A Publication of The Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College
by Andrew Walsh
For the last several decades, the United States looked like an outlier among industrial nations in the North Atlantic West, remaining a robustly religious country while its European peers moved into ever deeper secularization. But the recent trajectory of decline among those holding liberal religious beliefs strongly suggests that the long-term trend in the United States is toward pervasive secularism on the European model as well, the intellectual historian David A. Hollinger told audiences at Trinity College in Hartford this week.
Hollinger delivered a major address, “Secularization and the Future of American Christianity,” on March 4, while visiting Trinity as the 2015 Leonard E. Greenberg Distinguished Visiting Fellow. Hollinger is Preston Hotchkis Professor of History Emeritus at the University of California at Berkeley.
Each year, the Greenberg Distinguished Visiting Scholar visits Trinity for a week to give a major lecture on some important aspect of religion and public life, meets with students and faculty, visits other courses, and leads a faculty research seminar discussion on his or her work.
In the decades immediately after World War II, the “secularization thesis”—that religion is irreversibly losing its social force as scientific knowledge takes hold and educated people lose interest in religious belief and practice—was the almost universal view of social scientists and scholars of religion. But in the 1980s, the rise of the Religious Right in the United States, the revival of Islam in many places, and the continuing vitality of religion in Latin America, Africa, and South Asia led many to begin wondering whether secularization might be a local European phenomenon rather than a general characteristic of modernity.
Hollinger said that in the American case, it had become clear by the 2000s that the secularization thesis accurately predicted the weakening of religious identities, religious practice, and institutional strength among liberal Protestants and Catholics over the last decades of the 20th century. Religious liberals have always been the most willing to seek accommodations between the demands of inherited religious beliefs and modern, scientifically based ideas and values—an approach that seemed quite successful in America from the mid-19th to the mid-20th century.
But by the end of the 1960s, liberal Protestants and eventually Catholics and their institutions were either shrinking or moving beyond their control in the name of inclusion and diversity. Social survey research shows that mainline (or “ecumenical”) Protestants, almost half of the American population in 1960, now make up only about 10 percent of the population, and are disproportionately older than other groups.
This segment of the Protestant population had fewer children during this period and fewer of those they did have remained connected to that religious identity in adulthood. The lost children of mainline Protestantism often retained many of their religious values and identities but felt little need to hold on to institutional membership or identity. Many became “spiritual but not religious,” and their children and grandchildren are mostly secular.
Hollinger noted that the percentage of American adults who say they have no religious identity has jumped from about seven percent in the early 1990s to 20 percent today, which a much higher percentage of young adults claiming no religious identity. While the number of committed atheists remains small, Hollinger said he thinks the “spiritual but not religious” are moving inexorably toward secular identities.
Evangelical Protestants and Catholics have held their institutional vigor somewhat more successfully, but they increasingly look at American society from a minority point of view. And the work of social scientists like Christian Smith suggests that many younger evangelicals have a less conflictual relationship with modernity than their parents and regard the world in ways that are strikingly similar to those of the ecumenical Protestants of the mid-20th century.
Hollinger came to Trinity not merely to bury mainline Protestantism but also to praise its historical role. “After Cloven Tongues of Fire,” his 2011 presidential address to the Organization of American Historians, was the first ever given on a religious topic in the history of the group, and sparked a lively lunchtime discussion with the author at the Center’s monthly Public Values seminar.
The address argues that liberal Protestantism was a major force in the rise of a more inclusive, cosmopolitan, tolerant, and diverse American society in the mid-20th century. The willingness of these ecumenical Protestants to give up the notion that Protestantism plays a special role in American life was a remarkable example of their capacity for self-critique—and it opened doors.
But Hollinger contends that this willingness to revise and criticize their own role set the stage for their subsequent loss of influence.
“Recognizing the role that ecumenical Protestantism played in diminishing Anglo-Protestant prejudice and embracing the varieties of humankind” can help illuminate “the dialectical process by which ecumenical Protestants lost their numbers and their influence in public affairs while evangelical Protestant increased theirs,” he writes. “Politically and theologically conservative evangelicals flourished while continuing to espouse popular ideas about the nation and the world that were criticized and abandoned by liberalizing, diversity-accepting ecumenists.”