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Is organized religion reaching its expiration date?

photo of inside of cathedral
People of faith are the fuel that powers our engines – without them, our efforts to help create opportunity in St. Paul will certainly stall.

“If it doesn’t stem its decline, mainline Protestantism has just 23 Easters left.”

Bill Brady
That blunt headline in the Washington Post on April 28, 2017, put into stark focus what has been becoming increasingly apparent in religious circles: Given current trend lines, mainline Protestantism will be closing up shop by 2039. The numbers keep dwindling in both those who attend a “mainline” church regularly and those who identify with a mainline denomination.

“Among the so-called mainline churches, we are having a particularly bad half-century,” veteran journalist and Episcopalian leader Ray Suarez put it dryly. The Protestants aren’t alone. Data from the most recent Pew Trust Study shows a similar decline for Roman Catholicism, mitigated only somewhat by the impact of Latino immigration. Even evangelicals dropped in the last 10 years, albeit modestly. Beyond the Christian realm, the proportion of Jews who say they are Jewish only on the basis of ancestry, not religion, is growing rapidly.

In fact, the fastest-growing religious identity in the United States today is the “nones.” People are making a habit, you might say, out of having no religious affiliation at all. The trend is seen across all age groups, among immigrants as much as among native-born, and especially among those under 30 years of age.  

Implications beyond the pews

So, who cares about these trends? As a coalition of communities of faith, Interfaith Action of Greater St. Paul certainly does. Interfaith Action harnesses volunteers from our member faith communities and creates pathways for them to live out that common directive of all of humanity’s important faiths – to love our neighbors. We employ an interfaith, multiracial, inter-generational approach to relieving poverty and addressing its root causes. Among other things, we operate emergency shelters for homeless families, offer culturally relevant food and education support for the often-overlooked urban American Indian community, and send dozens of tutors into the community to be job coaches and to help children in danger of falling behind.

People of faith are the fuel that powers our engines – without them, our efforts to help create opportunity in St. Paul will certainly stall. That is why we care deeply about the health of our faith community.

On May 30, the aforementioned Ray Suarez will speak to Interfaith Action’s Annual Assembly to help us address the issue head-on. He is the author of “The Holy Vote: The Politics of Faith in America” and many other books; we have asked him here to discuss, “Who Will Be in the Pews in 2040?”

Suarez brings two important perspectives

As a member of the leadership team at Washington National Cathedral as well as a veteran reporter for NPR, PBS and other media outlets, Suarez brings two important perspectives to the table. He has a journalist’s broad and deep knowledge of current events, and he is of a leader in our nation’s religious community who is deeply interested in the trends we see in our pews.

“Years of challenge are ahead for the country and for people of faith,” Suarez says. “Will we limp into that next America, into 2044, or will we sprint? The answer depends on many factors, but I am by nature an optimist and by nature a patriot, and that gives me hope for what is in store.”

We invite you to join us to hear more words of challenge and hope from  Suarez on Thursday, May 30, at Saint Paul College. Here is a link where you can secure your spot in the audience. 

Bill Brady, a retired Twin Cities public relations professional, serves on the board of Interfaith Action of Greater St. Paul.

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Comments (24)

  1. Submitted by David Lundeen on 04/10/2019 - 08:35 am.

    It’s hard to be religious and a millennial when you’ve grown up with stories of abuse in the Catholic Church, and also watched right-wing Evangelicals turn their religion into idol worship by entering the political arena.

  2. Submitted by Mac Riddel on 04/10/2019 - 09:18 am.

    You don’t need “faith” to help your neighbors. Implying that goes a long way in showing why mainline churches are failing in the first place. As our society moves to the future, many realize that we don’t need religion in order to be good people; good to our neighbors, good to the less fortunate, and have good morals.

    • Submitted by chuck holtman on 04/10/2019 - 08:08 pm.

      The positive aspect of faith is that it is a platform to engage in moral thought. The negative aspect of faith is that it separates humanity into an “us” vs. “them” with an ancient and ongoing history of tremendous violence and destruction.

      To be fully human, one must have the capacity to engage in moral reflection. Thus, any faith directive is subject to independent moral consideration. If the faith directive comports with one’s independent moral judgment, then the directive is superfluous. If it doesn’t, the directive, or at least the offered interpretation of the directive, must be rejected.

      Ergo, the positive aspect of faith is superfluous, and only the destructive aspect remains.

      Put another way, there is no more morally degraded and morally destructive figure in public life than our president, and his strongest base of support lies within the faith community. Good riddance to faith.

  3. Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 04/10/2019 - 09:35 am.

