Is Religion Declining in the U.S.? Don’t Bet On It.

Every now and then, some very smart people in the United States take a look at society and conclude that religious commitment is declining.  These smart people have been saying this since…..1660.  That’s when the second generation of Puritan ministers started preaching sermons, which we call “jeremiads,” bemoaning what they saw as the decline of religious faith in New England.

And with that, a proud American tradition was born:  predicting the decline of religion in America.  Secular leaders have declared this with some satisfaction, seeing it as an example of progress.  Christian leaders, like the Puritans, have declared this with anguish, seeing it as a way to stir complacent congregations to action.  The reported decline of American religion is such a common practice that that is has popped up every two decades or so for the past 350 ears.  And then the smart people are proven wrong by reality.

The line between secularism and religion keeps shifting and taking on different forms, but religious commitment keeps persisting.  I’ve been suspicious of the recent declarations that the rise of the “nones” mean that religion is declining in the United States.  I have been doubtful, not just for historical reasons, but for the way that the data has been interpreted.

Thomas Kidd, a professor of American history at Baylor University, (and an excellent historian, I should add) analyzes the data much better than I can.  You should read his blog post, which can be found here.

(For those that read my last post, I should tell you that, yes, I am still planning another one on the flag controversy.  In case you are interested, that is).




Breaking News: The New York Times Has Discovered Evangelical Christians living in New York City.

We interrupt our sporadic string of “Circuit Reader” blog posts to report that the New York Times has come across an amazing discovery: there are evangelical Christians —a lot of them –living within the very borders of the Big Apple.

The Times, with its modest motto, “All the news that is fit to print,” regularly reports on topics that it deems essential for human flourishing, including politics, education, business, sports, arts, automobiles, health, food and (what is so obviously central to the meaning of life), fashion.   It has devoted regular sections to each of these.

Religion does not have its own section because, unlike fashion, nobody finds it important. Plus it is fading away as the United States becomes more secular and it will soon be irrelevant. Particularly virulent and oppressive forms of religion, like evangelicalism, are only practiced by close-minded or rather unstable white people in the Midwest and the South.

These people live in New York City?

These people live in New York City?

But this entire view of the world may be undermined by this new discovery. The Times reported today, shockingly, that there is “An Evangelical Revival in the Heart of New York.” Using painstakingly dogged investigative journalism unseen by a Times reporter since Billy Graham drew 2.4 million people to his NYC crusade in 1957, the newspaper has discovered that this Saturday there will be a festival in Central Park that is expected to draw 60,000 people. The evangelist Luis Palau, who is actually well-known by people in exotic places like Rio de Janeiro, Guatemala City, Wheaton, Dallas, Santiago, and Pasadena, will be preaching.

900 of the 1700 churches supporting the festival are Hispanic, an ethnic link which may have led the Times to this fascinating discovery. Even more surprising, the newspaper has found that immigrants from Latin America, Asia and Africa find comfort in the lively atmosphere of New York City AND pentecostalism. In another breakthrough, akin to the accidental discovery of penicillium mold by Alexander Fleming in 1928, research has revealed that there are between 1.2 million and 1.6 million evangelicals living in New York City,

What's this?  Evangelicals read books?

What’s this? Evangelicals read books?

“The size of the festival belies the city’s secular reputation and speaks to the vibrant evangelical movement in New York,” the newspaper reported in a rather puzzled tone.

No word yet on whether or not this means the Times will pay attention to religion in the future.



Is Protestantism or Secularism (or something else) the Best Path to Equal Pay for Equal Work for Women around the World?

You should care about this question if you are a Protestant.  Or if you are in human resources in a business.  Or if you teach 10th graders.  Or if you are from the Honduras.  Or if you are a woman.  Or if you are a man.

You can stop reading if you don’t fall into any of those categories.

WEFEvery year the World Economic Forum, a non-profit and non-partisan foundation based in Switzerland. issues what it calls the Global Gender Gap Report.   The study ranks 136 nations by the disparities between women and men in economics, politics, education and health.

Some nations don’t make it because there is not enough data for them.  My guess is that the nations that don’t make the list, like North Korea, would probably be towards the bottom.  (Of course, maybe North Korea is secretly promoting women throughout its society to ranks of equality.  Maybe Kim Jong-un executed his uncle this week in order to put his aunt into a top position of power……Hmm. Yeah, we should go with the first hypothesis).

The World Economic Forum mainly reports the data. It doesn’t attempt to explain the deep-seated forces that explain why some nations are ranked high and others are low.  It does not even mention religion anywhere in the report, as far as I can see.  But that doesn’t prevent me from bringing religion in to attempt to explain matters.  My thought:  Protestantism matters.

