More and more Americans, especially young Americans, have developed a deep aversion to institutionalized religion. One fifth of the U.S. public and one third of adults under 30 no longer claim a religious affiliation.
America’s traditional religious landscape has rapidly changed in the last five years. For the first time in its history, America no longer has a Protestant majority. In 2007, 53 percent of the U.S. population reported themselves as Protestant; now that number is 48 percent, according to an October 2012 study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.
This is a huge change. America was founded by devoted Protestants. Most American presidents have been Protestant—only one has been Catholic. Today, there are no Protestants on the Supreme Court. And for the first time, there were no Protestant nominees on the Republican presidential ticket.
Among the reasons suggested for this dramatic shift is the growth in nondenominational Christian groups that cannot be categorized as Protestant and the sharp spike—20 percent of American adults—in those who say they have no religion. This number has risen rapidly from 15 percent just five years ago. These are the highest percentages of non-affiliated respondents ever in Pew Research Center polling. These Americans are not called Catholic, Jewish, or Protestant—they call themselves Nones.
Why is religion losing its grip on Americans? How is religion failing us?
Dubious History With Religion
One of the truly great things about America has been the constitutional protection of religious freedom. The First and Fourteenth Amendments guarantee individuals the right to believe and worship as they choose without fear of persecution or threat of civil discrimination. The roots of religious freedom in the U. S. Constitution formed early in American history with the arrival of the Pilgrims in 1620. They came to America to escape persecution by the Church of England. Over the ensuing centuries, many from different religious traditions such as the Jews, Puritans and Quakers have done the same.
However, over the centuries, America was transformed from a mere safe haven from persecution to the world’s religious marketplace. Our land is filled with a multitude of Christian churches both denominational and home-grown nondenominational. Buddhist and Hindu temples along with other similar centers of American-improvised communal societies dot the landscape. The number of Islamic mosques is growing on American soil. Also, it is American religious freedom that has allowed the work of the Philadelphia Church of God to grow and prosper.
The American ideal of religious freedom has an incredibly positive value—but at the same time, the seeds of religious deceit, division and rebellion lie hidden within this constitutionally mandated freedom.
Americans, for various reasons, regularly exercise their right to shop around for another religion more to their liking, or some just invent a new one. Unfortunately, religious freedom does not prevent religious failure. Some bad American religion has seriously hurt people.
Although America has always been viewed as a deeply religious nation, as the decades have passed, interest and participation in religion has waxed and waned. Like a wild roller-coaster ride, American religion has reached glorious heights and shameful dips. Americans are proven to be fickle in their relationship with God.
For example, in the early 20th century, the flapper generation led by young women rebelled against traditional rules, roles and conventions established for generations. Traditional religious values topped the list. Young women drank, smoked, danced and attended sex parties. Because of the senseless slaughter of World War i trench warfare, young men developed a spirit of “eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we may die.” This was a time of great social change in America and the Western world. Many historians view the period around World War i as one of sharp moral decline. An American obsession with sex and pornography took root. Interest in science pushed religion off center stage. The theory of evolution rocked American religion to its core.
However, several decades later, we saw a renewed interest in religion. Robert D. Putnam in his book American Grace states, “Virtually all experts agree, however, that the period from the late 1940s to the early 1960s was one of exceptional religious observance in America.” He goes on to show that this upsurge was “heavily concentrated among 20-somethings.” It was basically the young gis who had experienced the horrors of World War ii that led America back to the pews. Interestingly enough, these young gis were the children of the flapper generation. It was in the 1950s that “under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance and “In God We Trust” was declared by Congress to be the national motto.
The Turbulent ’60s
In the 1960s, however, nearly all American institutions were brought into question and shaken to their foundations. The sons and daughters of the pious gis came of age and turned the world upside down. Exploding on the scene was the youth-inspired counterculture that embraced liberal views on premarital sex and the use of drugs. Rock ‘n’ roll music advanced the movement that soon engulfed the entire globe. The underlying theme of the ’60s counterculture movement was, “Question authority.”
