Smaller proportions of Americans say that religion is important to them, that they belong to a church or that they regularly attend religious services. How are Christian leaders responding to a decline in Christian identity? And how are religious services persevering through the pandemic? Jack Jenkins, national reporter for the Religion News Service, joins the podcast to discuss what he has found in his reporting.
Below is a full transcript of the conversation, including time stamps. Full audio is posted above.
Mohamed Younis 00:07
I'm Mohamed Younis, and this is The Gallup Podcast. This week, we take a look at the role of religion in American life. Jack Jenkins is an award-winning journalist and national reporter for the Religion News Service, where he covers religion and politics. He's also the author of a book called American Profits: The Religious Roots of Progressive Politics and the Ongoing Fight for the Soul of the Country. Jack, welcome to the podcast, sir!
Jack Jenkins 00:31
Thanks so much for having me.
Mohamed Younis 00:32
Christianity, of course, is the dominant faith in the U.S. today. About seven in 10 Americans identify with a Christian religion. However, this is down from about nine in 10 back in the 1940s and really through the 1980s. I wanted to talk to you, Jack, how Christian leaders themselves have been responding to this shift, and what you've been seeing out there as America, at least numerically, becomes a less Christian nation.
Jack Jenkins 00:59
Yeah, I mean, you've seen a lot of responses to this, as you can imagine. It's one of those stories that we've, you know, Religion News Service and religion journalists in general have covered over the past few decades, during this decline in Christian identity -- at least, showing in polling. And I think that one of the early debates about this was that, particularly conservative Christians would point to the fact that this disaffiliation -- this claiming, you know, to be religiously unaffiliated -- was more prominent among liberals, people who lean that direction on the political and theological spectrum. And so there was this discourse that we saw for decades where conservative Christians would say, OK, liberal mainline traditions. These are people, like, of these older Christian denominations such as Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Methodists, of that ilk, that they're just not doing enough to capture the attention of younger people. They've become too enmeshed with what they described as secular culture, but there's not any difference between, you know, what they might see watching, you know, liberal programming from what they might hear preach from a pulpit on Sunday, so why even go to, bother going to church?
Jack Jenkins 02:07
Whereas conservative Christians, particularly megachurches, were just seeing these droves of people show up. And so there was, it was part of this idea that, you know, induced a lot of panic in mainline traditions, where you had pastors, you know, and denominational heads really actively discussing how to bring more people into these churches and then eventually actually having conversations about what does it mean to close a parish well? What does it mean to have churches die well? And that discourse continues to this day. We still have churches that, particularly during COVID and, and in a myriad of other contexts that you might close their buildings and shift the funds that they've had into another place. But that having been said, now, it's very clear that it's not just liberal Christians that are losing members. We also see disaffiliation in Southern Baptist Conventions, and, and a myriad of other conservative Christian groups have also seen downticks in their membership and their attendance on Sundays. And so that conversation is happening on their end as well.
Jack Jenkins, 03:07
Now, interestingly, you often hear similar arguments: People suggest that even these conservative Christian groups are becoming too liberal, and as they do so, they're hemorrhaging members. That doesn't necessarily seem to be the key driving force, but that does still continue to be the debate among these, these large, what are often referred to as "tall-steeple pastors" is, how do they keep, particularly younger people -- because those are the groups that seem to be disaffiliating in the highest numbers -- you know, how do they keep them interested in Christianity as they preach and subscribe to it? There's a lot of other things I can talk about on this topic, and I think a lot of it has to do with politics. But those are at least the top-level anxieties and conversations that I've heard throughout my career, and the reporters who've been working on this stuff longer than I have, have heard, you know, debated and discussed among pastors and religious leaders in the Christian community as this disaffiliation trend continues.
Mohamed Younis 04:00
Is it fair to say a less religious America means a less spiritual America? Like aren't a lot of Americans now -- seem to be choosing like other spiritual paths, in addition to or in combination with what we would traditionally call -- not even just Christianity -- Islam, Judaism, all faiths? How much of that dynamic is involved in what we're talking about, or is it just completely a separate issue?
