U.S. Still Religious, But Trust In Institutions Wanes

Originally published on July 28, 2012 7:05 pm

Something is happening when it comes to religion in America.

Though more Americans go to church or believe in God than their counterparts in virtually every other Western country, fewer Americans now trust religious institutions. A recent Gallup poll showed that just 44 percent of Americans have a great deal of confidence in "the church or organized religion."

It's unclear if this is a permanent shift or just a sign of the times, but NPR's religion correspondent Barbara Bradley Hagerty says it doesn't mean that America is less religious.

"Although among young people, belief in God is declining," Hagerty tells weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz. "But generally polls show that about 90 percent of Americans actually believe in God. So what's happening here is a decline in the trust of religious organizations."

People just don't want to go to church as much as they used to, Hagerty says, and the societal pressures to go aren't there anymore.

Hagerty says one type of religious institution in America that is growing is the nondenominational Christian churches, whose membership has tripled in the last 20 years. She says marketing, a more relaxed atmosphere and a notion that you can have a "personal relationship with God" all contribute to the growth of these institutions.

"That's transcendent, that's transformative," she says. "Because of that, they seem to give meaning and purpose to people's lives. It draws people in."

Pastor Greg Surratt founded Seacoast Church in Mount Pleasant, S.C., nearly 25 years ago. It started with only 65 members but has grown to about 12,000 worshippers and is widely seen as one of the most influential nondenominational evangelical churches in America.

Despite the Gallup poll, Surratt says he doesn't think religion and people living their lives according to what Jesus would teach will go away. But he does say it will change.

"Ten years from now ... will [Christianity] look like it does today? Probably not," Surratt says. "But I think it will thrive and I think it will be strong."

A Seismic Catholic Shift

This past week, Monsignor William Lynn, the former secretary for clergy at the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, was sentenced to three to six years in prison for covering up sex abuse by priests.

The clergy sex scandal is one of the biggest reasons Catholics have been expressing less and less confidence in the church over the past decade. All of this is happening against a backdrop of what Tom Roberts, editor at large for the National Catholic Reporter, calls a seismic shift taking place within the Catholic Church.

"You have a humbling of the church that's being caused by a lot of outside forces," Roberts tells Raz. That humbling can be seen in the sale of bishop's residences in Philadelphia and Boston largely to pay off sex abuse settlements, he says.

Demographers estimate that the number of priests available for service — currently about 18,000, Roberts says — will be halved by age, retirement and infirmity over the next 10 years. Roberts says it is still unclear what the church will look like at the end of the decade.

"The changes that we're in the midst of ... I think are significant," he says. "Where they lead, we're not certain, but things are changing quite dramatically."

Given the mix of societal forces, the challenges that come out of the sex abuse crisis and the general disposition toward organized religion today, Roberts says, one question is: How do you inspire people to be Catholic?

"What is the community about?" he says. "I think that is a huge question."

Other Growth

On the other end of the spectrum are those with no affiliation, agnostics and atheists. Their numbers have doubled in the last 20 years, Hagerty says.

That rise can be attributed to several factors, she says, including concerns over the merging of religion and politics in the '90s, and the popularity of atheist scholars like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins giving rise to what she calls "neo-atheists."

"Over the years, more and more people, especially young people, have been willing to come out of the closest [as atheists]," she says.

So will the U.S. go the way of Western Europe, where churches are essentially empty on Sundays? Hagerty isn't so sure, and cites one key difference.

"We have a free market of religion," she says, compared to parts of Europe with state-established religions.

In America you have your choice of hundreds of types of churches, she says, and you can go to anything you want.

"What that means is that they're competing, and it means that they're thinking ... 'How do we bring people in the doors?" she says.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

GUY RAZ, HOST:

It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

There's something happening when it comes to religion in America. It's not clear if it's a permanent shift or just a sign of the times, but fewer and fewer Americans now trust religious institutions. In fact, a recent Gallup poll showed that trust at an all-time low. Just 44 percent of us have a great deal of confidence in organized religion.

And according to a study by the Pew Forum on religion that came out this week, almost two-thirds of Americans believe religion is losing influence in American life. For our cover story today, we're going to take a look at why more Americans seem to be turning their backs on the traditional church and, in many cases, opting for something different.

We visited two churches recently: the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Boston and the National Cathedral right here in Washington where we put that question to parishioners.

JOE ANDREWS: My name is Joe Andrews(ph), and I'm from Ashland, Oregon. And I am a Christian.

