Maybe Conservativism Is Hurting Religion After All….

Given that the “liberal churches are losing members because they’re liberal; conservative churches are growing because they’re conservative” argument is invoked every so often here at MSP, I thought people would be interested in this article from Religion Dispatches analyzing some of the problems with that claim.  An excerpt:

Hout and Fischer released a study this year with Mark A. Chaves, which seemed to show that the trend continues. Their original findings have been partly confirmed by the Pew Forum, which found in 2012 that the nones overwhelmingly saw religious organizations as “too focused on rules,” “too concerned with money and power,” and “too involved in politics.” Not on the list: a desire for a stricter moral code. Along with another major study conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute, the Pew Forum found that Americans without religious affiliation strongly identified with the Democratic party and liberal social positions.

All of which tends to indicate that Hout and Fischer were right when they said that disaffiliation is driven by a rejection of the religious right. It seems perverse to say that members of liberal denominations show their displeasure with religious conservatism by walking away from their own churches, but that seems to be exactly what’s happening.

On the surface, this might seem like a point in Eberhardt’s favor. “Orthodox” churches keep their members in line; liberal ones can’t. But how then to explain that the most liberal of the liberal denominations—the Unitarian Universalist Association—is in fact growing? For that matter, one might argue that Catholics have more to lose by alienating liberals than they have to gain by growing conservative families. The bishops seem to have decided just that when they put together their “Catholics Come Home” a d campaign showing a “kinder, gentler version” of the faith.

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9 Responses

  1. chanson says:

    What a fascinating alternative analysis!

    So, basically, the coupling of religion with far-right politics is giving religion a bad name in general. Naturally, the religions that appeal to people who want far-right politics to be synonymous with Christianity have a target demographic that they’re retaining, but overall they’re not even doing themselves a favor…

  2. Holly says:

    @1: nice, concise summary.

    Have to say, it makes sense to me.

  3. chanson says:

    “too concerned with money and power,”

    As I’ve argued before, it’s actually in the best interest of US religious organizations to change the laws so that religious organizations have to file for non-profit status in the same way as any other non-profits. When you turn religion into the world’s simplest tax-evasion scheme, you’re going to see widespread abuse of the privilege — which, in turn, harms religion’s reputation and turns religion into something that’s generally viewed as a little suspicious.

    It looks like that’s what’s happening, and perhaps some of the more authoritarian religions are simply retaining a core of don’t-question-authority-no-matter-what types.

  4. John Hamer says:

    The tax exempt status thing for religions is a political non-starter (when all GOP positions are politically toxic, we should talk about those all day long instead of resurrecting liberal fantasies that are politically toxic the other way).

    And from a practical standpoint, it’s also silly. There’s essentially no bar for non-profits in the US anyway. 99% of “charities” (so-called) have their tax status approved by the IRS and for 1,000,000 charities in the US, there are only 100 regulators. The reality is that the charity sector is already hardly any more regulated in the US than the religion sector.

    On the original post: The original post is exactly correct. Conservative religion is killing religion. Since conservative religions define faith as believing in things that are false and God as Santa Claus, thinking people equate those falsehoods with religion in general and reject it altogether.

    (I’m not saying that’s a bad thing in the end; if the choice was simply between having conservative religions live or die, death is preferable. On the other hand, while conservative religions are negative self-caricatures, that shouldn’t actually condemn the whole enterprise.)

  5. chanson says:

    The tax exempt status thing for religions is a political non-starter (when all GOP positions are politically toxic, we should talk about those all day long instead of resurrecting liberal fantasies that are politically toxic the other way).

    I’m more than happy to discuss all of the many toxic parts of the GOP platform. Would you like to write us a guest post? But if you come here out of the blue just to tell us “You shouldn’t be discussing X because it’s less important than Y”, I have a post for that. 😉

    I am not even arguing @3 that we should be actively working politically towards getting religion’s super-tax-shelter revoked. I am arguing that people who favor organized religion should understand that the tax-exempt status is not in their best interest. It is the mountain of ice cream and potato chips that seems so good but is going to give them a heart attack. Also, one of the big problems in US politics is the extreme “culture war” polarization, and I would like to point out that the religions-and-taxes issue is not simply a black-and-white case of people who are for religion battling those who are against it.

    Anyway, another point about the OP:

    I think there’s something to the standard narrative that religions that require lots of effort often retain people because they give people a purpose to be constantly working on and because people value things that they have invested in.

    However — now that the author of the article points it out — it seems obvious that that can’t be the whole story. Since almost all religions are losing members (some are merely losing them more slowly than others), an explanation for the difference in rate should naturally take into account the factors that are driving people away.

    It’s interesting to see that the Unitarian Universalists are gaining members — and not at all surprising since there are lots of reasons for wanting to be part of a church community other than just believing that church participation is a commandment from God. So the “nones” are losing people to the liberal denominations.

    Actually, that reminds me that we have some folks in this community who are essentially agnostic and have been participating in Unitarian and other very liberal denominations. I was thinking of requesting that they try the CofC and write us a post with their impressions and reactions.

  6. Hellmut says:

    People still have a need for community, especially in the United States. But we also value realism.

    That is why the Unitarians are growing. They have a joined set.

  7. chanson says:

    @6 Yes, I think that’s why the Unitarians are growing. There’s absolutely something to be gained from the long-term community that a congregation can provide. Many people want such community in their lives without feeling pressured to affirm belief in a particular set of supernatural claims.

  8. Gertrud says:

    Jun13sonya_d This was a fantastic edspioe of Mormon Expression and my first introduction to Darron and his work. My favorite line was something along the lines of Black members don’t go to church to teach white members how to be nice! I had never thought about the fact that black members do feel like they have to apologize for being mormons. What an interesting perspective!I wish I believed that it would help to stay in the church to try to change things. There are many, many things about the church that bother me and the racism is a big one, but not the only one, and I just can’t be a part of it anymore.

  9. chanson says:

    Note: I have just received a series of comments (such as the above) that seem maybe Mormonism-related, yet not quite relevant to the post they’re posted under. Are they spam? Thoughts?

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