    Seems certain religious groups brought us the present inhabitant, and are very delighted with that performance, it doesn’t take much to realize they don’t practice what they preach, main fait seems to be hypocracy. Don’t want to put them all in the same bucket but if they don’t raise their voice they are just as complicit,

    First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—
    Because I was not a socialist.

    Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—
    Because I was not a trade unionist.

    Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
    Because I was not a Jew.

    Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

  4. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 04/10/2019 - 09:41 am.

    Sooooo, this is an advert to come hear Suarez talk about religion? If this is how you plan on reversing your decline I fear you are indeed doomed.

    I hope Suarez discusses the fact that the biggest liability organized religion faces is it’s insistence that morality necessarily flows out of scripture. This is simply an untenable claim that puts “believers” at odds with each other and everyone else. Another problem worth investigating is the difficulty some many religious people have with the concept of “faith” itself. So many people get tangled up in confusion regarding the difference between “knowing” and choosing to believe. Uncertainty is actually the basis of faith, yet organized religion tries to attract followers with the promise of certainty.

  5. Submitted by Curtis Senker on 04/10/2019 - 10:26 am.

    I’m with Suarez. The US still has more Christians than any other country on the planet, and a majority of American citizens (7 in 10) continue to identify as “Christian”.

    People often turn, or return to religious faith in times of crisis. We’re all aware of how many prison convicts find their faith during times of introspection during their incarceration, and although many abandon it after being released, many keep and are guided by their faith throughout the rest of their lives.

    American society is reaching a crisis point. Young people look around and see the traditions and values their parents grew up with being torn down like old curtains. They see the growing chaos.

    Often, and I hear this from my own kids, young people look at the religious landscape and see the secular cultural rot seeping in and being welcomed by various organized Protestant religions, as well as the various scandals that have overtaken the Catholic church, further discouraging them.

    But as we continue down the current path of “cut to fit” morality, I foresee a reawakening, perhaps within the next 30 years if we last that long. It will be a rebuilding of the orthodox religious traditions that stewarded the growth of America since the first colonists settled at Jamestown.

    IMO, the survival of the United States depends on it.

    • Submitted by David Lundeen on 04/10/2019 - 03:51 pm.

      That’s quite a depraved viewpoint, that morality stems from Christianity and we need it to ensure our survival.

      Morality is innate in humans, and present before religion. Young people see religious fanatics like the right wing embrace Trump and they are rightly disgusted by that. You don’t need traditional values to see how disgusting that is.

      • Submitted by Larry Moran on 04/11/2019 - 10:39 am.

        I don’t think morality is innate in humans–I think it needs to be learned. If morality were innate we wouldn’t have had accepted immoral practices like pogroms (which continued into the 20th century) or an active slave trade that continued into the middle of the 19th. I think the social purpose (set aside any spiritual purpose for the moment) of most faiths was to codify morality. You can certainly be a moral person without being a religious person but I think cultural norms of moral behavior were formed as various religions dominated different societies. I think religions still serve a purpose but need to make their case to people better outside of the political arena.

        • Submitted by David Lundeen on 04/11/2019 - 11:32 am.

          Of course it needs to be learned. But the source does not, and often does not, stem from religion. Any Anthropologist would disagree with your assessment. And any secular parent would disagree as well. Christian expansion and domination of the new world was based on Christian ‘morality’ – tell me how that is really moral. Even the Catholic Church has said that the original inhabitants of the Americas were ‘silently awaiting’ the arrival of Christianity.

          This viewpoint is toxic and inhumane. It’s not limited to Catholicism as well. Religion is innately irrational, and is largely based on telling lies to young children. If that counts as morality, count me out.

          Plenty of people did not accept the notions of antebellum chattel slavery. Abraham Lincoln and Alexander Hamilton were certainly opposed to it, and were agnostic at a minimum. However, Christianity was used as the justification for this depravity.

        • Submitted by Curtis Senker on 04/11/2019 - 01:29 pm.

          That’s a very thoughtful observation. I agree with you 100%

      • Submitted by Curtis Senker on 04/11/2019 - 01:17 pm.

        Morality is innate in humans

        True. But unguided, innate morality too often is adjusted to fit within the boundaries of behavior, instead of the other way around. Hence the debauchery we see in societies around the globe in the current year.

        • Submitted by David Lundeen on 04/12/2019 - 09:10 am.

          You just confirmed my point. Unguided morality stems from religion exclusively.

          Give me an example of a moral action a religious believer can do that an atheist cannot.

    • Submitted by David Lundeen on 04/11/2019 - 07:38 am.

      Just to tell facts, the United States was founded as a secular nation. The best majority of our founding fathers were deists, or what we would today call agnostic.