While it has taken books to cover the details of this social upheaval, it is safe to say that there was a rapid decline in confidence in all institutions. Religious institutions did not escape. Religion’s roller-coaster ride was about to take its scariest plunge.
Liberal clerics—Catholic, Jewish and mainstream Protestant—joined and supported the counterculture movement. By the mid-’60s, radical theologians even declared that God was dead. Liberal views on Bible authority, God, sin, premarital sex and marriage took root in many mainstream Protestant churches and have remained firmly planted there to this day. The Catholic Church was radically changed by the innovations instituted by Vatican ii. Putnam tells us, “In pop culture, this was the Age of Aquarius and Jesus freaks, Scientology and Jesus Christ Superstar, Zen Buddhism and est [Erhard Seminars Training], Transcendental Meditation and the Unification Church (or ‘Moonies’).”
As the youth of the ’60s sought new spiritual awakenings, religious observance fell into rapid decline. Catholic, Protestant and Jewish lambs left the pews for greener pastures. It was also at this time that secularism sank its roots deeper into the American soil.
The shock of the ’60s—especially the acceptance of liberal views on premarital sex—led to a conservative backlash against the sweeping tide of liberalism. Many Americans of all ages and different religious traditions were appalled by the “new morality,” which was essentially immorality. A return to conservative religious tradition was the natural result.
In the ’70s and ’80s, America’s well-entrenched freedom to choose one’s religion helped many disenchanted Americans of different faiths to begin sitting in the pews of evangelical churches. Why? During the ’60s social turmoil, evangelical churches had held fast to their non-liberal values, which included a strong stance that marriage and family were sacred and premarital sex was sin. Those deeply wounded by liberalism’s immorality found comfort within their ranks.
Rise of the Religious Right
This led to a climbing comeback for religion in America. The late ’70s and early ’80s saw the rapid growth of evangelical megachurches, many of which still exist today. Religious observance—church attendance, daily prayer and Bible study and reading—began to rise rapidly. Christian-oriented books and magazines flooded the publishing industry. Religious programming filled radio and television airwaves. In addition, this period saw the development of a partnership between religious and political conservatives that became known as the Religious Right. The Religious Right, also called the Christian Right, has been associated with several institutions such as the Moral Majority, the Christian Coalition, Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council.
Beginning in the late ’70s, conservative Christian clerics urged members to involve themselves in the political process in response to the rising tide of liberalism that began in the ’60s. They believed that a strong and organized voice in politics could prevent more social disintegration. Socially conservative candidates were promoted, financially supported and backed up by the voting power of conservative Christians. The Religious Right became identified with the Republican Party, and flexed it muscle during the 1980 presidential election, ensuring that Ronald Reagan became president.
Initially this partnership was seen as a good thing. However, by the 1990s many other Americans grew skeptical of the relationship between politics and religion. As Putnam states it, “The terms ‘Religious Right’ and ‘Christian Right’ were becoming pejoratives in most Americans’ view, representing a noxious mixture of religion and political ideology.” Gallup polling in the mid-’80s showed that most Americans opposed the idea of religious groups campaigning against specific candidates. However, most agreed that religious leaders should speak out on the moral implications of public issues—something that has always been an honored tradition in American history.
The view that organized religion should have less influence on government decisions and how people vote has continued to rise. A Gallup poll in 2008 showed that 45 percent of Americans strongly agree that religious leaders should not influence how people vote.
Enter the Nones
As the politicized Religious Right pointed its fingers at American social ills, young Americans began pointing back. Putnam tells us that beginning in the early 1990s, “Young Americans came to view religion, according to one survey, as judgmental, homophobic, hypocritical and too political.” Is there a correlation between these young Americans and the rise of the Nones? Surveys show that during the social and religious turmoil of the ’60s, the number of Nones increased slightly, from 5 to 7 percent, and that number remained static for years. In the 1990s, it spiked sharply at the same time young adult Americans perceived there to be glaring faults in organized religion. Today the number of Nones stands at 20 percent. However, all indications are that number will continue to rise.