HELEN POMERICO: Helen Pomerico(ph). I'm from the city of champions, Brockton, Mass. And right now, I'm on my way into the cathedral to say a prayer.

ANDREWS: Religion is more for giving than receiving. And so therefore, it allows us to commune with each other as well and pray for each other.

POMERICO: I was born and raised a Catholic, and I still go to church every week. And if I miss church, well, I say my prayers at home.

(LAUGHTER)

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERCI OLOMOYA: My name is Merci Olomoya(ph). I've been coming to Washington Cathedral for the past 20 years, and I love it.

STEPHANIE MACON: Stephanie Macon(ph). I'm from Buffalo, New York. And I'm 23.

OLOMOYA: It doesn't matter which church or where you are, as long as you can commit with God somehow, whatever you ask him for can be answered. I don't trust organized religion, period.

PEGGY CLEVELAND: I'm Peggy Cleveland(ph). Right now, I belong to the Disciples of Christ Church.

MACON: I was raised Catholic, and I do believe in God, but I'm not sure I support institutionalized religion.

CLEVELAND: I found that religion had very rigid beliefs that I believed at one time in my life, but came to question a lot, and I just found another way.

MACON: Well, I mean, I don't attend church, but I'm not against religion. I think it teaches a lot of good things.

RAZ: Voices from the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Boston and the National Cathedral here in Washington, D.C. I asked NPR's religion correspondent, Barbara Bradley Hagerty, what she makes of that Gallup poll we mentioned earlier and whether it means we're becoming less religious.

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY, BYLINE: No, it doesn't mean that Americans are less religious. Although among young people, belief in God is declining, but generally, polls show about 90 percent of Americans actually believe in God. So what's happening here is there's really a decline in the trust in religious organizations. People just don't want to go to church as much as they used to. There's not the societal pressure to go. So what you're seeing is a problem for the institutions, not a problem for God.

RAZ: I mean, you look at other so-called Christian countries - Western Europe, Australia - the United States is by far the most religious country in the Western world, right?

HAGERTY: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. It ranks with, like, India.

RAZ: Let's talk about who is growing and who isn't.

HAGERTY: One type are the nondenominational Christian churches, those have tripled in membership in the last 20 years or so. And these tend to be evangelical Protestant churches, and you also have to throw in some denominational churches like the Pentecostals as well. And they do two things really, really well that bring people in the door: marketing and mystery. OK? They have great music. They usually have rock 'n' roll. It's often a professional level.

RAZ: Charismatic.

HAGERTY: It's very charismatic. The sermons are very relevant, you know, five ways the Sermon on the Mount will help your marriage. So you hear it on Sunday and you use it on Monday, so it's very, very relevant. You can wear jeans. You make friends. You join a small group or a Bible study. You have a community.

At the center of every evangelical church is this notion that you can have a personal relationship with God. Because of that, they seem to give meaning and purpose to people's lives. It draws people in.

RAZ: Barb, let me ask you about the other side of this equation, the unaffiliated, people who are not involved at all.

HAGERTY: Right. The nones as in no affiliation, atheist, agnostic, they don't go to church or synagogue or mosque. It's doubled in their numbers in the last 20 years or so. There are a few reasons for it. You began to see this happen in the 1990s where people got pretty disaffected by the rise of the religious right.

They didn't like seeing the merging of religion and politics, especially conservative politics. And then neo-atheism became pretty popular with Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, making it really cool to be an atheist. And so what's happened is that over the years, more and more people, especially young people, have been willing to come out of the closet, so to speak.

RAZ: Barb, when you go to Western Europe, churches essentially are empty on Sunday. They are effectively museums. Does this poll suggest that that could happen in the United States?

HAGERTY: You know, I think there's a big debate about whether we're going the way of Europe. There's one thing that we have that's very different, and that is we have a free market of religion. I mean, in Europe, you have established religions, state religion, and people lost interest. In America, you have your choices of, like, hundreds of different types of churches. You can go to anything you want.

And what that means is that they're competing. And it means that they're thinking through, how do we bring people in the doors? It may suggest that we are not going to go the way of Europe.

RAZ: That's NPR's religion correspondent, Barbara Bradley Hagerty. The sex abuse scandal is one of the biggest reasons Catholics have been expressing less and less confidence in their church over the past decade. Now, just 46 percent of Catholics do.

And all of this, says Tom Roberts, editor at large for the National Catholic Reporter, it's all happening against a backdrop of what he calls a seismic shift taking place within the Catholic Church.

