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"An important contribution to our understanding of the public influence of mainline Protestantism. This well-written and expansive book reveals how socially, civically, and politically active mainline Protestantism continues to be in American society, contrary to much conventional wisdom. Yet it shows the mainline influence as having a particular character, different from that of other religious traditions. Mainline Protestantism has, without justification, been understudied lately. This landmark book puts it back on the map and will generate discussion and inquiry for years to come."—Christian Smith, author of The Secular Revolution
"This important book provides a balanced, critical, yet genuinely appreciative analysis of the role of mainline Protestantism's public role. It is a stimulating and refreshing change from the mainline Protestant 'bashing' of the past three decades. In a time of increased calls for religious organizations to be involved in public life, readers will be helped to understand both the possibilities and limits of such involvement as the authors examine the practices and policies of the most publicly engaged of America's religious families."—Jackson W. Carroll, coauthor of Bridging Divided Worlds: Congregations and Generational Cultures
"An essential book for anyone interested in the public nature and works of the Protestant mainline. The vast majority of American citizens believe that churches have a public role. But they disagree about what that role should be. Help has arrived."—Jean Bethke Elshtain, author of Jane Addams and the Dream of American Democracy
"This book is a comprehensive overview of mainline Protestantism's contribution to the public role of religion during the last three decades of the 20th century. It provides a firm platform from which to guide our vision in the new millennium."—Donald E. Miller, author of Reinventing American Protestantism: Christianity in the New Millennium
The Question of Religious Vitality
At a Presbyterian church in southern California, a shadow falls across the pastor's face as he reflects on his denomination. "Our worship styles are archaic and our belief systems are inflexible," he laments. "We are pushing people away." Down the street, a Methodist minister shares this concern. "People are spiritual but not necessarily religious. We've become such an institution that we forget about nurturing the spirit." In Illinois a Catholic sister worries that "the churches do not offer the deep nourishment people need; they're too superficial." Church members in New Jersey, New Mexico, and Ohio voice similar concerns about their denominations' ability to remain vital. "In the 1950s and '60s it was just accepted that you went to church," explains one. "But that no longer is the case."
By all accounts, American religion should have suffered a serious decline during the last third of the twentieth century. Alternatives to organized religion-from cults and encounter groups to therapies and advice columnists-flourished. More people than ever were exposed to the influences of higher education so often presumed to erode traditional religious beliefs. Scientific research was funded at record levels. Longer life expectancies permitted people to focus on the here and now instead of the hereafter. Millions of baby boomers, reared on television rather than the Ten Commandments, came of age. Even the much publicized moral crusades of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson drew more negative reactions than public support.
At the start of this period, most observers were already predicting the worst. The firm convictions of the generation that had experienced the Great Depression and World War II were not being effectively transmitted to younger Americans. Religion, while still pervasive, was becoming a matter of conjecture. Harvey Cox, in his widely read Secular City, expressed the prevailing sentiment: "For some, religion provides a hobby, for others a mark of national or ethnic identification, for still others an esthetic delight. For fewer and fewer does it provide an inclusive and commanding system of personal and cosmic values and explanations."
Of course, it was apparent enough to anyone who may have stopped to ponder the matter that Americans could move contentedly into the future, half-heartedly embracing a religion that provided neither cosmic values nor compelling explanations. Will Herberg, writing at the peak of America's postwar religious revival in the 1950s, had observed that religious sentiments were relatively superficial, despite their apparent universality. Americans always had been able to reconcile their churchgoing with schemes and ambitions hardly fitting for truer believers.
The churches' ability to sustain themselves on sheer inertia, however, seemed more doubtful. The tacit assumptions on which churchgoing was predicated were clearly in danger of unraveling. Finding community among fellow congregants was likely to be less attractive to Americans who could effortlessly stay in touch with friends and family by other means. Messages about God could readily be heard on television instead of having to attend one's house of worship. If families that prayed together might, as advertisements suggested, stay together, churchgoing easily could cease to be attractive to the many Americans whose marriages had already failed. The mental jostling that millions of younger Americans experienced when they attended colleges and universities seemed especially likely to unsettle the conventional wisdom offered in pulpits and pews.
Yet the striking feature of American religion during the last decades of the twentieth century was its remarkable stability. Large numbers of people continued to affiliate with churches and synagogues and to overwhelmingly express belief in God. Their proclivity to participate in religious services was undiminished. The religious voice in public life continued to be heard, and faith communities played a large role in the nation's philanthropic and service efforts. In a marked turnaround of scholarly and journalistic thought, virtually every observer of American religion became more impressed by its persistence than by signs of its erosion or impending collapse.
