Since its founding, the United States has been the most religious modern nation on earth. Religiosity helped hone the American character, patterns of mutual aid, and national productivity. Today, however, belief is in decline, and many of those social benefits may disappear in tandem. In one generation, the portion of Americans affirming a religious affiliation has fallen from 95 percent to 76 percent. Just one out of three adults now attends religious services weekly. Young Americans, especially, are falling away: nearly four out of ten 18- to 29-year-olds say that they have no religious affiliation.
Even the nonreligious should worry about this shift, because society benefits from religiously inspired humanitarian behavior. Those with a religious affiliation give several times as much money to charity as other Americans. The ratio of Americans doing volunteer work in a typical week is 45 percent among weekly churchgoers and 27 percent among non-churchgoers. Decades of research have shown that a greater proportion of religious people get involved in community groups. They have stronger links with their neighbors and are more engaged with their families. They adopt troubled kids at three times the rate of other Americans, and they provide a disproportionate share of the assistance given to ex-convicts, refugees, the homeless, and others.
Of all the “associational” activity that takes place in the U.S., almost half is church-related, according to Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam. Secularism, by contrast, “makes people very fragmented,” theologian Timothy Keller recently told Philanthropy magazine. “They might talk about community, but they aren’t sacrificing their own personal goals for community, as religion requires you to do.”
Religious participation also has salutary effects on personal behavior. One classic study found that black males living in inner-city poverty tracts were far less likely to engage in crime and drug use if they attended church and likelier to succeed in school and the workforce. The religious are less poor and less suicidal; they have stronger families.
Serious tears in the social fabric can thus be expected if American religiosity continues to decline. What can be done about it? While government involvement would be inappropriate, philanthropic private actors could bolster religion in beneficial ways.
Concerned citizens should take some cues from the charter school movement. Backers of charters, for example, have funded vital leadership training—fellowships, Teach for America grants, new education schools, intensive professional development, and so on. The result: the development of a passionate, innovative, and interconnected group of school founders, principals, and teachers. Charter backers have also stepped up with funding to help these new leaders acquire a crucial piece missing from many charter school plans: adequate buildings.
Perhaps similar support, geared toward leadership development, could be provided to reinforce pro-social religious behavior. “We need more people to go into the ministry and start churches,” says Keller. His charity, Redeemer City to City, is setting up 100 new churches in New York City. As part of that effort, the organization helped create a branch of the Reformed Theological Seminary in New York to prepare pastors and lay leaders in modern ways.
“Ministry in a complex society takes graduate training, yet, unlike law and medicine and business, the prospects of higher salaries to pay off student debt are not there,” Keller notes. “So candidates who would love to enroll can’t bear the expense. And the seminaries don’t have wealthy alumni to turn to for support, like other graduate schools.”
This obstacle can be overcome with investments to beef up the best seminaries, plus fresh approaches like night classes and video instruction that can reach unconventional ministry candidates—such as those with job and family responsibilities. Shifts in content should also be encouraged. As religious devotion becomes almost a countercultural act, the churches faring best are theologically bolder. Yet many seminaries remain sleepy bastions of the declining mainline religions. Just as school reformers found it impossible to develop leaders through traditional teacher colleges, the shepherds needed for today’s secular age won’t be found through old-line seminary instruction. Resources should be redirected to the more effective seminaries (or startups) that mix devout theology with practical innovations.
And just as with charters, American civil-society leaders could boost religious behavior by making investments in facilities. Many of the grand, visually inspiring cathedrals and synagogues in the cores of U.S. cities are now occupied by vestigial congregations. Without their inherited endowments, many of these houses of worship couldn’t keep the lights on and the roof from leaking—and some struggle to do that, even with their trust funds. Meantime, those same cities have booming evangelical populations—conclaves of traditional Catholics, large Korean congregations, Spanish-language flocks, swelling numbers of Lubavitch Jews, and other rising faith communities that lack the inherited resources of the old denominations. They often meet in high school auditoriums, theaters, or strip malls, or worship at night or on Saturdays in spaces hired from established churches. These churchless congregations are often larger and more active than the congregations they rent from.
How to help them? Donors could create revolving capital funds that distribute building loans and grants, as philanthropists have done to help charter schools take root. City congregations burdened with properties now too large for their shrinking membership have no graceful way to transition out; embattled parishes are increasingly selling their churches to be remade into condos, restaurants, theaters—even bars. Such conversions tripled nationwide between 2010 and 2015. In other cases, slow decay leads to demolition—and once a church is lost, the neighborhood almost never regains a similar space for the many public gatherings (apart from worship) that these sanctuaries host.
Scholars have documented how the decline of urban churches hurts city life: neighborhood cohesiveness declines, services ranging from day care to AA meetings to Boy Scout troops disappear, family breakdown and private behavioral problems spike, beautiful historic buildings vanish, and so on. Private efforts offering purchase or renovation funds to enable a reallocation of churches from waning religious communities to growing ones would be a boost to social well-being in cities.
Philanthropic Americans can help institutions of faith grow, improve, and better serve their neighbors. In doing so, they could reverse recent declines in religious participation—and head off the nosedives in cultural health that seem sure to follow.