      The growing chaos young people see is palpable. The looking spectre of climate change is an existential threat, as is the fear of school shootings. I’d feel let down too by the demagoguery used in religion. I wonder how students from Parkland feel when they hear gun rights discussed as God-given

      • Submitted by Curtis Senker on 04/11/2019 - 01:23 pm.

        Excepting the fact that the first European colonists in America came to be free to practice their religion, and our Constitution acknowledging our rights come from God, you’ve nailed it.

        Ever occur to you, sir, that kids didn’t start shooting up their schools until after it became a crime to pray in them?

        • Submitted by David Lundeen on 04/12/2019 - 08:27 am.

          There is no correlation between those two scurrilous factors you mention.

          I see no mention of Jesus, or a Christian God, in the Constitution. As far as God, the vast majority of our founding fathers were not devoted Christians. Madison, Hamilton, Franklin, and Jefferson were not religious and did not want the country to promote a certain religion. Hence, our constitutional guarantee regarding religion. These are facts, not dubious claims. You can’t argue in a cogent capacity against it.

        • Submitted by Karen Sandness on 04/12/2019 - 07:33 pm.

          Now that is simply magical thinking.

          In 1962, the Supreme Court banned required, teacher-led prayer in public schools, a custom that prevailed primarily in the South, where the religious spectrum runs all the way from Pentecostal to Baptist to Methodist, and on the East Coast, where school officials were trying to convert all those Catholic and Jewish immigrants to Protestantism.

          In the early 1980s, when the Republicans started luring fundamentalists by promising to reinstate school prayer, I asked my older relatives, the oldest of whom was born in 1899, whether they had ever had school prayer. They had grown up in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and North Dakota, and none of them had had school prayer.

          I myself was a sixth grader in Wisconsin when the Supreme Court ruling came down, and I recall being bewildered along with my classmates. There were places where they started the school day with the Lord’s Prayer or ten verses from the Bible?

          Anyway, back to school shootings, there are cases recorded as far back as 1840. Four were killed at a high school in Louisiana in 1893, and six at a high school in West Virginia in 1896.

          The first shooting with more than one or two fatalities after the Supreme Court decision occurred in 1966 at the University of Texas, with 18 killed. The first mass shooting in a K-12 school occurred in Chicago in 1988.

          Your cause-and-effect reasoning is faulty.

        • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 04/16/2019 - 09:56 am.

          “…Constitution acknowledging our rights come from God, you’ve nailed it.”

          This kind of nonsense is tedious. The term: “Inalienable” does NOT actually mean: “God given” or even derived from a creator. And the history and nature of the Deism that Jefferson (And so many others) subscribed to at the time had nothing to do with the Bible or any other scripture. Jefferson was simply underscoring a declaration of rights that no earthly authority can deny; he wasn’t praising God. And as many have already pointed out, while Jefferson (who took HIS copy of the Bible and cut out Jesus’s name by the way) refers to “a” creator in the Declaration; no God or scripture of any kind is mentioned anywhere in the entire US Constitution. The Constitution is and was intended to be and create a secular government. Claims to the contrary are simply facile.

          • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 04/16/2019 - 10:06 am.

            Beside, people were shooting in the schools long before organized public school prayer was prohibited. Those shooters just didn’t kill as many people because they didn’t have access to military weapons and assault rifles. Obviously prayer doesn’t prevent religious violence despite the fact that EVERYONE is praying.

    • Submitted by Richard Steuland on 04/16/2019 - 01:01 pm.

      Organized religion faces a huge challenge because it’s message is stale and no longer resonates with the experience of many that long for a connection with God. Evangelicals, like Robertson, Graham, Falwell are obviously a detriment because they spread division hatred, judgement, and division. Ignoring the heart of the gospel. These are the sreasonsof people leave organized religion. A spiritual transformation is desired and these churches have lost the truth. Salvation/enlightenment is the process of shedding the ego and becoming aware of the Light that dwells with in.. You don’t see any organization helping it’s members along this path. Orthodox and Catholic still have communities that support those truly on the path of salvation.. Buddhism and Hinduism are full of practices that lead to salvation. People are educated and realize that organized religion is a detriment. That is a reason why people are fleeing .

  6. Submitted by David Markle on 04/10/2019 - 11:36 am.

    Unfortunately nowadays the vital churches seem to be the ones associated with right-wing politics.

    • Submitted by Karen Sandness on 04/10/2019 - 06:01 pm.

      Yet even the right-wing churches have a concern that they do not express to outsiders.Due to Facebook conversations with a former classmate who is a Southern Baptist, I know that the right-wing churches are terribly concerned about losing their young people.