Who are the Nones? They represent a typical cross-section of the American population in terms of education, social standing, race and gender. However, men, whites and non-Southerners are more likely to be Nones. These Americans are not necessarily non-believers. In fact, few Nones claim to be agnostic or atheist; most still maintain some belief in God and an afterlife. Many feel that religion is important in their lives.
A 2008 General Social Survey points out that as the numbers of Nones increased, there was also a parallel decline in the number of young evangelicals. This does not mean that the total number of Nones is made up only of former young evangelicals, but that there is a common change happening in American religion. Remember, one third of all adults under 30 claim no religion. So, a large number of the Nones must be young adults from different religious backgrounds.
Surveys show that the majority of Nones come from the center to left of the political spectrum. They tend to be liberal in their views on gender roles, homosexuality and marijuana. “For many, their aversion to religion is rooted in unease with the association between religion and conservative politics,” Putnam postulates. “If religion equals Republican, then they have decided that religion is not for them.”
The Nones’ defection from organized religion appears to be, in part, a backlash to the aggressive political activism of the Religious Right. Surveys show that few Nones refer to themselves as conservative, or being on the right of the political spectrum. However, this is not the entire reason for their growing numbers.
Steeped in Religious Hypocrisy
The Pew Forum asked a large sample of Nones why they rejected religious identification. The Nones said that “they became unaffiliated, at least in part, because they think of religious people as hypocritical, judgmental or insincere. Large numbers also say they became unaffiliated because they think that religious organizations focus too much on rules and not enough on spirituality.” This survey tells us that the Nones are thinking, analyzing people. Their gripe with religion is not unfounded.
Religious failure in leaders has shaken the faith of millions for decades. Shocking, well-publicized scandals have cut across all American faiths. Evangelical leaders who preached fidelity in marriage engaged in extra-marital affairs. Some who taught fervently against homosexuality were practicing homosexuals. Ministers and priests sexually abused children. Popular televangelists bilked millions of dollars from their faithful. Anyone willing to take an honest look at the scandal side of American religion would agree that the Nones have some valid points. Hypocrisy, self-righteous judgment and insincerity have plagued and continue to plague American religious leadership. It only makes sense that truly thinking people would step back and say: “What is going on here?” In fact, it is surprising that more people have not done so. Why haven’t more people questioned American religion?
There appear to be real flaws within the ranks of American believers. Wouldn’t faithful people on top of their spiritual game question why religious leaders are failing? Bad fruits in religious leaders are an indication of flaws in a religious system.
In 2010, 80 percent of Americans said they belonged to a religion, and the same percentage said they were absolutely sure there is a God. However, Gallup polling has regularly surveyed Americans about their belief on Bible inerrancy. Do people who believe in God and are affiliated with a religious tradition believe the Bible to be the literal Word of God? Analyzing Gallup data, Putnam tells us, “[B]elief in the literal truth of Scripture is on the decline in all Christian traditions in America.” In fact, he says that “biblical literalism has steadily slumped for almost half a century.”
This is the reason why religion is losing its grip on Americans—why religion is failing us.
Without the firm belief that the Holy Bible is the sole, literal Word of a living God, there can be no true religious leadership that guides people into a way of life that truly nourishes and satisfies the spirit. Any spiritual-sounding talk not taken from the Bible is mere human fable. The Bible must be the authoritative guide for all religious doctrine and practice. Without the Bible, there is simply no true religion.
No Guiding Authority
America has churches like an ice cream parlor has flavors. The reason there is so much diversity—and frankly, so much religious confusion and contradiction—is that there is so much departure from biblical religion! Having many church choices doesn’t make all of them the right choice! This is where American religious freedom has deceived people the most.
