Americans are overworked and overly devoted to the hustle, but that's not why organized religion is declining. Church apologists trying to explain their decline always look outward, never inward at themselves.
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Christianity in America is suffering an unprecedented decline.
Once-thriving congregations are shrinking and graying. Parishes are being consolidated. Closed-down churches are being reborn as bookstores and breweries, concert halls and apartments.
Surveys find that nonreligious Americans—or “nones”—now constitute about 30% of the population, outnumbering every single Christian denomination. If current trends continue, nones could be a majority by 2070.
The decline has become so obvious that even Christian propagandists can’t sweep it under the carpet. So they’re in search of explanations, preferably explanations that absolve them of blame. In the Atlantic, orthodox apologist Jake Meador proposes one:
Contemporary America simply isn’t set up to promote mutuality, care, or common life. Rather, it is designed to maximize individual accomplishment as defined by professional and financial success. Such a system leaves precious little time or energy for forms of community that don’t contribute to one’s own professional life or, as one ages, the professional prospects of one’s children. Workism reigns in America, and because of it, community in America, religious community included, is a math problem that doesn’t add up.“The Misunderstood Reason Millions of Americans Stopped Going to Church.” Jake Meador, The Atlantic, 29 July 2023.
Meador paints a picture of a society that worships work above all else. He argues that high-stress jobs, inflexible schedules, and the capitalist drive to use every moment “productively” have severed the bonds of community. People are isolated, stressed, and exhausted. They’re so immersed in the hustle mindset that they drift away from religion because they can’t conceive of spending time on something that doesn’t make money.
To the churches and their defenders, this is a comforting story. It allows them to tell themselves that they haven’t been rejected. They’ve merely been pushed aside by the hustle and bustle of modern life. It holds out the promise that, if they can cut through the noise and make themselves heard, they can persuade young people to come back.
However, this face-saving explanation has a flaw.
The evidence, drawn from polls and interviews, paints a different picture. It’s not the case that young people have drifted away from church because they’re too busy with their side hustles and their TikToks. Rather, millions have chosen to cut ties with organized religion because they have stark disagreements with its moral teachings—and because the churches allow no room for dissent or difference of opinion.
A case in point is Charles Chaput, the archbishop of Philadelphia. In 2016, he urged liberal Catholics to quit the church. According to Chaput, people who call themselves Catholic but support abortion, contraception or LGBTQ rights are faithless liars. He declared that the church would be better off without them. Like other conservatives, he prefers a smaller, more ideologically pure church to a larger one with more diversity of opinion.
And young people are taking him at his word. According to a Pew survey, two-thirds of former Catholics left the church, not because they’re too busy, but because they stopped believing in its teachings.
Sixty years behind the times and going backward
On issue after issue, the pattern is the same. The churches’ problem isn’t that they’re drowned out in the din and can’t make themselves heard. On the contrary, we hear them loud and clear. The problem is that they’ve doubled down on moral stances that are the polar opposite of what young people believe and care about.
The second wave of feminism was more than sixty years ago, yet many churches still reject the most basic notions of gender equality. America’s two largest Christian denominations, Roman Catholic and Southern Baptist, refuse to allow women to take any leadership role. Just this year, the Southern Baptist Convention expelled two churches—including Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church—for the sin of hiring women as pastors. Women who speak out against this gross inequality have been flooded with harassment and hate mail.
Above all else is the question of abortion. The repeal of Roe was a painful wake-up call, jolting women with the realization that their right to control their own bodies is slipping away. Young people recognize that opposition to abortion is motivated by religion. The churches have been loud and proud in their support of abortion bans, whereas nonbelievers are almost unanimously pro-choice.
And the religious right isn’t planning to stop there. They’re pushing for even more radical restrictions of women’s rights. Their next frontier is trying to scrap no-fault divorce, which would keep people trapped in abusive or unhappy marriages. Almost 70% of divorces are initiated by women, so this is another anti-feminist idea in thin disguise.
Putting people back in boxes
You can tell a similar story about LGBTQ rights. Millennials like me, who came of age in the early 2000s, remember the Christian crusade against gay and lesbian rights, especially same-sex marriage. The Nashville Statement, signed by more than 150 evangelical leaders, declared their eternal opposition to LGBTQ rights in every form.
