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Religious decline, family upheaval occurring in tandem

Religious decline, family upheaval occurring in tandem

By Peter Smith
May 14, 2012

My story here looks at how churches are coping with a half-century of revolutionary change in Americans' family structures and sex lives. Nearly half of adults are now single, and the never-married and divorced as groups are less likely to attend church than married people. Many are divorced, cohabiting and/or unwed parents, their very presence posing a challenge to traditional church morals. Every church leader I spoke with said they'd rather bring out the welcome mats than the scarlet letters.

This conciliatory approach contrasts with the judgmentalism that churches showed more when they represented the establishment - and that doubtless many show today.

But here's another angle to consider: the family and sexual revolutions didn't happen in a vacuum. They were aided in part by religion's declining influence, and in turn hastened that decline.

According to author and journalist James Haught, the crumbling of sexual and other taboos is one of the surest signs that the United States is belatedly following Europe and other industrialized nations into a post-religious era.

In his book, "Fading Faith: The Rise of the Secular Age," Haught cites the growing lack of religious identity among young adults, the steep decline in liberal Protestant denominations and an exodus from the Catholic Church.

And this, from an essay based on the book in the Charleston, W.Va., Gazette, where he is editor:

"A half-century ago, church-backed laws had power in America. In the 1950s, it was a crime to look at the equivalent of a Playboy magazine or R-rated movie - or for stores to open on the Sabbath - or to buy a cocktail or lottery ticket - or to sell birth-control devices in some states - or to be homosexual - or to terminate a pregnancy - or to read a sexy novel - or for an unwed couple to share a bedroom. Now all those morality laws have fallen, one after another. Currently, state after state is legalizing gay marriage, despite church outrage."

A different world indeed. But did these social lurches cause the religious decline, result from it, or some combination of both?

Survey after survey is confirming the "creeping secularism" in the nation, in the words of "American Grace" authors Robert Putnam and David Campbell. This trend is driven by the youngest adults who are increasingly rejecting the religions of their elders (often retaining some type of spirituality, but without signing on to particular dogma or religious tribal identity). Just between 2006 and 2011, they wrote, growing minorities of adults and particularly young adults are more likely to disbelieve in God, avoid religious services, consider sex outside of marriage to be OK, support gay marriage and believe in evolution without divine involvement.

So is America becoming more like secular Europe? Not so fast, the authors said. "Given the entrepreneurial dynamism of American religion, it seems likely that America's religious leaders will respond to the secular shift and seek to bring the disaffected back to religion." One way they're doing so already is by easing up on the politics that have alienated many from religion.

It's also worth noting that Putnam's, Campbell's and other studies show that religion is fading fastest among the less-educated and the struggling classes. For whatever reason, religion is holding on the strongest among the better-off. People used to say that America had the religious diversity of South Asia in the grassroots but almost no faith among the elites in college towns, Hollywood, New York and Washington. So the old joke was that we were a nation of Indians ruled by Swedes. Are we now becoming a nation of Swedes ruled by Indians?


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