Curious?  Here are nations that have done the best at closing the gender gap, (though no nation has achieved full gender equality):

  1. Iceland
  2. Finland
  3. Norway
  4. Sweden     (ah, those Scandinavians)
  5. Philippines  (what?)
  6. Ireland
  7. New Zealand
  8. Denmark
  9. Switzerland
  10. Nicaragua  (what?)

And the bottom ten:

  • 127.  Saudi Arabia    (you are not surprised)
  • 128.  Mali
  • 129.  Morocco
  • 130.  Iran
  • 131.  Ivory Coast
  • 132.  Mauritania
  • 133.  Syria
  • 134.  Chad
  • 135.  Pakistan
  • 136.  Yemen

In case you are curious, the United States come in at # 23, just behind Burundi.  (What?)

An obvious observation:  Islam is not good for gender equality.

A somewhat surprising observation:  economic prosperity does not seem to be a deciding factor.  One finds the Philippines, Nicaragua, Cuba, Lesotho (!), Burundi, and Ecuador all in the top 25.   Meanwhile, South Korea, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia, all in the top third globally in terms of per capita income, are all in the bottom 25 in terms of the gender gap.   Wealthy Japan comes in at #105, right behind Cambodia and Burkina Faso.

So what is the biggest predictor of gender equality?

One could make a decent case for secularism.  The Scandinavian nations (which always seem to lead lists like this) are quite secular.  And you have that obvious Islamic problem at the bottom of the list.  Analysis that stopped here would support a claim that has been made quite regularly within western culture during the last two centuries:  public religion is a barrier to liberty.  The sooner we break free from religion, the way this thinking goes, the more free, equal and happy we will be.

But if you dig further, that argument does not work so well.  Based on this data, I would argue something quite different:  the long-term presence of Christianity, particularly Protestantism, is the biggest factor in promoting equality between men and women.  I’m thinking like a historian here, which means you have to take into account at least two centuries of development.  Profound cultural shifts, such as changes in attitudes, practices and structures related to gender, do not change with a decade or two of new political policies.  Over long periods of time, however, nothing closes the gender gap as well as Protestantism.  I don’t see a factor that is a better predictor.

Here is what the data says to me:  the equity between women and men in the Scandinavian nations is better explained by several centuries of Protestantism than by a few decades of secularism.

Why?  No Protestant nation ranked lower than #47 (Jamaica).  13 of the 15 nations that have been influenced by more than a century of Protestantism are in the top 23.

I was actually surprised to see the very modern nation of France ranked as low as it is (45), since France has led the way since 1789 in promoting liberty and equality.  It has also been an historic leader in secularism, attempting to break free from public religious influences.  However, it only ranks two places ahead of the lowest ranking nation deeply influenced by Protestantism, Jamaica (47).

Meanwhile, we have the following rather secular nations in the bottom half of the list:  China (69), Vietnam (73), Slovak Republic (74), Uruguay (77), Czech Republic (83), Japan (105), Albania (108), and South Korea (111).

Filipino Businesswomen:  We're #5

Filipino Businesswomen: We’re #5

We can also argue for the importance of Christianity, in general, upon gender equality if we compare nations by regions.  Christianity has been at work in the Philippines for several centuries.  It not only cracks the top 10, but far outpaces more modern and secular nations in East Asia, like China (69), Japan (105), and South Korea (111).  At #5, the Philippines also obliterates similar island nations of southeast Asia like Indonesia (95) and Malaysia (102).

In Latin America, the secular nation of Cuba ranks quite high at #15, (a good argument for secularism) behind only Nicaragua.  However, the very secular nation of Uruguay ranks at 77.

In post-communist eastern Europe, the quite religious nation of Poland (54) ranks well ahead of its secular cousins, the Slovak Republic (74), Czech Republic (83).   I was a bit surprised by this, since both the Czech and Slovak republics had liberal democratic traditions before they, like Poland, were taken over by communism after World War II.

Finally, 49 of top 68 nations were influenced by more than two centuries of Christianity.  Only 16 of the bottom 68 were deeply influenced by Christianity – and none of these were Protestant.

Because substantial growth of Christianity if Africa is quite recent, I do not include the sub-Saharan nations of Africa in my categories of Christian or secular nations – except for South Africa, which has had a significant Christian presence for two centuries.  But Africa seems to be the wild card in all of this.  It will be interesting to see what happens to both Christianity and gender equity in sub-Saharan Africa in the decades to come.

It is important to note that there are all sorts of factors that play into these rankings.  I’ve been generalizing quite a bit — cutting with a chain saw, if you will.  And one can raise some questions about the methodology of the World Economic Forum, though you’d have to propose an alternative.

At this point, though, if you were a woman who is interested in equal pay for equal work, or equal opportunities for education, or a shot at parliament, or equal health care, I think you would do best to be born in a nation deeply influenced by Protestantism.