TOM ROBERTS: One of the most graphic examples of this shift is the sale of the bishop's mansion on City Line Avenue in Philadelphia. That's up for sale.

RAZ: That's an iconic sort of building.

ROBERTS: Absolutely.

RAZ: Yeah.

ROBERTS: And it was a palace. And the same with the bishop's residence in Boston and their campus. That whole thing was sold largely to pay off sex abuse payments and settlement. So you have a humbling of the church that's being caused by a whole lot of outside forces. I think there are other things that are occurring that aren't directly related to the scandal.

I mean, the demographers are also telling us that in 10 years, the number of priests available for service - and there are about 18,000 available for active diocese and service today, serving about that many parishes in the United States - will be halved because of age and infirmity and all the rest.

There's no national effort yet to really imagine what this church will look like, what parishes will look like, what it will mean to pastor something, you know, in 2020. It's an open question at this point.

RAZ: And in that future, the sort of the stereotype of these sort of Irish-American silver-haired priest or the Italian-American priest, that probably is not going to be the future either. I mean, presumably, the growth is going to be coming from Spanish-speaking communities.

ROBERTS: Yes. And all of those old anchor images, all of those old, you know, givens that I grew up with in my years of Catholics in the '50s and '60s, you can eliminate that. It's not going to be the same. There are 30,000, for instance, lay ministers who are being paid to do ministry in a Catholic Church today. That didn't exist 50 years ago.

So the seismic shifts, the changes that we're sort of in the midst of, and sometimes we don't recognize because we're right in the middle of it all as it's going on, I think are significant. Where they lead, we're not certain, but things are changing rather dramatically.

RAZ: In an article, you quoted a young Catholic 20-year-old. He said, you know, the church since my childhood has felt like a faith rooted in sincere virtue represented by a junta rooted in insincere vice.

ROBERTS: Yeah. And that's a...

RAZ: A junta.

ROBERTS: A junta, yeah. It's a severe judgment of an institution that has not acted the way it says it should and the way it demands of everyone else. All of the programs that were devised - the review boards and, you know, the degrees of accountability that bishops now are under and all of that sort of thing - all of those were reactions to public pressure, nothing happened voluntarily.

What hasn't occurred is the bishop who comes out and says, church, this is the number of priests we moved without telling anyone. This is the amount of money we paid for silence on this issue. This is the number of children who were damaged because we conducted ourselves this way. The community hasn't heard that in a way that we understand it sacramentally within our religious tradition and practice.

The question today is, how do you inspire people to be Catholic? What is the community about? And I think that's a huge question today, given the mix of societal forces, the challenge that has come out of the sex abuse crisis and just the general disposition toward organized religion today.

RAZ: That's Tom Roberts with the National Catholic Reporter. Now, while many traditional Protestant and Catholic Churches are struggling with changes and lower participation, there is growth in other areas, particularly among nondenominational evangelical churches. Membership in these churches has grown over the past 20 years, and one reason for that is their approach, sermons more like how-to guides and services more like rock concerts.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) No, I'm not ashamed of the one who saved my whole life.

RAZ: This is from a recent Sunday service at Seacoast Church in Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina. It's widely seen as one of the most influential non-denominational evangelical churches in America. And 25 years ago when its founder, Pastor Greg Surratt, was starting out, evangelicals were the ones going through a crisis of trust from Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker to Jimmy Swaggart. Surratt says at the beginning, it was an uphill battle.

GREG SURRATT: One of the things that we decided to do from early on was to try to be as transparent as we possibly could. We try to talk just like everybody else talks. We try to, you know, from a leadership point of view, live our lives as transparently as we can knowing that people were predisposed at the time, and evidently continuing so, to be distrustful of some church organizations.

RAZ: When you sort of consider this poll by Gallup and where Americans are with respect to their relationship to religious institutions, where do you see the future of Christianity going in this country? How do you see it evolving?

SURRATT: Well, I'm obviously prejudiced toward the church. I love the church, and I feel like when the local church has done well, there's no greater group of people on the planet when they're living according to what Jesus would teach. I think it's a great way of life. So I don't think it's going to go away. Will it change? Ten years from now or 20 years from now, will it look like it does today? Probably not. But I think that it will thrive, and I think it will be strong.

RAZ: That's Pastor Greg Surratt of Seacoast Church in Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina. What started with 65 members a quarter century ago, now has 12,000.

Coming up on the program, fake sounds of the Olympics? Yep. Stay with us. It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.