decline, given that 70 percent of the country belonged to a church, synagogue, or mosque as recently as 1999 (amazingly, the number was 73 percent when Gallup first measured church membership in 1937). Why this terrible drop-off?

Don’t ask the opinion editors at The Washington Post, despite their publishing the March 13 op-ed by columnist Brian Broome proactively titled “Why the decline in church attendance won’t end here.” For although there is ample data suggesting what is behind slackening church attendance, it has nothing to do with Broome’s empty bravado and bromides.

The Rantiest Rant That Ever Ranted

Although Broome claims to be interested in dissecting why Americans are leaving their churches, he’s really only interested in explaining why he stopped going to church. His reasons are as tired as they are absurd and easily refutable. He leads by complaining about a supposedly “loving God [who] would let so many children suffer” — and that’s his best argument.

He goes on to claim that the idea of eternal life is simply a way for “people to skirt their fear of death or assuage the pain of grief.” He argues that people try to find the religion or idea of God that best suits them and their personal desires, often absent truth. He bemoans those who use religion to “shame” and “demonize” or for “self-serving” purposes.

He ends by asserting that “fear is at the root of so much religious conviction.” This, according to Broome, is why church membership is in the pits. It is an emotive rant completely untethered from actual data and says more about Broome than a dramatic, significant shift in the American people.

Do Thy Homework

Before getting to that data, it’s worth addressing Broome’s claims, if only because they seem to be popular enough among some Americans that the WaPo deemed them worthy of inclusion in an op-ed, despite being refuted by people like David Hart and Ed Feser. The latter ones are the easiest to refute.

Yes, it’s true, some people exploit or leverage religion for all kinds of selfish and self-serving purposes. But that hardly refutes religion, or God’s existence. You can find people who exploit and leverage just about everything for selfish and self-serving purposes, from romance to politics to education to social justice. Would Broome suggest we do away with any of those?

The misuse of a thing doesn’t negate its goodness. Otherwise we might as well throw love, government, schools, and social services for the poor in the rubbish bin.

Let’s turn to Broome’s argument that a good God would not let children (or presumably other innocents) suffer, which is what C.S. Lewis termed “the problem of pain.” It’s true: suffering, especially on a grand scale like the Holocaust or war can lead us to question how a loving God would permit such things.

Nevertheless, the person who raises such an objection must admit a couple of things: (1) an objection based on pain relies on the premise that suffering is unjust, and thus necessitates a moral framework that the natural world in all of its brutality blithely ignores; and (2) however much the objection may be evocative, it is by definition emotive, in that the person making it is asserting that he or she doesn’t like it.

That said, there are many reasons a good, omnipotent, and loving God would permit suffering, even on a grand scale. For starters, if God is serious about free will, that means He is not going to violate human volition simply because someone is about to hurt another person — otherwise we are all robots.

Secondly, God may be willing to permit suffering so humans can demonstrate more profound and wonderful qualities, such as courage, prudence, temperance, or justice. One cannot be courageous unless an evil threatens him. All parents know this, or eventually realize it: as much as we desire to protect our children, if we don’t allow them to suffer, they cannot mature and grow up to be strong, wise, heroic men and women.

I know such argumentation is little comfort for the parent who has lost a child, or the child who has lost a mother or father. But even here, Christianity offers something incomparably beautiful. God, for all of his transcendence, deigned to take on human flesh and live among broken and sinful humanity.

Not only that, but He suffered all the kinds of losses and heartaches we know so well: the loss of a parent; the betrayal of a friend; the injustice of being unfairly maligned by our enemies. In the end, He endured a brutal death that was so violent and shameful that cinematic portrayals of it have led viewers to uncontrollably weep. In other words, the God of the universe actually knows our pain in all of its grief and emotional complexity.

Why People Are Really Leaving Church

I don’t know about you, but contemplating the life and death of Christ is enough reason to draw me back to church. But Broome’s rantings aside, people are disconnecting from religious communities. The reasons have little to do with his personal complaints.

According to 2020 data collected by Barna Group, one in three practicing Christians dropped out of church completely during Covid-19, much of this having to do with various state-imposed restrictions on attendance levels in houses of worship (although these were often not imposed on other places where lots of people congregate, like casinos). Even when Covid-related restrictions lapsed, these people have not returned to church. In other words, once many people stopped going to church for a year or two, they decided to live without it.

Pace Broome, the Institute for Family Studies, one of the very sources he cites in his op-ed, notes that this trend is common not only among liberals but also conservatives:

Ideology does not appear to be linked to the decline of church attendance. Conservatives are more likely than moderates and liberals to attend religious services in the first place, but the decline in attendance is similar in the three groups. Likewise, no significant differences by income are found in the decline of religious service attendance in the past two years.

Another factor is that younger generations are less religious than their forebears. According to Gallup, about 31 percent of millennials have no religious affiliation, which is up from 22 percent a decade ago. The numbers are similar for Generation Z: about 33 percent of them reach adulthood with no religious preference. Now it’s certainly possible that these generations suddenly became convinced by the kinds of arguments leveled by Broome, although given his best one about suffering is as old as the Book of Job (6th century B.C.), I doubt it.

There are other, less ideological reasons for why church attendance has been dropping among young Americans. Because of socio-economic trends like globalization and social media, we are an increasingly atomized and isolated people. Americans are less inclined to view religious membership or church attendance as part of a fulfilling moral life, for reasons similar to those that explain why they are abandoning all local public or civic organizations. To their detriment, Americans are trying to replicate real community and real spiritual transcendence with Twitter, TikTok, Yoga, and Peloton. Moreover, when seeker-friendly churches seek to cater to the latest fads and trends, rather than preaching a coherent, transcendent message, people realize there isn’t much that differentiates church from the self-help industry.

Given Americans are more depressed than ever — which is especially true of the “Nones” who have no religious affiliation — we can already perceive how foolhardy it is to abandon religion. In our desperate search for autonomy and self-realization, we find only dead ends that leave us empty.

The answer, contra Broome, is not to dig in our heels and assert our independence in the face of our brokenness. We must look for a healer who knows and can redeem our plight. He awaits us in a transformative encounter within the walls of churches across our nation.


Casey Chalk is a senior contributor at The Federalist and an editor and columnist at The New Oxford Review. He has a bachelor’s in history and master’s in teaching from the University of Virginia and a master’s in theology from Christendom College. He is the author of The Persecuted: True Stories of Courageous Christians Living Their Faith in Muslim Lands.

Originally Posted on: https://thefederalist.com/2022/03/21/why-americans-are-really-leaving-church/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=why-americans-are-really-leaving-church
By: Casey Chalk

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