Jack Jenkins 04:28
No, I think it's, it's deeply intertwined. So one of the other things that we've learned over the last, you know, few years, there's, there's been one prevailing theory for a while here was the secularization theory; that the United States was just going the way of Europe, in that people were simply disaffiliating from religion in general, full stop -- becoming atheists and agnostics, in terms of their identity. Now, I want to be clear -- there are a significant portion of Americans who, who do claim to be atheist or agnostic. But this category of religiously unaffiliated -- what we're really talking about here -- that number is not necessarily an areligious group, in the sense that they are, they don't practice some form of faith or spirituality. In fact, polling from a myriad of sources, you know, and, and a bunch of studies that have been done, you know, display that this group has often exhibited -- a lot of them pray daily. A lot of them still go to church or synagogue or a mosque, but they sit in the back and don't necessarily want to ascribe to a specific tradition.
Jack Jenkins 05:26
We also see a lot of what you just described -- you know, people kind of leaning into spiritual things that might be attached to specific religious traditions, They might be attached to other older religious traditions. One thing that got a lot of attention is, for instance, like an uptick in tarot card reading or a lot of faiths or spiritualities that, that are connected to or an active dialogue with nature. That seems to be actually pretty common in this religiously unaffiliated group, which makes it complicated because that means that we find that they might even respond to religious messengers or religious messages but don't necessarily want to ascribe to a specific church or temple or synagogue. And, and that, that has made it difficult honestly for political actors too, because it's not entirely clear how you speak to the religiously unaffiliated, right? If it's an atheist or agnostic group, they actually often have organizations that people can speak to and through. But this -- and meanwhile, religious groups, you have, you know, fixed, often buildings and denominations that, you know, you can send a message or a series of messages through.
Jack Jenkins 06:31
But the religiously unaffiliated kind of exist in this broader space that actually encompasses a broad spectrum of belief and beliefs, some of which are kind of, you know, very ancient but don't necessarily organize together or gather together in ways that are easily recognizable, at least to the average political actor or the average faith leader. So it's, it's actually a really complicated and interesting category that doesn't easily fit into this narrative that America is simply giving up on religion wholesale, in the -- and what I mean by that is religion as, as a belief system, as opposed to religion as institutions and denominations.
Mohamed Younis 07:12
And membership within, within an organization specifically. In 1948, Jack, we recorded 2% of Americans who said they had no religion. You alluded to this just, just a minute ago. Today, that number has grown from 2% to 21%. How is this shift playing out, not just in American life but also in American politics? I mean, just reflect on that. It's a huge change kind of in the spiritual psyche of this country.
Jack Jenkins 07:40
So this is, I can, I can only give you the same conjectures that scholars and other reporters have given, because it remains an open question, right? This religiously unaffiliated category, they're often described as the "nones" -- N-O-N-E-S, because that's how they respond to the question, "What is your religious affiliation?" and they say "None." You know, the nones, one thing that's very evident is that they tend to skew liberal, full stop, right? That this is often one of the most liberal groups in the United States, as a religious, you know, I use that term both in quotation marks and not -- the category, the nones, are one of the most liberal groups.
Jack Jenkins 08:15
Now, there's a myriad of theories as to why they exist. You know, many people have pointed out, you know, the, the conservative arguments that I gave earlier -- that perhaps, that there's, there's not that much difference between the religious traditions in which they were raised, you know, these liberal Christian traditions and liberal society. And so they just kind of give up at some point. There's also several scholars who pointed to the creation of this group, or at least its rapid acceleration in the last three or four decades, has a lot to do with the rise of the religious right, and in many ways kind of responding to the campaigns of particularly Christian conservatives who have advocated against abortion, they've advocated against same-sex marriage and LGBTQ, you know, various overtures by LGBTQ rights advocates. That, you know, those public campaigns have been kind of taken as anathema by these primarily younger Americans. And so, instead of joining entirely different religious groups, they just have retracted from religion in general.
Jack Jenkins 09:15
There are also some other theories, which is that what we have seen is that some of these groups, and some of these religiously unaffiliated individuals, will participate actually in what is, for lack of a better term, described as religious left organizing and activism. The religious left, it's a whole nother conversation, but they are, they are well represented among progressive and liberal activists -- they're the people who often are out there protesting and getting arrested. And you will find in those groups deeply religious clergy who are explicitly identifying with one tradition, and also some of these nones are participating in that activism -- if not in broader, more secular liberal activism as well.
Jack Jenkins 09:57
On the right -- to be clear, there is some of the disaffiliation happening on the right as well. There are conservative, religiously unaffiliated people, but they are a smaller number. And so religion as this organizing force is arguably only increased in conservative circles. Whereas on the left, what you often find now is that there are very passionate subtexts of the left, for instance, black Protestants, for instance, for whom religion remains not only a powerful force in their own lives but also a very powerful political force, and helps mobilize voters to the polls, helps articulate political messages and what have you.