Religious statistics provide a ready indication of this persistence. Each year tens of thousands of respondents in Gallup Polls are asked whether they attended religious services in the past seven days. Although it is suspected that some people say they have attended when in fact they have not, there is no reason to think that prevarication of this kind has become worse in recent years. The fact that the questions are always asked in the same way, and that they are asked of such large numbers of people, gives added meaning to the results. In 1970, approximately four Americans in ten said they had attended religious services in the past seven days; in 1980, the proportions ranged between 40 and 41 percent; in 1990, the figure was 40 percent; and in 2000, it was still virtually the same (41 percent).
The pattern in General Social Surveys, conducted by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, is similar to the Gallup findings but shows a small decline in frequent religious service attendance in the closing years of the twentieth century. Making special efforts to achieve high response rates, and using the same sampling procedures since 1973, the General Social Surveys recorded 36 percent of the adult population claiming to attend religious services at least "nearly every week" in 1973, 35 percent doing so in 1983, the same percentage doing so in 1993, 32 percent doing so in 1998, and 30 percent doing so in 2000. After thorough examination of these and other measures, sociologists Michael Hout and Andrew Greeley conclude that there is no evidence to support the notion that church attendance rates in the United States were falling. Reviewing the same evidence, political scientist Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone argues that religious participation did decline slightly, but emphasizes that this decline was much smaller than for virtually all other kinds of civic involvement, including membership in fraternal organizations and service clubs, voter turnout, and participation in community-wide political events.
Such evidence may be sufficiently rough to raise doubts about its ability to pick up increases or decreases in religious involvement. That concern, however, is diminished by the fact that surveys did capture earlier increases and decreases. During the 1950s, for instance, when Cold War fears and family concerns resulted in a widely discussed "revival" of religious membership and new church construction, churchgoing figures in Gallup surveys hit all-time highs. Later, when countercultural unrest and fallout from the Second Vatican Council were thought to have a negative impact on established religion, churchgoing (especially among Roman Catholics) fell according to several surveys taken at the time.
The persistence of religious commitment between 1970 and the end of the century is suggested by other evidence as well. For example, surveys show that the proportion of Americans who thought religion "can answer today's problems" remained virtually constant between the early 1970s and the late 1990s. Qualitative observations, drawn from comparisons between the United States and other technologically advanced societies, also suggested the relative persistence of American religion. Reviewing such evidence, sociologist Peter Berger observed, "A whole body of literature by historians and social scientists loosely labeled 'secularization theory' is essentially mistaken."
My reason for pointing to this stability in American religion is not to take sides in old debates about secularization or to defend the accuracy of social survey results. Rather, I wish to point out that the relative persistence of religious commitment during the last part of the twentieth century poses an interesting puzzle. Why did it persist, especially when so many features of the period would suggest otherwise? Furthermore, what can be learned about the vitality of American religion during this period that might be helpful for those who wish to nurture this vitality in the future?
The last third of the twentieth century was a time of momentous social change. Although no major wars and no serious economic crises occurred, several quiet social developments took place that resulted in profound changes in nearly all sectors of American society. In the economy, one of the most notable changes was the large proportion of women who joined the paid labor force. In the family, social change was especially evident in the rising divorce rate. In community life, neighborhoods became increasingly anonymous as a result of population growth and geographic mobility. In education, the number of young Americans attending colleges and universities hugely increased. The potential for each of these developments to have had negative consequences for religion can be seen from a brief review of the evidence.
The proportion of women participating in the labor force grew from just under 43 percent in 1970 to just under 62 percent in 1999. The largest changes were among women between the ages of twenty-five and forty-four: eight in ten were employed by the latter date, compared with approximately half in 1970. A large number of these women were married mothers of school-age children. Besides participating in the labor force in larger numbers, women also devoted longer hours to their jobs. According to one estimate, annual hours of paid employment for women in the labor force grew by an average of 305 hours between 1969 and 1987. Part of this increase was due to women working more overtime hours and spending more weeks per year at the job. It was also the result of women opting for full-time instead of part-time employment: between 1973 and 1998, the proportion of working women with part-time jobs shrank from one in three to one in five. The reason that this trend had potentially negative implications for religion was that women (especially married women with children) had been the most active participants in churches and synagogues. Compared to men, they had shouldered a large share of church responsibilities requiring volunteer time. Yet, as their free time diminished, their likelihood of participating in religious activities did too. Thus, among women surveyed in 1999, 64 percent who worked fewer than ten hours a week attended religious services every week, but this proportion dropped to 50 percent among those who worked between ten and nineteen hours a week, to 30 percent among those who worked between thirty and forty-nine hours, and to only 9 percent among those who worked more than sixty hours. In short, the more hours a woman worked, the less likely she was to attend religious services.
