Comment: Does religion still have a prayer in America?

The truth is Americans’ attitudes about faith and church have fluctuated since the the Puritans arrived.

By Stephen Mihm / Bloomberg Opinion

If religion in America were bought and sold like a stock, now might be a good time to short it in a big way. In recent weeks and months, a number of pundits have declared that the American love affair with organized religion — and Christianity in particular — is over. Recent surveys suggest that church attendance, already faltering in the 21st century, still hasn’t recovered in the wake of the pandemic.

But before we conclude that we’re headed for a godless future, consider the longer ebb and flow of religiosity in this country. In the distant past, organized religion often lost adherents, only to rebound a generation later. And in modern times, church attendance and membership have proved deeply misleading, leading otherwise-sensible observers to assume that secular thinking will triumph.

Many Americans have a vague idea that the first European settlers to the American colonies came here to escape religious persecution. That’s sort of true, up to a point: the Puritans in New England did; so, too, did various sects that settled in tolerant Pennsylvania. But many of the first settlers spent more time worshiping Mammon than the Christian God. Even the Puritans, religious zealots of the highest order, lost much of their initial enthusiasm by the late 1600s. By the 1690s, church membership in the region had plummeted to 15 percent.

That said, this same period underscores the peril of using church attendance as a proxy for religiosity. The aristocratic planters of 17th-century Virginia may well have attended the Anglican church on Sundays, but was this evidence that they genuinely embraced religion? One study of a typical Virginia county points to the answer being “no.” It found that only 15 percent of white infants were baptized between 1649 and 1680.

One clergyman visiting Maryland in the 1680s described the colony as beyond redemption: a place in which “the Lord’s day is profaned, religion despised, and all notorious vices committed … it is become a Sodom of uncleanliness and a pest house of iniquity.”

Here, too, we see another lesson. When it comes to religion, the adage about investing (past performance is not predictive of future results) applies equally well. A handful of preachers on both sides of the Atlantic — Gilbert Tennent, Jonathan Edwards and, most famous of all, George Whitefield — led an interdenominational revival defined by emotional, even ecstatic services and conversions.

Benjamin Franklin recalled how this transformation swept the colonies around 1740: “It was wonderful to see the change soon made in the manners [behavior] of our inhabitants; from being thoughtless or indifferent about religion, it seem’d as if all the world were growing religious; so that one could not walk thro’ the town in an evening without hearing Psalms sung in different families of every street.”

But this kind of outpouring was difficult to measure; and sustain. Many people attended revivals, but whether individual church membership permanently increased is another question altogether. By the time of the American Revolution, religiosity seemed to have fallen off once more. Church attendance in cities like Boston and New York struggled to reach even 17 percent by 1780.

And then things changed yet again. Over the course of the first half of the 19th century, religion convulsed the country. This outpouring proved deeply consequential, spawning social reform movements and converting groups of people —African Americans, most notably — who had remained largely outside the revivals of the previous century. Yet despite the astonishing growth of religion, fears of backsliding remained, with many pious observers lamenting the fact that some of their brethren — dubbed “Nothingarians” — had yet to return to the fold.

This vacillation between piety and skepticism would continue over the 19th century. Religious attendance dipped after the trauma of the Civil War before recovering and reaching new highs by the early 20th century. In the postwar era, it became an article of faith among sociologists and the general public that the U.S. was a religious nation. Survey after survey dutifully confirmed that somewhere between 40 percent and 50 percen tof Americans attended church or synagogue every week.

But then some nosy researchers began to wonder if relying on respondents’ answers about church membership or attendance was wholly justified. In a series of somewhat creative studies, they began counting people in pews and then comparing the data against what citizens told the pollsters and social scientists. The result? It turned out that roughly half the people who claimed they went to church didn’t.

This larger history — and the apparent dangers of relying on proxies of religious belief like church membership or attendance — underscore why we should remain skeptical about recent claims that the U.S. has fallen out of love with religion. What looks momentous right now is likely a momentary blip. Before too long, more Americans will find their way back to church; or at the very least, lie about doing so.

Stephen Mihm, a professor of history at the University of Georgia, is co-author of “Crisis Economics: A Crash Course in the Future of Finance.”

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