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Back to church: In search of the '98 percent'

By Max Perry Mueller

For the Deseret News

Published: Saturday, Oct. 6 2012 5:00 a.m. MDT

The Vineyard congregation worships in a refurbished French Catholic church.

Vineyard Christian Fellowship

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Pastor Dave Schmelzer talks a lot about reaching the "98 percent."

"I'm not talking about the '99 percent' " says Schemelzer, a tall 50-year-old minister whose laidback charisma reflects his California upbringing. In other words, Pastor Dave, as he is known to his congregants at the Greater Boston Vineyard Church, is not referring to the now ubiquitous term associated with the Occupy movement, and the economic class divisions that have become so contentious in American politics.

So who — or what — is the "98 percent"?

According to Pastor Dave, who earned his master's of divinity at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., it is widely believed that in the 1990s "only 2 percent of residents of Cambridge went to church on a given weekend." That means 98 percent of "Cantabrigians" were un-churched, a number that is even less than the rate of religious participation in Western Europe, "which is considered the international seat of atheism," says Pastor Dave.

These extremely low rates of religious participation might be unique to Cambridge. But they also reflect an accelerating trend in many parts of America during the past two decades.

Surveys about American attitudes toward religion have shown that the fastest-growing group of religious Americans is actually the religious "nones," the roughly one-third of all Americans under 30 who report that they have no religion. To be sure, the greatest concentration of the non-religiously affiliated is among young people. But, says University of Notre Dame professor David Campbell, who with Harvard's Robert Putnam, have collected some of the best data on American attitudes toward religion, "we see growth in the 'nones' across the whole population."

These numbers don't necessarily reflect a growth in atheism among Americans. Many of the same people who claim no religious identity, explains Jim Burklo, associate dean of religious life at the University of Southern California "(have an) interest in religion and spirituality." While fewer of his USC students "profess any particular religious affiliation," says Burklo, "hunger is strong for … a connection with ultimate reality, for finding a way of life that has integrity in all aspects."

So if people aren't abandoning religion because of lack of belief, what is causing the precipitous decline in religious affiliation in America? The answer might be less about faith, and more about politics. Some Americans have the impression that joining a church requires not only the acceptance of a certain set of religious beliefs, but political ones, too. And for much of recent American history, they've been right.

Politics from the pulpit

Notre Dame's David Campbell claims that "the primary reason for the sudden growth in the 'nones' is a backlash to the mingling of religion and right-wing politics."

Starting in the 1980s and 1990s, religion, especially conservative Christianity, increasingly became synonymous with conservative social issues, like abortion and gay marriage, and also economic policy. Organizations like Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority and televangelist Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition turned churches into political recruiting grounds. Church members became the foot soldiers in efforts to, as Robertson often said, "defend America's Godly heritage" from perceived assaults from the forces of liberalism and secularism.

On a pro-life, anti-pornography and balanced budget platform, Robertson even ran for the Republican nomination for president in 1988. Robertson's second-place finish in Iowa — ahead of George H. W. Bush — surprised the Republican Party, and proved to GOP elites that the conservative social issues Robertson championed appealed to many voters in the party's base.

During the 1990s, the Christian Coalition became famous for distributing millions of "voter guides" to churches, which the organization believed would be sympathetic to their socially conservative political message.

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