April 28, 2013 Print

Is a Boom in Religion Just Ahead?

by Tom Minnery

Tom MinneryWe know the sad, tired tale. Religion is declining, secularism is growing and there is nothing we can do about it. I have tended to think this myself and have written it a time or two.

But this is the conventional wisdom—and we know what they say about the conventional wisdom. There are two other explanations for what we’re seeing in the culture, both counter-intuitive and both of them highly encouraging. First: We may be on the verge of a significant upswing in religious participation. Second: The government may actually encourage it.

Both of these thoughts are continued in a new book by Frank Newport, editor in chief of the Gallup polling organization, and the findings are drawn from hundreds of thousands of interviews with Americans. Of course, since the author is trying to predict the future from the past, his findings are speculative, but nevertheless, the book title itself is bracing enough: God is Alive and Well. The author sees several significant trends on the horizon.

First, as people get older, they take faith much more seriously, starting at about age 60. And soon there will be a lot more people this age, given that the Baby Boom generation is nearing its retirement years. Newport isn’t shy about what he sees ahead as a result. “Churches will boom; religious literature will dominate bestseller lists; and religious programs will become mainstays on radio, television and the Internet.”

Secondly, it is a fact beyond dispute that religion makes people healthier—substantially so. Given that health care costs are rising chronically, it may be that discounts on health insurance may be offered for those who attend church regularly or who otherwise demonstrate their religious participation. Given the government’s increasing role in health care, tax incentives may be offered to encourage people to consider religion. Now, wouldn’t this be astonishing!

This one is a stretch, though. First of all, lawsuits would abound and the courts ultimately would have their say. Secondly, the political fight would be substantial, but it would be a struggle worthy of engagement.

Newport brings some other surprising observations to the fore. The first is that Americans generally are about as religious as they have always been, although a small decline is evident. More significant is the fact that people are changing the way they express themselves about religion. The growing number of young people who say “none” in response to a pollster’s question on religious identification, may not be less religious at all, only less familiar with the traditional ways people classify themselves.

For example, the word “Protestant” is losing its meaning in today’s culture because growing numbers of evangelical churches don’t bother to emphasize the term. Either those churches have long since parted company with formal denominations, or they have sprouted up without ever having associated with them. Today a Protestant may be a Protestant without even knowing it.

By the way, the author speculates that American people now are more religious than they were at the time of the country’s founding. Though polls weren’t done then, he cites the conclusions of sociologists Randy Starke and Roger Finke, whose exhaustive study of the era leads them to believe that the rate of church membership is far higher now.

What does all of this mean? If these trends bear out, will we be seeing more impact on the culture rather than less? Well, perhaps we will, if people who begin to embrace faith in increasing numbers decide to do what the pages of this magazine have always told them to do: “Let your voice be heard.”

Tom Minnery is the senior vice president of government and public policy. Do you know someone who’s bravely done the right thing in your community? Send your stories to Citizeneditor@focusonthefamily.com.

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