Jack Jenkins 10:31
And then you have the religiously unaffiliated, who actually, when polled, often signal that they don't really like politics from the pulpit, perhaps as an echo of their response to the religious right. And then you have people running for president in the Democratic Party who have to speak to arguably the most and least religious Americans in the country at the same time. So that's led to a lot of coalition-building and, you know, kind of a lot of work to pull together the kinds of networks that you see on the left, that on the right is relatively easier because, in terms of navigating religious difference, because there is more religious commonality on the right than on the left. So that's a broad-based way of saying it's led to a question mark in some liberal circles on how best to cater to these groups, how best to get a response from the religiously unaffiliated.
Jack Jenkins 11:22
And I'll close on this by saying that for a while, this group, which, again, skewed younger, showed up at the polls less; there was less representation of them on Election Day in several elections. Many people noted that that's kind of true in general of younger people, but there is some evidence, at least in the last two elections, that that trend is reversing. And so that means that there may have been some groups that are able to reach out to these religiously unaffiliated. Some of them are identifying as overtly secular and saying they're trying to reach these unaffiliated because they are a secular group, and secular identity is important to them. And then you have religious left activists who are also pulling from the same group. So, I imagine the left, they've navigated a both-and position to try to make sure that this group shows up for them on Election Day.
Jack Jenkins 12:05
Whereas on the right, they, you know, they continue to point to this as evidence that the left is giving up on religion and that, you know, that, that you will also see in any number of speeches given by everyone from President Trump to the average Republican that refer to the godless left. And they're usually pointing to this trend as a way of exciting conservative voters, saying, you know, if you let these people, these religiously unaffiliated, these Democrats who don't attend church as often as we do or at all, then that would be the new America, one that doesn't reflect the same kind of, you know, religious position that these conservatives frequently occupy. So it's really deeply impacted political discourse, in addition to religious discourse, over the last three decades.
Mohamed Younis 12:52
And it is really, it's hard to overstate the role and importance of religion in politics here in America. I mean, you alluded to the fact that a lot of Western countries, particularly Western European countries, are less religious overall, just by virtue of the fact of people just don't identify with a religion to the same rate that they do in the U.S. For example, in America, six to seven in 10 will tell you in a poll that religion plays an important part of their life. We do ask that question in France and Germany and the U.K., and the numbers are far, far lower. I also love that you broke down just the complexity of how religion and religious identity really unfolds in politics. I'm, I'm 42. So for me, I kind of came to being in an era where the religious right was a really powerful, important, central part of, you know, the Iraq War and, you know, the justifica -- I mean, this is just, they were very, very effective and active. So it's easy to simplify and think of religion in politics and think of the right, but I love how you broke down how it's really also impacting things on the left and how people define really religion and the role of religion it's supposed to play in their life really is also defining how those actions are playing out in the real world.
Mohamed Younis 14:16
Another thing that's impacting the real world and religion in America, of course, is the pandemic. Like all other aspects really of community, religious communities have been really impacted by not being able to congregate as regularly as they would want to. How have you seen places of worship adapt to holding services in this pandemic? And is this really, Jack, really the new normal? I ask this because community, today, meet is happening in a very different place than it used to traditionally. And it's like with work, I'm wondering if this pandemic finally pushes religious institutions and communities over that edge, where you're primarily meeting virtually and looking to meet people virtually, as opposed to who lives in my neighborhood.
Jack Jenkins 15:03
Oh, for sure. I should note at the start that there are communities that have absolutely refused to stop meeting in person since the beginning of the pandemic and have been very enthusiastic about pushing that; it's been framed as a pushback to, often, local or state-level prohibitions, particularly early on in the pandemic, that, you know, barred large gatherings, including worship groups. And some folks have continued to push that as a point of pride -- that faith groups should continue to gather, irrespective of the presence of a global pandemic. But most religious groups responded to those ordinances and to the pandemic in general by scaling back, at the very least, in-person worship, if not completely moving online.
Jack Jenkins 15:44
Now, for some communities, this really was a death knell. There were groups that simply were not particularly well-resourced -- smaller churches that, you know, didn't have the ability to just switch to online. And while there have been a myriad of groups that have actually swooped in to try to aid smaller churches with that -- you know, setting up gear for them or at a, at a nominal cost or at a, you know, relatively low cost trying to help them switch to that platform, there have been churches that have just not been able to make the transition.
