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See you in church ... oops, no I won’t

Gallup Poll finds that, for the first time, most Americans don’t belong to a congregation.

Worshippers at a mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington D.C. in 2020.
Worshippers at a mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington D.C. in 2020. A Gallup Poll released this week finds for the first time that most Americans do not belong to a religious congregation of any kind.
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On May 11, 1833, “Chicago’s first reformer,” Rev. Jeremiah Porter, arrived here to find “a wide, wet prairie, as far as the eye could reach, on a muddy river winding south over a sand-bar to the Lake with a few scattered dwellings.”

The Presbyterian minister also found, to his horror, a priest, John M. I. St. Cyr, who arrived 10 days earlier, and got busy raising a Catholic church, St. Mary’s, at State and Lake.

Not one to accept fate passively, Rev. Porter knelt beside St. Mary’s late at night and prayed for its destruction. Setting the tone for interdenominational relations for centuries to come.

That prayed-for doom has been slow in arriving. But a milestone was sailed past last week, as the Gallup Poll reported that for the first time in its 80-year history of prodding the American soul, most people in this country don’t belong to a religious congregation.

Only 47%t of Americans are members of a church, mosque or synagogue. In 1999, it was 70%.

That figure will only dwindle, since, like using a handkerchief, regularly sliding your keister into a pew is an elderly practice. The Gallup Poll found 66% of those born before 1946 belong to a congregation, but only 36% of millennials do.

The press is supposed to be the dread Beast, dancing around the bonfires of pagan secular humanism. But the story barely made a ripple.

Could all those naysayers be right? Does the media really ignore good news?

Is the decline of organized religion good news? Scratch any act of meanness, cruelty or spite and half the time you’ll find a religious person nodding vigorously, explaining how his big imaginary friend in the sky demands acting in an otherwise indefensible manner. Look at all the evil that faith has endorsed and it’s hard not to view religion as an engine of suffering, like disease.

How did Harriet Beecher Stowe put it In “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” marveling at the vigorous gymnastics ministers went through boosting slavery? Clergy, she wrote, will “warp and bend ethics and language to a degree that shall astonish the world at their ingenuity; they can press nature and the Bible and nobody knows what else into the service” of supporting slavery.

So good riddance, right?

Not so fast. Religion does good too. The metaphor I use for religion is that it’s like a hammer. You can use it to build a house. Or to hit somebody in the head. Neither is the hammer’s fault. Same for religion. It can expand you, send you to Zambia to teach villagers to dig wells. Or it can — as some Yeshiva boys who stopped by my office once did — cause you to refuse to touch a book that hasn’t been approved by your rabbi. You can use religion to argue that covering your face is an offense to God — that would be consistent with anti-Muslim caviling. Or you can be one of those churches showing up with sandwiches to greet the Night Ministry medical bus. Both exist.

My fond hope is that the decline might eventually bring a dawning awareness of the diversity of belief. Despite all the pretensions of multiculturalism, there is still an default assumption of monolithic Christianity, reflected even in the headline on the Gallup story delivering the news: “U.S. Church Membership Falls Below Majority for First Time.”

Which would make the casual reader think the story is about churches, right? Places where Christians go to worship. But then you read the article, it points out, “in 2020, 47% of Americans said they belonged to a church, synagogue or mosque.”

I can’t speak for Muslims, but I know Jews don’t say, “I’m going to church for Max’s bar mitzvah.” Yes, headlines compress a story, but lumping all religious institutions under the “church” label, well, that’s the whole problem in a nutshell, isn’t it?

As organized religion dwindles, maybe at some point true believers look up, blink furiously, and think, “Oh wait, there’s other people? And they believe other things?”

Wouldn’t that be something?

Nah. As they dwindle, the faithful will work more furiously toward imposing their fading religion on the growing body of unwilling unbelievers. It’s like the Republican model of government: Yell loud enough and some will believe you are still in charge.