By Rudy Barnes, Jr., April 23, 2022
Since 1972, 25% of Americans have left the church, and most were young adults between the ages of 18 and 35. In 1991, 87% of young adults claimed to be Christians, and by 1998 that number had dropped to 73%. Those percentages reflect a loss of religion, but not necessarily of faith. Faith can be based on religion, or independent of institutional religion.
When I became a United Methodist pastor in 2000 the UMC was in decline, and it has been in decline since then. It seemed to me that many Christians were losing interest in the church due to its emphasis on belief in Jesus Christ as a Trintarian God and the only means of salvation rather than on following the teachings of Jesus as God’s Word.
The teachings of Jesus are summarized in the greatest commandment to love God and our neighbors, including those of other races and religions, as we love ourselves. It’s a common word of faith for Jews, Christians and Muslims alike; but the Apostles Creed has its focus on worshiping Jesus Christ as a Trinitarian God rather than following Jesus as the Word of God.
After the Enlightenment of the 17th century, great thinkers like Hugo Grotiuis, John Locke and Thomas Jefferson challenged ancient concepts of religion and politics with advances in knowledge and reason. Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence and considered the moral teachings of Jesus “the most sublime moral code ever designed by man.”
After more than 2,000 years of evolution, exclusivist Christian doctrines of belief continue to be immune to reason and ignore the primacy of the teachings of Jesus. The myriad forms of the church still cling to exclusivist beliefs never taught by Jesus, and have allowed the altruistic teachings of Jesus to become irrelevant in a world of increasingly pluralistic religions.
Democracy made popularity the measure of success in the church as well as politics. Since the altruistic teachings of Jesus were never popular, they were subordinated to exclusivist church doctrines that made belief in Jesus as the alter ego of God essential for salvation. Most Christians believe in Jesus as their personal savior, but few follow his teachings.
Ryan Burge has listed other factors that help explain why Americans are leaving the church. They include the end of the Soviet Union, a backlash against the religious right (or support for it); and political polarization. All those factors have been exacerbated by a social media tsunami on Christianity that has ignored the moral teachings of Jesus.
Is there anything to fill the spiritual and moral vacuum as Americans lose their religion? The church may remain a popular social institution in America, but to save Christianity and libertarian democracy from the dustbin of history the church must give primacy to the altruistic teachings of Jesus as God’s truth. That’s the only way to make Jesus relevant in America’s materialistic and hedonistic culture, but it’s not likely since it would cost the church its popularity.
On Ryan Burge’s commentary on How America’s young people lost their religion, see https://www.sltrib.com/religion/2022/04/14/commentary-how-americas/.
Other commentary on a fading church that has lost its moral compass:
(2/8/15): Promoting Religion Through Evangelism: Bringing Light or Darkness?
(2/15/15): Is Religion Good or Evil?
(4/5/15): Seeing the Resurrection in a New Light
(4/19/15): Jesus: A Prophet, God’s Only Son, or the Logos? http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2015/04/jesus-prophet-god-only-son-or-logos.html
(10/4/15): Faith and Religion: The Same but Different
(7/9/16): Back to the Future: Race, Religion, Rights and a Politics of Reconciliation
(9/17/16): A Moral Revival to Restore Legitimacy to Our Politics
(12/31/16): E Pluribus Unum, Religion and a Politics of Reconciliation
(1/28/17): Saving America from the Church
(3/18/17): Moral Ambiguity in Religion and Politics
(4/22/17): The Relevance of Jesus and the Irrelevance of the Church in Today’s World
(4/29/17): A Wesleyan Alternative for an Irrelevant Church
(6/24/17): The Evolution of Religion, Politics and Law: Back to the Future?
(7/1/17): Religion, Moral Authority and Conflicting Concepts of Legitimacy
(7/15/17): Religion and Progressive Politics
(7/22/17): Hell No!
(8/12/17): The Universalist Teachings of Jesus as a Remedy for Religious Exclusivism
(10/7/17): A 21st Century Reformation to Restore Reason to American Civil Religion http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2017/10/a-21st-century-reformation-to-restore.html.
(3/17/18): Jefferson’s Jesus and Moral Standards in Religion and Politics
(3/31/18): Altruism: The Missing Ingredient in American Christianity and Democracy
(4/7/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on the Need for a Moral Reformation
(4/28/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on the Virtues and Vices of Christian Morality
(7/14/18): Musings on Why Christians Should Put Moral Standards Over Mystical Beliefs
(8/4/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Religious Problems and Solutions in Politics
(8/11/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Changing Morality in Religion and Politics
(9/1/18): Musings on the American Civil Religion and Christianity at a Crossroads
(9/29/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on the Resurrection of Christian Universalism
(10/6/18): Musings on Moral Universalism in Religion and Politics http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2018/10/musings-on-moral-universalism-in.html.
(12/1/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on the Mystical Logos
(12/15/18): Musings on the Great Commission and Religious and Political Tribalism
(12/22/18): Musings on Faith and Works: The Unity of All Believers and The Last Judgment
(2/9/19): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on the Hypocrisy of American Christianity
(3/2/19): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on a Post-Christian America
(3/9/19): Musings on the Degradation of Democracy in a Post-Christian America
(3/16/19): Musings on the Evolution of Christian Exclusivism to Universalism
(5/11/19): Musings on the Relevance of Jefferson’s Jesus in the 21st Century
(5/18/19): Outsiders Versus Insiders in Religion, Legitimacy and Politics
(5/25/19): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on the Divinity and Moral Teachings of Jesus
(6/8/19): The Moral Failure of the Church to Promote Altruism in Politics
(6/15/19): Back to the Future: A 21st Century Pentecost for the Church
(6/22/19): The Universal Family of God: Where Inclusivity Trumps Exclusivity
(8/10/19): Musings on Christian Nationalism: A Plague on the Church and Democracy
(9/7/19): Musings on the Self-Destruction of Christianity and American Democracy
(10/5/19): Musings on the Moral Relevance of Jesus to Democracy
(11/9/19): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on a Virtual Alternative to a Failing Church
(11/16/19): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on the Irrelevance of Morality in Politics
(11/23/19): Musings on Jesus and Christ as Conflicting Concepts in Christianity
(1/11/20): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Christians as a Moral Minority
(2/1/20): Musings on the Sacrifice of Jesus on the Altar of Partisan Politics
(4/17/21): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on the Future of the Church
(4/24/21): How a Fading Church Could Help Reconcile America’s Polarized Politics
(5/15/21): Musings on the Moral Failure of American Christianity and Democracy
(1/15/22): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on America’s Morally Muddled Mainstream
(1/22/22): Musings on Popularity as a Corrupting Influence in Democracy and Christianity
(1/29/22): Musings on the Inadequacy of Religious Moral Standards in American Democracy