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Apathy Girl and Other Tales

Musings of the Overly Naive Cynic


There was once a time when no one had to concern themselves with church attendance, and therefor income. The Church was closely linked with governance, at times there was no perceptible difference between government and God. However, that was a very long time ago. In secular society the church is just one more thing to believe in, to spend money on, to garner identity from. Those who have the ability to, through education or other means, find an identity away from organized religion, and those who do not cling even more tightly to the self they found within the church. It will be the contention of this paper that mainline, or liberal, churches will continue to lose members to the ‘spiritual’ movement, while members of conservative or fundamental churches will cling more closely to their congregational family, and only continue gain more members.

One of the main factors, and possibly the most important one, is the increase in liberal higher education. During and after the 1960’s there began to be a correlation between rates of post-secondary education and religiosity in the American population. (Hoge) This stems from two things. First, the higher the level of education a person has attained, the more liberal their political ideology tends to be. The more liberal ones political ideology, they tend to move away from structures and institutions, government, and in this case, the Church, as a means of expression of self.

Also, those with liberal ideologies tend to be distrustful of established institutions. The faith civilians once had in their government began to be rolled back in the 1960’s, even replaced with a view of government and institutions as “hollow and deceitful” (Clark Roof and McKinney). Those who are educated also tend towards more social liberalism, so they would not suffer a church branched on the conservative side of what Kelley called the “Exclusivist-Ecumenical Gradient” (class discussion), because these would be the churches not tolerant to new social ideas, racial or gender equality, and more recently, sexual preference and definition.

Another reason for the decline of the mainline and liberal American church is the change in family and interpersonal dynamics. Children born of baby boomer parents, those who experienced the shift of the 1960’s, are more likely to distrust traditional institutions and methodologies. (Roof) Whereas more conservative churches could trust their young people to maintain their religious identity, and pass that on to their children, who would then be raised in the same zealous manner, more moderate or liberal churches see their young members leaving their churches, and possibly educated their children independently on ‘faith’ as opposed to ‘religion’. There has also been a correlation between church attendance decline and the decrease in family size, an increase in divorce rates, and increase rates of cohabitation in youth (Hoge), all things accepted by liberal churches, and some moderate churches, but not by conservative or fundamental churches.

Interpersonal dynamics also play a large role in church attendance. There has been a rise in individualism over the last forty years, weakening American ties to community and social groups. People believe that they are able to change and adapt social norms, religious norms possibly, to fit their individual needs. (Hoge) Also, there has been an increased in claims of the church interfering with the personal relationship one seeks with God, leading believers to seek their own path through ‘spiritualism’ or ‘faith’. Also, if one is seeking individualism in religion, they will stop seeing the church as part of their social circle, and become less involved, leaving to a drop in attendance and financial support. People look instead to find socialization within their own socioeconomic class, sharing with those of common lifestyle, not common history, retreating them from public involvement. (Bellah, et al)

However, not all of these theories are representative of all situations or accepted by the community at large. On the issue of increased education being a factor, one could argue that those who were part of the liberal shift are not going to trend towards being outspoken against any one social faction, because that would not be very egalitarian. Hoge found that those involved in counter-culture of the sixties, perhaps the most liberal segment of society from the era, are only slightly less likely to be involved in their church than conservatives maintaining a tradition of involvement. Also, this contends the notion that those baby-boomers would distrust the church as an institution. The argument that the church was abandoned because of its lacking social or egalitarian awareness is a relevant one, though there are those who argue a slight increase in church involvement in social and welfare projects saw no change in attendance or goodwill. (Hoge) Finally, the notion of people moving their social circles away from church is met with data of increasing church niche organizations in order to provide a social environment for parents and children with sometimes modern or contemporary services.

Acknowledging these counterarguments one can most generally note that those who maintain their involvement in their church tend to be more zealous about their particle road to salvation. So, when one says that the educated and liberal culture of the 1960’s did not harbor any ill-will towards the church, it is important to note that the absence of ill-will is not good will. Also, mainline or liberal churches find themselves involved heavily in social awareness, such as the fight for female religious leaders, and an acceptance of homosexuality, yet still with a decline in attendance.

The final say for the fate of religion in America has yet to be said. It seems though that the trajectory has been set. Those who are going to go to church will go, every time the doors are open, because it is part of their social history and even political ideology. Those who were once part of the liberal religious tradition will continue to trend downwards in attendance, for multiple reasons, leaving them believing possibly in a higher-power, but not necessarily in his house, leading to the continued decline in liberal and moderate churches, but not their fundamental and conservative counterparts.

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