One of the most important doctrines in the Bible is that of church government. The Bible shows that the Church of God began with Moses and the nation of Israel after the Exodus (Acts 7:38). God gave His Church His government (Exodus 18). God maintained authority over His Church by working though one man—Moses. God revealed to Moses what He wanted the people taught. To assist Moses with the administration of church government, God organized a system of helpers for Moses, calling them judges. Authority flowed from God through Moses down through the judges. It is important to realize that Moses and the judges were not voted into office. God chose Moses and, with God’s inspiration, Moses appointed the judges.
Jesus Christ governed the disciples in the same manner when He walked this Earth. And the living Jesus Christ still governs His Church in the same way today (Hebrews 13:8).
Proper church government—with Jesus Christ as the Head and the Bible-sanctioned human organization underneath Him—is what is missing in American religion today. Few religious people living today see the need for it. What religion today claims Jesus Christ as its head?
Herbert W. Armstrong taught members of the Worldwide Church of God, “The Roman Catholic Church does not call Christ the present living Head of their church. That title they give to their pope. So theirs in not the government of God … it is a counterfeit human government swayed by Satan.”
Martin Luther saw many problems within the Catholic leadership of his day. He rejected their authority and started his own brand of Catholicism—today called Lutheranism—yet he didn’t truly correct the problem. In fact, Luther promoted the idea that everyone should do what is right in his own eyes. (Read Judges 17:6 to see what God thinks of that.) What was the tragic result? Mr. Armstrong continued, “John and Charles Wesley came along and disagreed with Luther on certain points of doctrine. There was no central authority in the Protestant Church as God’s instrument to define true Bible doctrines. The Wesleys were strong leaders. Hundreds, then thousands, followed them like sheep, and a new denomination appeared. … So in addition to the Lutheran Church following the human Luther, and the Methodists following the Wesleys, the world soon had the Presbyterian and Congregational churches. … [T]hey split and re-split, and today we have hundreds of Protestant denominations.” American religion has repeated this same history since our very beginning. Current trends indicate that American religion will continue to fracture with the result that even more people will become Nones.
You can be different.
Jesus Christ warned the original 12 apostles that just prior to His Second Coming, the Earth would be filled with religious deceit. He said, “Take heed that no man deceive you. For many shall come in my name, saying, I am Christ; and shall deceive many” (Matthew 24:4-5). If you are an honest observer of American religion, isn’t that precisely what you see today? There are many voices out there saying, “I represent Jesus Christ—follow me!”
Jesus Christ also taught that His Church would be firmly united. Paul declared, “There is one body … One Lord, one faith …” (Ephesians 4:4-5). Just the opposite exists in American religion. The American Christian world is hopelessly divided over doctrine and matters of faith. Who is right? Jesus Christ promised that His Church would never die out (Matthew 16:18). Jesus Christ’s one true Church is alive and well on the Earth today.
You can find that Church. How? Get to know the Bible well. Use the Bible to measure your doctrinal beliefs and religious observances. If what you believe and do is not supported by the Bible, flee from it! Then, use the Bible as your compass to search out and guide you to Jesus Christ’s Church.
Jesus Christ prophesied that prior to His Second Coming there would be one voice shouting out the truth of God (Matthew 24:14). The Philadelphia Church of God and its publications broadcast that voice. If you would like to know more, request to become a student of the Herbert W. Armstrong College Bible Correspondence Course. This 36-lesson course will help you gain a full understanding of the Bible and its vital relevance to your life. This course is provided to you free of charge.
Also, request a free copy of Mystery of the Ages. This book will guide you through the Bible, helping you to understand it. It will show you why our world is the way it is today. Most importantly, this book will also tell you about the happy, peaceful and successful world soon to replace this war-torn, tragic world we live in.
America has too much of the wrong religion and not enough of the true. You can help us make up the difference. Don’t become a None. ▪