Religion & Liberty Online

Take recent polls about COVID hastening the demise of American religion with a grain of salt

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Recent polls suggest church attendance and religious affiliation are declining at an even faster pace than before. But who exactly is answering these poll questions, and how do they understand them?

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The latest Pew Research Center survey on American religion reflects a familiar trend in recent years: declining levels of Christian affiliation and growing numbers of religiously unaffiliated (the “nones”). Almost 30% of those surveyed told Pew that they identify with no particular religion, compared to 16% in 2007. Similarly, the Barna Group has estimated that in-person church attendance may be 30% to 50% lower than before the pandemic began. Many question whether American churches will ever get back to pre-pandemic levels. Has COVID-19 accelerated preexisting patterns of Christian decline?

The answer is probably yes, but with a multitude of caveats. Polling on religion is notoriously difficult to interpret. What do people mean when they say they have “no religion in particular”? (For that matter, what do respondents mean when they say that they are “evangelical” or “Catholic”?) Only small numbers of the nones are atheists: The total number of American atheists has remained steady at about 2% to 4% of the population for decades. Slightly larger numbers of the nones identify as agnostics, leaving a strong majority of the nones in the murky religious category of “nothing in particular.”

Most polls ask no follow-up questions about religious belief or practice, leaving the meaning of such categories as “evangelical” or “nothing in particular” entirely up to individual self-identification. Happily, the Pew poll did ask some follow-ups about attendance, prayer habits, and (most subjective of all) the “importance” of religion in a person’s life. These metrics all suggest declining religious observance across the board, too.

Still, there are many reasons to take such statistics with a grain of salt. One reason is polling’s dirty little secret: America’s plummeting response rates to polls of all kinds. Polling agencies tell us that they have ways of compensating for abysmally low response rates by “weighting the data.” (Pew’s response rate to this latest poll was 29%, but it was 10% in other polls referenced in their report. For most such reports, even from highly creditable sources, it can be difficult to discern how these rates are counted, if you can find the response rates at all.) Such low percentages are deeply problematic; no amount of data weighting can sufficiently address these concerns. Polls are asking questions only of people who respond to pollsters. The distinguished Princeton sociologist and religion scholar Robert Wuthnow wrote an entire book, Inventing American Religion, dedicated to this subject. It cannot be overemphasized: National surveys are no longer a truly representative sample of the American people, especially in the post–landline phone era.

Second, religion is a qualitative category open to individual, and often idiosyncratic, interpretations. Assuming that a person will tell a pollster the truth, there is not much wiggle room for interpreting a question like “Did you vote for Joe Biden?” A voter either did or did not vote for the president. But a question like “What is your religion?” can be construed in many different ways. For instance, small but significant numbers of people with “no religion”—some studies suggest as high as 10% of them—actually attend religious services at least monthly. Extrapolated to the entire American population, this would mean that perhaps millions of Americans will tell a pollster they have no religion, while simultaneously knowing the church or other congregation where they regularly go. Are these people spiritual “seekers”? Are they nondenominational and interpret that as having “no religion”? Do they attend for the benefit of their children or to accommodate a believing spouse? Are they the type of evangelical who says, “I don’t have a religion, I have a relationship with Jesus”? We just don’t know.

Finally, we might take statistics on religious decline with a dose of skepticism because both secular media outlets and Christian research firms such as Barna have a vested interest in promoting the narrative of American religion’s collapse. Secular journalists and evangelical pastors may not agree on much, but both groups like to amplify the story of the rise of the nones. Secular folks in the media may enjoy reporting on religion’s downfall, if it means that the world is finally becoming awakened to the folly of faith. But Christian traditionalists have a strange affinity for that narrative, too. It is a story that goes back at least to the Puritans of colonial New England, and in some ways to the prophets of the Hebrew Bible. Most American Christians are familiar with hearing sermons about how the rising generation is not as godly as their forefathers were. The takeaway from such homilies is that we should pray and work hard to live up to their example. In other words, we should “work the program” religiously. However true these exhortations may be, they are also rhetorical “memes,” as we would say on social media.

As for the declines in attendance since COVID started, this is observably true for many, if not the majority, of congregations in America. Again, there is a wide range in practice and reliability of attendance statistics. Much of what we hear on the topic is anecdotal and depends on self-reported estimates by clergy. Still, there was unquestionably a massive attendance drop overall, sometimes backed by threats of legal penalties for noncompliance, during the COVID shutdowns. It would be surprising if that catastrophic plunge did not have a lingering impact, especially since the threats of new variants and regional COVID hotspots are constantly in the news.

