America’s de-Churching, warning to all religions 

Illustrative: Protesters rail against against the annual Pride Parade in central Jerusalem, August 2, 2018. The signs read, "Jerusalem is the holy city," and "Jerusalem and Sodom are not twin cities." (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Describing the state of religion in America today is best described in the words of Charles Dickens “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Religion is winning political power and losing people’s hearts and houses of worship in devastating ways. This correlation should give religious people of every faith around the world pause and time to rethink the idea of advancing religion through government or legislation.

In their book “Beyond Doubt: The Secularization of Society” sociologists Isabella Kasselstrand, Phil Zuckerman, and Ryan Cragun paint a bleak picture.

“In the United States, somewhere between 6,000 and 10,000 churches close down every year, either to be repurposed as apartments, laundries, laser-tag arenas, or skate parks, or to simply be demolished.” These staggering numbers do not stop in empty buildings and rooms of worship, they continue to the hearts of every American.

A recent Gallup report shows the number of those who identify their religion as “none” has gone up to 21% in the past 20 years, and the number of Americans for whom religion is very important is at 39 percent, compared to 62 percent in 1998. The numbers and figures on the decline of religion go on and have been covered comprehensively in a depressing to the religiously minded series of NYT articles by Jessica Grose.

Simply put, the more power religion gains through government, the less people like it. Religious groups can help roll back Roe vs Wade, increase prayer in public schools, and legislate religious freedom. All they want and what they will see is emptier Churches, alienated youth, and questioning adults.

What has happened to American Churches is also happening all over Iran.

As we approach the one-year anniversary of Mahsa Amini, who was killed by Iran’s religious police, forcing women to wear headscarves, Iran is seeing a rebellion against its modesty rules and women’s dress codes. Despite hundreds of women being killed for defying the regime, Iranian women keep removing their Burkas and Chadurs. The violence and governmental crackdown have driven many away from their previous religious affiliation.

Members of Israel’s religious parties should pay close attention to these developments.

While much of the civil unrest Israel has been seeing is about Netanyahu’s judicial coup and changes to the legal system, much of it has also been about religion. Netanyahu’s majority orthodox men coalition has floated several draconian laws that leave secular Israelis worried for their future in Israel. From “modesty laws” to funding for religious institutions and exemptions from military service, Netanyahu’s government has been dominated by advancing the agendas of religious parties.

While not all, many rabbis have been supporting this push. Those rabbis should look across the pond at what is happening in America. Religious leaders in America and around the world should look at America of the past seven years and realize that while religion can fuel political power, political power cannot fuel belief. God cannot be legislated, and hearts cannot be won over by coercion. Leaders of all faiths should look at America’s de-churching and find better paths to people’s hearts. For positive proof, you need to look no further than one of America’s most successful religious communities—the Amish.

The fastest-growing religious community in America has little, if any, political influence, focuses on family, community, and education, and seeks no political power. The Amish community’s North American population went from 172,780 in the year 2000 to a staggering 350,665 in 2020. Historically speaking, religion thrived in America when it died in Europe because of the separation from politics and the freedom to explore it. As too many religious groups turn to politics to advance their cause, the tale of America’s de-churching is a reminder that faith is best kept out of coercion.

About the Author
Rabbi Elchanan Poupko is a New England based eleventh-generation rabbi, teacher, and author. He has written Sacred Days on the Jewish Holidays, Poupko on the Parsha, and hundreds of articles published in five languages. He is the president of EITAN--The American Israeli Jewish Network.
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