Jack Jenkins 16:12
That having been said, a really interesting series of phenomenons have happened. I mean, one, there was a whole discourse early on about whether or not you could have, you know, for Christian communities, for instance, communion virtually. And for some communities, a nonstarter, like, we're just not gonna have communion that way; we'll have it in a spiritual sense, but not in a theologically profound sense. Others were like, of course you can have communion online; it's fine, whatever. And they did it the first time. And then there were communities that like slowly shifted over the course of the pandemic, where it's not even a theological debate anymore. It's just like how worship is conducted.
Jack Jenkins 16:46
And I bring up that example because, while all those debates were happening, people were still showing up to church online throughout a lot, particularly the first year of the pandemic and into this new era, where, with the omicron surge, for instance, a lot of people have kind of gone back to that early pandemic space of shutting down in-person worship for at least a couple of weeks. And I called some pastors just here in the D.C. area, which, at the time when I was doing this reporting in December, was the epicenter of the omicron surge. And I was asking about this. I mean, like, "Is this really frustrating that you're having to come back to this, you know, virtual space to meet after you've kind of, a lot of churches have reentered in-person worship or at least hybridized worship in the summer of 2021?" And one of the churches I spoke with, for the record, never stopped worshiping online. They have not gathered in person since March of 2020 and will not do so until they believe it is safe to continue.
Jack Jenkins 17:41
Others kind of said to me, I had this one pastor right outside of D.C. say, "Look, you know, we, we've had the shift online, but I think that might be easier for us than other churches, because we've actually been really intentional about navigating that online space -- having regular Zoom gatherings, as it were, even outside of worship." And people all over the world now, who previously had left their community, have come into their community and been welcomed, and they've actually, like, found some element of virtual space there. And so for them, they've actually kind of left this as a hybrid worship service, even when they reentered in-person worship this summer, because they found that that was so successful. Similarly, we've had some worship communities where, in terms of raw numbers, they still get higher attendance levels at worship now than they did before the pandemic. And what they mean by that is how many people are showing up on the livestream or at the Zoom meeting. They're actually, technically, reaching more people this way than they did previously.
Jack Jenkins 18:40
And I will say what's interesting about this is that there were some churches that were always streaming to thousands of people -- mega, megachurches in particular, when they, if they weren't on, you know, on television, they were on the internet and allowing, kind of having that access. But a lot of these are smaller churches that previously didn't really do that, at least not to, to that extent. And so for them, this has been a really interesting space, where they have started to reconnect with members who, you know, moved to other parts of the planet and now are participating in their worship space. There's a church out West that recently sold its physical property because that -- where they used to meet -- but is continuing to exist as a church, but primarily online.
Jack Jenkins 19:20
My guess is, and this is just conjecture, but what I, what I've heard from various pastors and rabbis and other faith leaders is that while for some traditions, this has been very difficult, and some specific faith communities have been difficulty navigating this pandemic in a way that allows them to continue to thrive, others have actually only found more access to the individual believer this way. And I would be surprised -- if the pandemic magically ended tomorrow -- if a lot of these faith communities don't continue to invest in this sort of hybridized space, similar to how we've kind of hybridized the way we work, right, where it's in-person when you can and ideally, but if not, you can still work outside of that context, primarily virtually. And I think faith communities are, are kind of moving into that space, where the presumption is of hybrid, even in communities where that would never have been the case two years ago.
Mohamed Younis 20:14
And it is really fascinating to see the learnings kind of from the workplace being taken to places of worship. You know, we've been right, we've been focusing a lot on churches, but I mean everything you said actually happened to me and, and the mosque I grew up going to out in Los Angeles. Because once the pandemic hit, I was looking for everything online. And I'm like, "Hey, wait a minute!" and there they are. There it is. Like everybody's there, the services are there. I mean, if you really want to plug in, it really is something a lot of folks can now do that they weren't really able to do before. It is fascinating.
Mohamed Younis 20:49
So I want to end by asking you, Jack, about confidence in religious organizations. We ask about, actually, Americans' confidence in all kinds of organizations. And solid majorities of Americans express confidence in a church or organized religion, but it's really waned in the recent decades. How can this pandemic, this crisis, these tools really play a role for religious organizations to do better in terms of having the confidence of the public? Some people might suggest and say, "Stay out of politics, left or right. That's a lot of why there's this perception of religious organizations that's negative among some." What would your reaction be?
