So, it seems the church is shrinking.
The mosque and synagogue, too, for that matter. Not that this is breaking news. It has long been known that the numbers of Americans who belong to religious organizations are dwindling. But last week, that decline hit a milestone. For the first time since Gallup began tracking religious membership back in 1937, it has dropped below half. Back then, 73 percent of us belonged to some house of worship. Today, just 48 percent do.
Experts cite multiple reasons for the slippage, including the Catholic Church’s many sex scandals, growing distrust of institutions in general and a modern disinclination to be pigeonholed into any single theological tradition. While there is surely merit to all those observations, it seems likely that where Christianity — more specifically, the white, evangelical church — is concerned, there is also another explanation for the disappearance of the missing congregants:
They were driven away.
Consider it a byproduct of the rise, a little over 40 years ago, of the so-called religious right as a political force. Suddenly, Jesus of Nazareth, the itinerant rabbi whose life, death and life have inspired believers for two millennia, was adopted as a mascot of Republican conservatism.
Granted, the 1980s was hardly the first time — or the last — people allowed their politics to be informed by their faith. As the lives and ministries of Jim Wallis, Jeremiah Wright, William Barber II and Martin Luther King, Jr. amply attest, the progressive left has often done the same thing.
No, the difference 40 years ago wasn’t the fact of faith in politics, but the substance of it. We went from “feed my sheep” to cutbacks in school lunch programs. From “love ye one another” to ignoring AIDS because it was “only” killing gays. From “woe unto you who are rich” to tax cuts for the wealthy and trickle-down leftovers for everyone else. From compassion for “the least of these” to condemnation of mythical welfare queens and other lazy and undeserving poor.