The economy seems to be falling off a cliff. Is America’s commitment to religion doing the same?

Written by William C. Duncan

May 12, 2020

The New York Times columnist and Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman recently noted that economic data “show an economy falling off a cliff.” At about the same time this observation was made, a report from the American Enterprise Institute showed on a number of indicators that America’s commitment to religion seems to be falling off a cliff as well.

The report, written by Lyman Stone, an adjunct fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, provides careful and detailed analysis on the decline of “religiosity” – measured by affiliation with churches, church attendance, and other factors – in the United States.

In summary:

By any measure, religiosity in America is declining. As this report will show, since peaking in 1960, the share of American adults attending any religious service in a typical week has fallen from 50 percent to about 35 percent, while the share claimed as members by any religious body has fallen from over 75 percent to about 62 percent. Finally, the share of Americans who self-identify or report being affiliated with any religion has fallen from over 95 percent to about 75 percent.

The declines are stark.

Data show the percentage of Americans with a religious affiliation tumbling after the 1950s, and in chart form it really does look like America’s religious affiliation is falling off a cliff.


The AEI report also makes a convincing case for some of the causes. One of them is particularly striking: “America’s legal environment is increasingly secular, explicitly limiting support for religion.”


[E]xpansions in government service provision and especially increasingly secularized government control of education significantly drive secularization and can account for virtually the entire increase in secularization around the developed world. The decline in religiosity in America is not the product of a natural change in preferences, but an engineered outcome of clearly identifiable policy choices in the past.

Stone’s report goes on to suggest two policy changes that could help arrest the decline in religiosity. First, Stone notes that support for school choice could help parents who would like to send their children to schools with a religious mission but have difficulty affording that option.

Second, he also says extensive government regulations inhibit the ability of religious schools to operate. “Easing licensure rules and other regulations for education and childcare would also make it easier for churches to construct and support parochial schools.”

These two suggestions from the report have some important implications for specific public policy debates:

  1. Blaine Amendments in some states have been read expansively to prevent religious institutions from even indirectly benefiting from government educational programs. For instance, the amendments have been interpreted to preclude parents using state scholarships to send their children to a private religious school of their choice. This is a significant obstacle to school choice that could be removed, helping parents who desire to pass religious teachings to their children.
  2. Discrimination laws could be appropriately balanced to ensure that they do not hamper the ability of religious schools to operate consistent with their mission. For example, the proposed Fairness for All Act (FFA) includes explicit protections for religious schools. It prohibits the government from taking “any adverse action against a religious educational institution, its faculty, students, or graduates because of its religious mission.” The FFA also prohibits accrediting agencies from penalizing religious schools if they do not comply “with an accreditation standard that would require the institution to act inconsistently with its religious mission as related to marriage, family, sexuality, or gender identity.”

The AEI report is careful not to suggest that the observed change can only be in one direction. In fact, it provides some important context:

At the dawn of the American republic in the 1780s, probably just a third of Americans were members in any religious body, and just a fifth could be found at church on a given Sunday. This was a historic low ebb in American religiosity. Thus, in some important ways, America today is more religious than it was two centuries ago—and indeed at any point between 1750 and 1930.

This suggests that things could change in the direction of increased religiosity. The report’s analysis also points to specific policy adjustments that could foster that change. The potential for change and the identification of routes for that change make this report invaluable.

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