Jack Jenkins 21:33
Yeah, I think it's gonna be interesting. I will say that data was really telling, and not together, altogether that surprising. And I think one of the subtexts that should be acknowledged is, you know, the spotlight report in the early 2000s with regards to the Catholic church and the Catholic sex abuse crisis significantly damaged, you know, the, not only the trust of, of parishioners within the Catholic church worldwide, but also had reverberations for faith communities in general, right? Like it's more of a regular stream of investigation to investigate faith communities in that regard. You know, just in the last few years, there's been a myriad of investigations of the Southern Baptist Convention regarding allegations of abuse, and that's not just child sex abuse; it's actually a wide range of things that fall under the category of abuse. There has been this kind of flipping of understanding faith communities as a system of power that should be held accountable by the press, in the same way that you would hold a local elected official accountable. As long as they can exert power over other human beings that, you know, they're, they're worthy of investigation. And that does shift the way people see faith communities.
Jack Jenkins 22:44
Meanwhile, as previously discussed, and as you just noted, the politics element here is not, you know, insignificant. if there was backlash to the religious right, and that is one of the, and one of the myriad of reactions to the religious right was this sort of disaffiliation, the rise of the nones, as it were, of course, that's going to impact American politics, and that's going to impact, you know, people's, whether they intrinsically trust a religious institution, they, if they don't even have one. All that having been said, you know, one thing, I think, that's been really interesting about the pandemic is there have been a myriad of news stories -- and I've written them -- about how, you know, different faith communities have refused, have spoken out against vaccines, have spoken out against masks, have filed lawsuits, you know, from choosing their faith as the reason that they're doing that.
Jack Jenkins 23:31
But they're -- the norm, they are not the norm of faith communities in the United States. The norm is faith communities who, for instance, they were rabbis who participated in Moderna's vaccine trial and very publicly did that, to make, you know, to try to early on, to try to instill confidence in vaccines. Faith communities were actually deeply involved in vaccine rollout, initially and to this day. In fact, you couldn't watch a White House press briefing on the COVID-19 crisis without hearing them reference the faith communities -- Hindu groups, Muslim groups, Jewish groups -- that were helping to distribute vaccines and, and masks. And you know, you have Pope Francis, who has been pretty dang consistent about championing vaccines. Heck, there's a vaccine mandate to get into the Vatican right now.
Jack Jenkins 24:14
And I bring that up to say that, you know, one of the things that faith communities have often done as part of the infrastructure here in the United States is provide direct service to people, whether that's people who are hungry, you know, erecting hospitals, those sorts of things, and -- or disaster relief, for that matter. And those are institutions that, that, that remain vibrant. They're -- six of the nine groups that resettle refugees here in the United States are faith-based, and they partner with the federal government for that. During a global pandemic, offering those kinds of services -- the fact that so many people got vaccinated at their local mosque or church. The fact that so many people were, you know, getting their tests by standing around, you know, a local Catholic parish -- that, you know, could have this sort of an impact of saying, OK, look, maybe religious institutions aren't perfect -- they're human beings as well -- but they are trying to aid local communities.
Jack Jenkins 25:09
Whether or not that's how the world will perceive it, whether or not they will be able to supersede the way that politics works in our country, whether or not any of that is enough for people to look past the scandals of the past and of the modern day is an open question. But I do think, when you're talking about opportunities for faith groups to reclaim that sort of trust in them as a positive force in society, you know, a global pandemic seems tailor-made to kind of speak to that concern.
Mohamed Younis 25:35
On that note, Jack Jenkins, reporter and journalist for the Religion News Service. Jack, thanks for being with us.
Jack Jenkins 25:42
Thanks so much for having me.
Mohamed Younis 25:44
That's our show. Thank you for tuning in. To subscribe and stay up to date with our latest conversations, just search for "The Gallup Podcast" wherever you podcast. And for more key findings from Gallup News, go to news.gallup.com or follow us on Twitter @gallupnews. If you have suggestions for the show, email firstname.lastname@example.org. The Gallup Podcast is directed by Curtis Grubb and produced by Justin McCarthy. I'm Mohamed Younis, and this is Gallup: reporting on the will of the people since the 1930s.