In a commencement speech at Hillsdale College in Michigan Vice President Mike Pence stated that contrary to much current opinion, religious commitment in this country is growing, not receding. And from his own relatively isolated viewpoint Pence is dead sure he is right. But he conveniently ignores much current information to the contrary, just as his boss routinely does.
The vice president’s opinion is probably based on an understanding that the percentage of Americans with strong religious affiliations has been somewhere between 35 and 40 percent of the population over the past forty years.
But the segment of the population that reports “somewhat strong” or “not very strong” religious beliefs has been on a steady downward decline over the same period.
These numbers peaked at about 55 percent in 1970 but have fallen to nearly 40 percent today. And the group attending services from zero to two times a year (probably Christmas and Easter) has almost doubled.
Concurrently, the segment attending services on an almost weekly basis fell from 35 percent to 22 percent. On the positive side the number attending services more than once weekly is stable.
But Pence apparently neglected to consider much of this data in constructing his predictions.
Then what does this all mean to the American Christian community as a whole? Simply this: mainline denominations, particularly those that have compromised on tradition and orthodoxy, are indeed shrinking.
But the more intensely devout denominations are either holding their own or show modest growth. Mormons, Seventh Day Adventists and Pentecostals all claim a healthy growth rate, but a large part of this is outside the U. S. And these faiths sometimes neglect to include their losses in their total membership figures.
Then what does the future hold for America’s Protestant Christians? Bishop John Shelby Spong, an Episcopal theologian, historian and author for whom I have the utmost respect, shares his thoughts that, I think, capture the essence of the feared secularization of America:
“This is not to revert to an eschatological warning based upon yet another prediction of the end of the world. It is, rather, the recognition that we have no more than one generation left, in my opinion, before the dying embers of the values that were based on Bible reading and a biblical view of life will be cold. There is still time for those embers to be fanned into bright, contagious flames once more. If we do not succeed in this last opportunity the ignorance of the mainline Christians will increase and the ignorance of fundamentalist Christians will reach a new crescendo. The result will be a revulsion that will accelerate the total secularization of this society, putting an end completely to the religious traditions of our past. That process will move us beyond the reach of revival. One can revive that which is dormant. One cannot revive that which has ceased to be. That requires a completely new creation.”
Bishop Spong paints a stark, problematical picture that conveys a dire warning to the entire American Christian community about its future. Contrarily, Vice President Pence is altogether optimistic and supportive in his outlook and predictions. I would hope Spence is right, but I fear Spong is more in tune with the times.