      What I’m seeing here in Minneapolis is that small churches are folding, especially if they are near a large church of the same denomination. Since one no longer needs a religious affiliation to be socially acceptable, a small church where the clergy just go through the motions soon loses members, either to the nearby larger church or to the ranks of the Nones.

      This happened in parts of Europe long ago. My Norwegian relatives are all baptized, those who are married got married in church, and those who are deceased were all buried from the village church, but for them, Easter vacation is the year’s last opportunity for ski trips.

      By the way, the right-wingers who complain that “America has banished God from its schools” would be well advised to look at Europe. Aside from France, the countries where church attendance is low are the ones that have state churches and religious instruction in the public schools.

      Even the Catholic church in Ireland has lost members, given the series of scandals that have been revealed in the past twenty years.

      I wonder if Europe and North America will end up like Japan, where devout Buddhists and Shintoists are rare, but people still go to shrines and temples for special occasions and to pray for good luck.

  7. Submitted by Jim Peterson on 04/10/2019 - 08:03 pm.

    Organized religion is an industry, no more or less than that. It was assuredly one of the first, and for centuries, with it’s stock-in-trade of disseminating emotional angst, fear, and feel good promises, a highly successful one. Today, however, it finds itself in competition with a world of industries all vying for the same money, educational advances providing answers to the uncertainties of the past, and changes in cultural mores that expose and up-end the irrational taboo doctrines of historical belief systems.

    Organized religion is chained to it’s own antiquated dogma which prevents meaningful innovation and perpetuates intolerance — a certain recipe for it’s own dissolution.

  8. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 04/11/2019 - 09:32 am.

    “People of faith are the fuel that powers our engines – without them, our efforts to help create opportunity in St. Paul will certainly stall.”

    Actually this kind of delusional grandiosity is one thing that’s damaging the credibility of organized religion. St. Paul IS a community and has been for over a hundred years. The engine that drives and sustains that community is comprised of dozens of secular city and State programs and departments that provide necessary services to everyone regardless of “faith”. Although “faith” IS a necessary feature of RELIGIOUS communities, we don’t actually live in religious communities. Religion didn’t invent the concept of “community” and is not a necessary feature of secular communities like the one we live in.

    I understand an appreciate the charity that some religious groups provide but it’s clearly insufficient and has obviously failed it’s mission. The US has the highest levels of poverty, food insecurity, homelessness, and housing insecurity in the developed world. It’s simply delusional to suggest that people of faith and their organizations will solve these problems or are even a necessary component.

    I can understand why religious people would be concerned about the collapse of their organizations an their popularity, and I don’t begrudge them that anxiety. But let’s not pretend this is a threat of any kind to the community or nation at large. I fail to see why those of us outside these subcultures should be concerned about this.

    Most of the religious people I know are decent human beings, and I can see how their religion and it’s organizations sustain and comfort them. I want my friends and other people in general to be happy, so to the extent that their religion and it’s culture sustain them, I’m not apposed to it. But this isn’t anyone else’s problem.

    Mr. Senker of course provide yet another example of the problems organized religion is facing. In fact we’ve been living through a “reawakening” of religion for decades now, and the fact that Senker classifies that era as one of moral decline simply reveals the incoherent nature of “traditional values”. When it comes to “cut to fit” morality no one has been a greater practitioner of moral relativism than Republicans and religious conservatives. The extraordinary moral gymnastics deployed to classify Trump as a not only a “Christian”, but a “Good” Christian has revealed the moral vacuity of “traditional” values.

    Republicans, Libertarians, and Evangelical Christians have shown us that you CAN build a moral system around: greed, hostility, division, selfishness, intolerance, dishonesty, and bigotry… but any moral system based on these principles pretty much sucks. Thank you for that I guess but most of us would have predicted that outcome without the benefit of religious “faith”. Fortunately when it comes to “values”… we have better options.

    I hope Suarez discusses the fact that one catastrophic decision organized religion in the US made decades ago was to let a bunch of sociopaths assume the voice of organized religion in America. The decision to leave the floor to these moral degenerates was destined to destroy religious credibility. From child abuse to financial fraud and other forms of depravity this parade of immorality has done much to convince Americans that those who organize religions have no moral credibility and simply cannot be trusted. I’m not sure how or if that credibility can ever be restored, but clearly we can live and thrive without it.

  9. Submitted by Pat Terry on 04/15/2019 - 10:22 pm.

    I always liked the Gandhi quote;

    “I like your Christ; I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.“

    I grew up Catholic, and the statements by former pope Benedict this week reminded me why I left that mess behind.

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