What's Tony Thinking

Maybe The Church Wasn’t So Bad After All?


Holy Week and Easter were salted this year, as every year lately, with news stories documenting church decline.

Prior to this most recent theme, the well-timed seasonal stories for Christmas and Easter were a little different, but predictable. A church scandal here or a new revelation calling Christianity into doubt there. Regular as clockwork.

Of late, however, I’ve noticed a shift among the intelligentsia, those the theologian Frederick Schliermacher dubbed the “cultured despisers of religion.” After years of sneering at the credulousness of believers, at least some of the enlightened have begun to have doubts of their own. The decline of the church has not ushered in the brave new world of their secular peace and joy. Instead, Americans find themselves spiritually and morally naked, isolated in the storm.

Case in point, a recent Atlantic essay by Derek Thompson titled, “The True Cost of the Churchgoing Bust,” Thompson writes:

“As an agnostic, I have spent most of my life thinking about the decline of faith in America in mostly positive terms.

“Organized religion seemed, to me, beset by scandal and entangled in noxious politics.

“So, I thought, what is there really to mourn? Only in the past few years have I come around to a different view.

“Maybe religion, for all of its faults, works a bit like a retaining wall to hold back the destabilizing pressure of American hyper-individualism, which threatens to swell and spill over in its absence.”

In an America beset by epidemic loneliness and isolation, addiction, a mental health crisis among the young, and deaths of despair among middle-aged men, some of the elite seem to be re-considering their indifference, if not enthusiasm, for the decline of churches and church participation.

“For example,” notes Thompson, “young people, who are fleeing religion faster than older Americans, have also seen the largest decline in socializing. Boys and girls ages 15 to 19 have reduced their hangouts by more than three hours a week, according to the American Time Use Survey. There is no statistical record of any period in U.S. history where young people were less likely to attend religious services, and also no period when young people have spent more time on their own.”

Notice the use of the word “fleeing,” as if to suggest young people are running screaming from hidebound and oppressive churches. Maybe some are. But the reality is more a matter of indifference and social conformity than flight. At least where I live, in Seattle, going to church means to risk being thought “odd” and “uncool.” “You go to church? You’re one of them!”

Thompson notes two others segments of American society hit hard by church decline: the working class and men.

“A similar story holds for working-class Americans. In 2019, a team of researchers published a survey based on long interviews conducted from 2000 to 2013 with older, low-income men without a college degree in working-class neighborhoods around the country. They found that, since the 1970s, church attendance among white men without a college degree had fallen even more than among white college graduates.

“For many of these men, the loss of religion went hand in hand with the retreat from marriage. ‘As marriage declined,’ the authors wrote, ‘men’s church attendance might have fallen in tandem.’ Today, low-income and unmarried men have more alone time than almost any other group, according to time-use data.”

While the modern and enlightened have long looked down their noses at religion — in particular Christianity — the ones who paid the price of the atrophy of vital faith communities were those with fewer resources and social connections. Another part of the story of America’s abandonment of the working classes.

While we have had a steady shitload of stories about the church’s failures, we hear almost nothing about the positive contributions: loving communities with mentors and role models, a larger — even a sacred — framework of meaning for an ordinary person’s life, ways to understand and cope with grief and tragedy, encouragement to be engaged with people who aren’t just like you. All these I have seen with my own eyes time and again in the church, from the church. Are we perfect? No. But tell me which group or institution is?

But now, when it is likely too late for an America bereft of a moral and spiritual framework or healthy institutional vessels to hold it, some of the cultured despisers of religion seem to be thinking, “Golly, maybe the church did do some good after all.”




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