In the tech-savvy congregations, there was a relatively seamless transition to online services. One imagines that there will have been a “rich get richer” effect, where the most well-resourced and thriving churches were best prepared to make adjustments to maintain contact with members and attendees. Many smaller congregations faced the devastation, socially and financially, of not being able to meet at all. Aging, poorer, and rural congregations struggled with setting up an effective online ministry, especially if they did not already have one set up as of the spring of 2020. Yet even for the larger, more established churches, going online may represent a double-edged sword for the return to in-person worship. Robust online worship could give people the impression that “doing church” online is permissible, normal, and even a devout thing to do.

This online media format may be new, but the trend of electronic church goes back much further, to the days of radio and TV clergy such as the Catholic priest Fulton Sheen, the Baptist minister Charles Fuller, and the Pentecostal preacher Oral Roberts. More recently, even before COVID, many would already listen to their favorite ministers on podcasts or YouTube. For the elderly or infirm, watching church through electronic media may be their only option. But for most Christians, defaulting to doing church from a couch or office chair is an unprecedented practice in the history of Christianity. It is the “communion of saints” in an extremely impoverished sense.

So yes, we may be seeing something happening in churches that roughly equates to the “Great Resignation” transpiring in the workplace. Historically high numbers of workers have quit their jobs in 2021. Will similar numbers of people quit their churches? Perhaps. But in both cases, the essential question is quit to do what? Media narratives of the nones almost always assume that leaving church means leaving for good. But most people who leave one church end up in another church sooner or later. Most people quit their jobs for a better or more flexible opportunity; likewise, most devout Americans leave one church only to go to one that (seemingly) offers better preaching, children’s ministries, or other attractions.

The more devout a person is, the more likely that if they leave a church they will soon go to another one. Of course, this is a more complex matter in segments of Christianity that encourage attendance only at the nearest parish and discourage “church shopping.” But especially among Protestants, there is little evidence, except for a handful of celebrity “deconstructionists,” that people are turning from devout Christian practice to becoming nonpracticing nones.

Many of the nonpracticing nones likely had once been nonpracticing Christians. For many Catholics, of course, there is a deep familial or ethnic attachment to the Catholic faith, an attachment that often endures even when the Catholic in question almost never goes to mass. But among Protestants, and especially evangelicals, there is generally little ethnic or familial association with one’s religion, at least in America. What are we to make, then, of the quarter of self-identified “evangelicals” who attend church less than “a few times a year”? Most practicing evangelicals would think those folks are not real evangelicals in any useful sense.

Of all Christian groups in America, wouldn’t you think that saying you’re an evangelical presumes an active faith? That was true historically, but in today’s highly politicized environment, more people apparently see evangelical as a political or cultural term than a specifically religious one. Fewer people see it as oxymoronic to describe themselves as a “nonattending” evangelical. In their relationship to actual churches, however, the “nonattending evangelicals” are pretty much like the nearly 50% of mainline Protestants who likewise say they almost never attend church. These are the prime candidates in America for becoming nonpracticing nones. What functional difference will it make for nonattending nominal Christians to become nonattending nones? Probably not much.

The ambiguity of polling often limits what we can say with certainty about these patterns. But overall, COVID appears likely to accelerate the trend of lower overall church adherence in America. The pandemic has habituated some Christians—especially infrequent attenders—into not attending church at all. For some, COVID also provided a structure of online services that gives them an easy “out” for not attending in person.

In some ways, however, there is nothing new under the sun in the data on the nones. Mainline Protestant denominations have seen a long-standing, cataclysmic decline in membership since the 1960s. COVID might exacerbate that pattern and also heighten it for those Catholic parishes and evangelical churches in decline. But there is little reason to think that many devout American Christians are suddenly becoming skeptical or blasé nonattenders. We’re most likely to see an American religious future with even starker cultural differences between practicing American Christians and the nonpracticing “nones.” The group that is likely the most endangered on the American religious landscape is the “nonpracticing Christian.”

Thomas Kidd

Thomas S. Kidd is research professor of church history at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Missouri. He is the author of several books including Thomas Jefferson: A Biography of Spirit and Flesh.