Of course, they didn’t win that battle. Marriage equality is a reality, delivered by the Supreme Court and reinforced by Congressional legislation. Americans support LGBTQ rights by enormous majorities. More than two-thirds of Americans support marriage equality, including majorities in 47 of 50 states. Three-quarters say LGBTQ people should be protected from discrimination.
However, anti-gay Christians haven’t given up. They’re still fighting a rearguard action, claiming a religious right to discriminate against LGBTQ people. In red states, Christian legislators are banning books with gay characters and passing Don’t Say Gay laws.
In fact, the Christian opposition to gay rights has only grown more vicious. A tragic example was Urban Christian Academy, a private Christian school in Kansas City that provided underprivileged children with a tuition-free education. When the school updated its mission statement to affirm LGBTQ rights, angry religious donors pulled their support. The school lost nearly all its funding and was forced to close its doors.
Transgender people face even more brutal persecution. Wherever they have power, religious conservatives want to police their bathroom use; deny them access to gender-affirming medical care; even take away children from transgender families. So virulent is their opposition to anything and everything that smacks of weakening the gender binary, a Christian university fired two (cisgender) employees merely for putting their pronouns in their e-mail signatures.
As with women’s rights and gay rights, attacks on transgender people are rooted in a religious belief that sex and gender are strictly binary and fixed at birth, and for people to want to break out of these boxes goes against the will of God. However, to appease the religious minority that believes this, Christian churches have set themselves against the vast majority. An April 2023 poll—by Fox News, no less!—finds that 86% of Americans say political attacks on transgender kids are a serious problem.
Insular and hostile
The root cause of these culture-war clashes is that most churches, especially evangelical churches, have turned insular and hostile. They’re dens of conservatism—and not traditional small-government conservatism, but radical, norm-breaking Trumpian conservatism.
Russell Moore, a former top official of the Southern Baptist Congregation, made waves recently when he spoke about pastors whose congregants scorn the literal teachings of Jesus as “liberal talking points” and “weak”.
As churches grow more fanatical, they’re also receding further from objective reality. Many pastors complain that QAnon and other noxious conspiracy theories are swallowing up their congregations. Surveys find that as many as 50% of white evangelicals are QAnon believers.
The few prominent Christians who aren’t caught up in the tide of conspiracies have lamented how gullible their fellow believers are. Evangelical author Ed Stetzer said in 2017 that “the spreading of these conspiracies are hurting our witness and making Christians look, yet again, foolish.”
However, no one heeded him. The plague of conspiracy beliefs only got worse—so much so that by 2020, he was pleading, “If you still insist on spreading such misinformation, would you please consider taking Christian off your bio so the rest of us don’t have to share in the embarrassment?”
Looking in the mirror
Is hustle culture a real problem? Yes. Have some people stopped attending church because they’re too busy? Almost certainly.
However, Christian apologists use this as a way to avoid looking in the mirror. They want to believe that Christianity’s decline isn’t their fault. That way, they don’t have to do anything differently. Or, at worst, the problem is that they haven’t been faithful enough—so they need to do what they’ve always been doing, just more and harder. (In his column, Meador follows suit: “[A] vibrant, life-giving church requires more, not less, time and energy from its members.”)
This inability to introspect is a widespread problem in institutional Christianity. The arrow of causality is fixed pointing outward; they never turn it back upon themselves. For all they talk about repentance, they’re consistently unwilling to consider that they might have made any mistakes of their own that they need to atone for.
None of this means that there aren’t any other problems in American society. As a culture, we do work too much—some of us by choice, others very much not by choice—and overvalue wealth and success at the expense of everything that makes life meaningful.
If Christians are serious about resisting hustle culture, their help would be welcome. They could join atheists in calling for a stronger safety net, an expanded sense of mutuality, and more guarantees for workers’ rights and leisure time. It would go a long way to repair their reputation; it might even reverse their decline.
But for the churches to truly commit to this goal, rather than merely using it to shift the blame, would require real change on their part. It would require more compassion, more tolerance, and a greater willingness to reconsider long-held dogmas than they’ve displayed until now.