The chart…[in my essay] is from a new book by Robert Putnam, The Upswing. The basic pattern it reports for membership in houses of worship also holds with respect to the share of Americans belonging to labor unions, national chapter-based organizations, and even family formation. Moreover, the same ‘inverted u’ pattern observed with respect to these social bonds also plays out for trends in civic engagement, trust in institutions, political participation, cross-partisan engagement, economic equality, social mobility and more. Overall, Putnam argues, the trends observed in America today closely approximate conditions during the ‘Gilded Age’ (i.e. the 1870s through around 1900).
The book highlights how the decline of organized religion is not incidental to the other trends. The rise of the ‘social gospel’ in the late 19th century played an important role in building momentum in the formative years of the ‘upswing’ across the social, cultural, political and economic dimensions Putnam explores. Religious participation predicts increased likelihood to donate and volunteer for both religious and secular causes and organizations. It predicts higher voting and other forms of civic participation. And the erosion of organized religion in America seems to have exacerbated declines across many measures of social solidarity, equality, and engagement. However, these declines need not persist indefinitely.
In a sense it is encouraging to recognize that the United States has experienced similar levels of social anomie in the past as we are living through today, and successfully built institutions, practices and norms to pull ourselves together. This is a feat that contemporary Americans or our successors could conceivably repeat.
Therefore, America is not necessarily headed towards godlessness, on a one-way trip to secularism. If it seems that way looking at charts like the ones that opened this essay, this is because most such graphics begin near the WWII era, which was an unusual period of flourishing for organized religion in the United States. Again, it does not represent our historical norm.
Indeed, although America has returned to roughly the same level of affiliation with religious institutions as we had in 1900, even this was a significant increase over earlier periods.
Post-Religious America? Don’t Hold Your Breath. by @Musa_alGharbi
— Paul Brandeis Raushenbush (@raushenbush) April 27, 2021