Monday, October 28, 2013

Religious Right Leaders Note Declining Numbers and Conclude, "People Want God but They're Not Happy with Churches"

Last week, I noted Kathy Lynn Grossman's recent article which shows that baptism rates are dropping precipitously in churches in the U.S., and quite specifically in churches of the religious right (e.g., the Southern Baptist Convention) which have previously boasted that their hefty numbers of adherents show that God loves conservatives. Grossman notes that Southern Baptist churches saw 314,959 baptisms last year, a low not seen since 1948.

La Stampa's "Vatican Insider" takes note of the same data. One metric leaps out at me, in particular, in the La Stampa article:

In 1970 there were 426,000 marriages in U.S. Catholic churches — a full 20% of all U.S. marriages that year. By contrast, in 2011, there were 164,000 such weddings — only 8% of all marriages. But in both years, Catholics were 23% of the national population.  

From 1970 to 2011, the percentage of Catholics in the U.S. population remains at the same level, but marriages in Catholic churches have fallen from 426,000 to 164,000 in that same period. What does this say to Catholics?

For the Southern Baptist Church, a chief ally of the U.S. Catholic bishops in the culture wars of the religious right, it says the following, according to Rev. Frank Paige, president of the SBC executive committee:

People want God but they’re not happy with churches. 

And, of course, it's no secret at all why people who want God are unhappy with the churches--and why young people seeking God are especially unhappy with American churches right now: as I've noted repeatedly (see e.g. herehere, and here), a key finding of the conservative Christian research group the Barna Group in its 2009 study of why young folks are ditching the churches is that young folks are leaving precisely because too many churches have become enmeshed in anti-gay politics. Too many churches like the Southern Baptist Convention and the Catholic church in the U.S., under the leadership of its current bishops, have become identified in the mind of young people with homophobic attitudes and beliefs.

As I've also noted repeatedly (see e.g. here, here, here, here, and here), David Campbell and Robert Putman's 2010 book American Grace corroborates the findings of the Barna Group. Campbell and Putnam find that the number-one factor in the exodus of millennials from American churches is the choice of many U.S. churches to become identified with anti-gay politics in the latter decades of the 20th century.

It's one thing to say, as Rev. Paige of the SBC does, that people want God but are unhappy with churches, and quite another thing to acknowledge, as Rev. Paige does not acknowledge, precisely why people are unhappy with the churches. It's not as if we don't have full reason to know why that's the case. David Kinnaman of Barna, Campbell, Putnam, and many other researchers have told American churches for several years now that hard empirical evidence, and a lot of it, points to the alliance of many churches with right-wing political groups as the source of young people's disaffection from religion.

And these researchers have also pointed quite specifically to the homophobic positions of many U.S. churches as the sticking point for many young folks. So a more forthright (and honest) formulation of the point Rev. Paige is making should state unambiguously: "People want God, but they not happy with the homophobia of the churches."

People, especially younger Americans today, do not want God mediated to them by religious leaders like Fred Luter of the SBC or Timothy Dolan, Francis George, Salvatore Cordileone, or John Nienstedt of the Catholic church, who bash gays while talking about God as love. The leadership of the SBC seems to have become aware of the problem, and is now engaging in some image-management refurbishing designed to present itself as a kinder and gentler anti-gay church, though people like Rob Boston aren't buying the ploy, while the Wall Street Journal and perhaps Andrew Sullivan do appear to see the SBC taking steps to disengage itself from gay bashing in its current leadership decisions.

Saturday evening, friends invited Steve and me to a benefit event for the American Diabetes Association. The husband of the couple who invited us is a Baptist pastor, though not a Southern Baptist one. His church is jointly affiliated with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and the National Baptist Convention, an African-American Baptist Association.

At dinner, my friend was seated next to me. I asked him, "Do you think the Southern Baptists have turned over a new leaf by appointing Russell Moore the head of their Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission?" My friend smiled. Then he said, "Well, you know that they also said they were putting prejudice behind them when they elected an African-American president."

We both laughed.

And then he said, "What about Pope Francis? Do you hope for a new leaf with him?"

I replied, "I'm still waiting to see what he intends to do about the abuse situation. You know, we still have a bishop who is a convicted criminal sitting in his episcopal chair in Kansas City, and the stories coming out of St. Paul right now are as sickening as any we've heard in the past."

And then we both smiled and continued with our meal.

The photo of empty pews is from Peter Wallace at Huffington Post.

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