After World War II, 3 in 4 Americans declared themselves to be members of a church, a synagogue, or a mosque. It was the time of the Red Scare, and Americans feared the bombs and immorality of godless communism. A decade was spent hunting down pinkos in the military, the State Department, Hollywood – anywhere the fear-mongers warned the threat lurked. It was the era that added ‘In God We Trust’ to the money and shoehorned ‘under God’ into the Pledge of Allegiance.
This declared affinity for religious organizations remained relatively unchanged by the Summer of Love, the ‘Me Generation’, Yuppies, grunge, and the other decennial identifiers. But come the new millennium, membership in traditional religious institutions declined rapidly – from 70% in 2000 to 47% in 2021.
As the pollster Gallup reported it:
Why? Let’s dig into the details. (I’ll restrict it to an analysis of Christianity, as the respondents of other faiths are too few to draw statistical inferences.)
While all Christian denominations saw a decline, it was most notable among Catholics. I suspect two factors are in play. In general, the Vatican’s close embrace of Catholic orthodoxy on abortion and contraception, of the ‘sin’ of homosexuality, and the subjugation of women has grated on the progressive ear. And as the numbers show in both polls and elections, progressives outnumber conservatives on moral questions.
Gay marriage has proved unexceptionable. The majority of Americans believe in abortion with limits. In contraception without limits. And in the right of women to pursue whatever career they choose to.
And then there was the child-rape coverup.
It is hard to identify a worse example of greater institutional sadism since the Inquisition – and the Inquisition was at least ‘justified’ by the precepts of the faith. The hypocrisy and cynicism of the Church must surely have impelled many to first question and then reject the moral authority of the institution. And once you have lost your faith in its goodness, its raison d’etre evaporates. The Church looks old, male, and single. And is increasingly an anachronism in a world where absolutist ideas shoved down the congregation’s throat are anathema to the individual’s sense of self-agency.
Ironically, Protestantism – at least conservative evangelicalism – which had grown out of a similar rejection of the doctrinaire avarice of the pre-Reformation Catholic Church, has become just as hung-up on morals and greed as the Catholics ever were. These fundamentalists may lack a papal central authority, but they have a bunch of ‘Institutes’ and think-tanks – frequently with the word ‘Family’ in their name – that refine their bigotry. The result is a philosophy as rigid and hard-hearted as anything the Catholics dreamt up.
And they are greedy bastards. The abomination of the Prosperity Gospel celebrates cash grabs and money-grubbing. The pastors have houses the size of hotels and commercial air travel is dismissed as an unChristian inconvenience in an era of jet-setting holy men and women.
It started with the Moral Majority (which, as the joke had it, was neither) throwing their support behind Reagan, at the time the only divorced man to become President. It ended with their embrace of Trump, the least religious, most immoral man ever to achieve the Oval Office. But goddamn it, he hated the same people the evangelicals did. And was four-square behind the racism, xenophobia, and misogyny that is meat and drink to the religious charlatans.
And people noticed.
Back in the day, when fundamentalist religion spoke in tongues, man-handled snakes, and promised the pits of hell for the smallest deviation from the path of divine adulation it was worthy of note — but not concern. They largely eschewed politics. Itinerant conmen like Elmer Gantry traveled the country fleecing the true believers but the larger population remained untroubled.
But then the fundamentalists made common cause with political conservatives. And one of America’s venerable political parties was hijacked by religious crazies. And hate became the coin of the realm.
The superficially worthy cause of ‘religious freedom’ became a euphemism for institutionalized bigotry. Gayness was ‘promoted’ from a natural occurrence in a small percent of the population to an ‘agenda’. It was limned as a ‘choice’ foisted upon America’s unsuspecting youth by teachers in an indoctrinating school system. And from this perverted soil sprung the absurdity of QAnon and Trump’s war on a sex-trafficking, pedophile, empire of Democrats and Hollywood types.
Was it the hate or the insanity that was the bigger turn-off?
Or was it the hypocrisy of the moralizing mountebanks who, time after time, were uncovered as the sinners they had warned the congregation about? Stories of gay masseurs, rent boys, and pool attendants mixed drugs with three-way sex, adultery, and rape. While others added fraud and prison to their resumes before being rehabilitated as doomsday food suppliers.
And pictures of these miserable people laying hands on the ‘Two Corinthians’ guy illuminated the outsized role they had achieved.
Rick Wilson famously said, “Everything Trump touches dies”. And while the decline of religion started before him and will continue after him, it is safe to say the evangelicalism shot itself in the foot with its unholy embrace of a third-rate man.