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Empty Pews, Politics and Civil Rights

— May 22, 2023

Empty pews in American houses of worship signify an accelerating demographic trend moving away from organized religion. Will leaders react appropriately?

If it seems like there are more empty pews at your house of worship lately, you may be on to something. Recently released results from a 2022 poll by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) and the decennial Religion Census by the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies (ASARB) show that an increasing number of Americans are leaving religion behind.

Why is this happening, and what are the consequences we can expect from this big demographic shift?

If there’s one critical takeaway from all of this, it’s that religion simply doesn’t mean as much to Americans as it used to. According to the PRRI poll, ten years ago, 20% of Americans said that their religion was the most important aspect of their lives, and now, only 16% say so. The ASARB, which examines the membership records of many religious denominations every ten years, found that the share of Americans “who associate with religion” dropped by 11 points in the last decade.

Those empty pews aren’t equally distributed geographically, either. According to the ASARB, the greatest drop in religiosity is in the middle of the country. The post-industrial Rust Belt states of Michigan, Wisconsin and western Pennsylvania are “much less religious” than they were a decade ago. However, some counties are becoming more religious, partially balancing out the losses in the upper Midwest. In particular, Texan counties near the Mexican border are experiencing a surge in adherants, with Zapata, Maverick and Starr counties more than doubling in religious attendance over ten years. The other hot spot is Miami-Dade county in Florida, the only county with at least two million residents (out of 16 such counties in the U.S.) where the number of religiously-affiliated residents increased. (They went from 40% to 52% since 2010.)

Even in highly religious communities, religious devotion is wavering. The PRRI survey found that while members of the LDS Church (Mormons) consistently pray, attend services, and visit with religious leaders in above average numbers when compared to the rest of the population, fewer consider religion to be the most important aspect in their lives than do members of other religious denominations, and 24% have considered leaving the Church, the highest percentage of any denomination included in the survey.

One noteworthy finding concerns why people are losing their affiliation with their previous religion. The primary cause for those empty pews, at 56%, is that people simply lost their faith and don’t believe the teachings anymore. Another 30%, however, say that their old religion’s negative treatment of LGBTQ+ people was the deciding factor, while 27% were turned off by scandals involving the leaders of their previous religion. Others had a traumatic life event (18%) or said that their previous church focused too heavily on politics (17%).

After several years of growing tension from religious intervention in politics, it’s really no surprise that formerly religious people are shedding their faith. When high religiosity often correlates with conservative politics, those disgusted by the political situation may well become distrustful of the religious affiliation driving it. Or, they may simply be choosing rights and life for the friends and family members they love over the agenda of hostile religious ideologues.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Consider a recent opinion piece by Kansas lawmaker Dinah Sykes (D-21). In the Kansas City Star, the state Senate minority leader calls out plenty of ugliness from fellow lawmakers bringing their religious views to work, including one colleague who, when approached by two women of Muslim and Jewish faiths who didn’t feel represented by such an overtly Christian ideology directing policy, offered to convert them to Christianity so, presumably, they would then feel better about it. She closes by offering a different vision of Christianity that espouses humble service and “the kind of love that washes dirty feet and cares for widows and orphans.”

The word "Coexist" spelled out using symbols from various religions and social movements.
With so much religious diversity, we must find a way to coexist. Image by Gordon Johnson from Pixabay.

One could be forgiven for believing that the most religious among us are also the most driven to participate in the political system, with the prize being the ability to codify one’s morality into laws enforced by State power. It certainly seems that way. However, the increasing share of atheists and agnostics are also a significant force in politics. According to 2021 data from the group Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement (PACE), those who identify as atheists or agnostics are much likelier to say that “voting is important to democracy” (81%) than are those who simply claim to hold no religion (62%). Atheists and agnostics are also likelier to contact political leaders, donate money, display political signage, and attend a march or protest than are most religious groups. What they lack in numbers, they make up for in activism.

The growing number of empty pews will no doubt have other real-world effects, such as the closing or repurposing of religious buildings and a worrying loss of social connection and support networks as people drop out of faith-based communities. (Doesn’t it seem like those last two problems could solve each other?) What constitutes “religion” in the context of the First Amendment may need to be re-examined as people with sincerely held moral convictions but who are not affiliated with traditional religious communities or specific spiritual teachings interact with the court system and want their rights (or perceived entitlements that feel like rights) protected.

If the trend continues, however, there will need to be a reckoning with the political system. Currently, American legislators are more religious, and more Christian-affiliated, than is a changing and increasingly diverse public. A shrinking but highly religious population (and a political party built on rhetoric of grievance and perceived persecution that caters to them) can hold on to political power through tricks like gerrymandering and disenfranchisement of their political opponents, but demographic shifts don’t wait forever. A truly wise and morally superior legislature would see what’s coming and do their best to represent all their constituents rather than trying to put a stranglehold on worldly power.

Related: Trumpianity, America’s New Folk Religion


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