The rising divorce rate was another factor with potentially negative consequences for religion. The change in this rate was associated with the greater economic independence achieved by women through their participation in the labor force, with unsettled social conditions, and with altered understandings of marriage. Despite the fact that most Americans continued to value marriage, the divorce rate rose from approximately one divorce for every four marriages in 1950 to one for every two marriages in the 1990s. As a result, the proportion of divorced Americans in the 1990s was about four times as high as it was in 1960. The reason that this trend did not bode well for religion is that married men and women attend church at higher rates than divorced or separated people do. For instance, in 1999, 40 percent of married adults claimed to attend religious services every week, compared to only 24 percent among divorced adults and 17 percent among separated adults. Although many people who divorce remarry within a few years, they continue to attend church less frequently than do married people who have never been divorced (31 percent attend weekly, compared to 41 percent among the latter). As the proportion of divorced people in the population increased, therefore, the likelihood of people attending religious services should have decreased.
The nature of community life shifted as well. Geographic mobility in the United States has always been relatively high and appears to have remained high between 1970 and 1999. At the latter date, the average number of addresses Americans reported having lived at was ten. Much of this mobility occurred among young people. Whereas previous mobility often had been from small towns to urban areas, a large share of the recent mobility was from one urban area to another urban area. Although the effects of this mobility are in dispute, one implication is that fewer people knew their neighbors or spent time socializing with them. According to one study, the number of people claiming to spend social evenings with neighbors dropped from 44 percent in 1974 to 32 percent in 1998. And neighborhood ties historically have been one of the resources on which religion depends. People with strong neighborhood ties are more likely to hear about and be interested in religious activities. They work together to maintain neighborhood churches, and when they attend church they are more likely to feel at home because they see their neighbors there. Surveys show that neighborhood ties are weakened by geographic mobility and that lower involvement in religious activities goes hand in hand with weaker neighborhood ties: in 1999, among people who had lived at one or two addresses during their lifetimes, only 31 percent said they knew few or none of their neighbors, but this proportion rose to 62 percent among those who had lived at ten or more addresses. Among those who knew almost all of their neighbors, 46 percent attended religious services every week, but this proportion declined to 36 percent among those who knew only a quarter of their neighbors, to 31 percent among those who knew a few of their neighbors, and to only 21 percent among those who knew none of their neighbors.
The rise in levels of education during the last third of the twentieth century is well documented. In itself, this rise did not have negative implications for religious participation, because those with more education generally participate in all social activities, including church, at higher rates than those with less education. But higher education has been widely suspected of eroding traditional religious beliefs-the very beliefs that sustain high levels of religious participation. For instance, the proportion of Americans who believe that the Bible should be taken literally fall from 62 percent among those who have not graduated from high school, to 41 percent among high school graduates, to 26 percent among those with some college education, and to only 20 percent among college graduates.
Excerpted from The Quiet Hand of God Copyright © 2002 by Regents of the University of California . Excerpted by permission.
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Part I. History, Organization, and Activities
1. The Logic of Mainline Churchliness: Historical Background since the Reformation
Peter J. Thuesen
2. Mainline Protestant Washington Offices and the Political Lives of Clergy
Laura R. Olson
3. The Generous Side of Christian Faith: The Successes and Challenges of Mainline Women’s Groups
R. Marie Griffith
4. Religious Variations in Public Presence: Evidence from the National Congregations Study
Mark Chaves, Helen M. Giesel, and William Tsitsos
5. Connecting Mainline Protestant Churches with Public Life
Nancy T. Ammerman
6. The Changing Political Fortunes of Mainline Protestants
Jeff Manza and Clem Brooks
Part II. Involvement in Public Issues
7. Furthering the Freedom Struggle: Racial Justice Activism in the Mainline Churches since the Civil Rights Era
8. The Hydra and the Swords: Social Welfare and Mainline Advocacy, 19642000
9. Caring for Creation: Environmental Advocacy by Mainline Protestant Organizations
10. Vital Conflicts: The Mainline Denominations Debate Homosexuality
11. For the Sake of the Children? Family-Related Discourse and Practice in the Mainline
W. Bradford Wilcox
12. From Engagement to Retrenchment: An Examination of First Amendment Activism by America’s Mainline Churches, 19802000
Derek H. Davis
13. Doing Good and Doing Well: Shareholder Activism, Responsible Investment, and Mainline Protestantism
Lynn D. Robinson
14. Love Your Enemies? Protestants and United States Foreign Policy
Lester Kurtz and Kelly Goran Fulton
15. Beyond Quiet Influence? Possibilities for the Protestant Mainline
List of Contributors