I recently received a request from a reporter to respond to the recent spate of studies and stories positing a decline in American Christianity. Here’s how I answered:
Broadly speaking, it is silly to think of secularization as a linear process. The prominence of the Christian faith waxes and wanes during different historical periods. As Rodney Stark has pointed out, the old golden age of faith picture of antiquity is not nearly as strong as many believe. There is, however, always a solid and motivated core.
What differs over time is the overall number of people who want to associate themselves with the basic project of the church. Sometimes, that seems advantageous and people do it for reasons of social respectability or advancement. At other times there is little to be gained from it and many turn to spending Sundays on the golf course or with the New York Times.
We happen to be in one of the periods when there is not a lot of social prestige or other benefit to being in the church and thus nominal members are dropping out. They have no desire to meet even modest demands of the church when they see no compensatory benefit.
The drop off in the number of nominal Christians also results from the ascendancy of conservative Christianity in the United States. The more intensely the church stands for something, the less likely it is that people with low commitment will associate themselves with the church. This has always been the church’s dilemma. Should it be a comprehensive church that baptizes babies and includes everyone in a Christendom model? Or should it concentrate on voluntary, adult decisions for a strict faith that actively excludes those not with the program. While mega-churches are often criticized for trying to be all things to all people, doctrinally speaking they are actually pretty orthodox and tilt more in the direction of believers with some commitment.
What has happened in the last fifty years is that the mainline churches which had seemed to prevail during the fundamentalist-modernist controversy actually lost by becoming increasingly liberal. They became so liberal that their membership had nothing to attach themselves too other than being against conservative Christianity. They can do that just as easily on their own as they can in a liberal church. They end up in the “other” or “none” category when religionists are counted.
In summary, the disappearance of the middle option of a semi-orthodox mainline Protestantism and the corresponding rise of conservative Protestantism is the best explanation for the results we see in the ARIS survey and other observances which claim a future of religious decline.