Empty Pews and Collection Plates

Ed Raymond

Crain’s Chicago Business
Crain’s Chicago Business

What Is The Fastest Growing Religion?

Recent surveys by the Pew Research  Center and the  Hartford Institute for Religious Research indicate that one in four Americans do not belong to any religion. In fact, the largest “religious” group in the United States now is made up of ex-Catholics. At last count there were about 385,000 churches belonging to more than 60 denominations, down about 30,000 from just five years ago. Over half of these churches have only 100 worshippers on weekends. About 30 million Catholics have left the American church and about 56 million have left the Protestant denominations in the last few decades. Over 40% of Americans raised Catholic have left the Church.

The Vatican has had major problems with sex for centuries, whether it’s priests sexually abusing children, priests fighting the idiocy of celibacy, and condemning the use of contraceptives. Pope Francis, inheriting the problem of sex abuse by priests from the “saintly” Pope John II, has seemed incapable of building bridges over those very troubled waters. An old Spanish proverb comes to mind: “One ounce of mother is worth a ton of priest.”  The next survey may reveal that Catholics are leaving the church in a riptide, a maelstrom, or a tsunami because of the regressive decisions of old men in the Vatican.  I wonder what the Vatican will do about Finn Stannard, a 17-year-old student at an Australian all-boys Catholic high school,  who came out as gay at an assembly of 1,500 students. He was given a standing ovation by his teachers and fellow students. Whatever happened to the Vatican’s teaching that homosexuality is “intrinsically evil?”

At one time in human history religion probably was the answer to thunder and lightning, the mystery of all those heavenly bodies floating serenely above us, crop failure, our success and our failures, and other happenings too numerous to mention. Religion was one way of explaining all the phenomena of the universe. But science has helped to explain much of the unexplainable that used to happen to our brothers and sisters. Surveys reveal that one-third of young people ages 22 to 37 do not affiliate with any church.

Why Do People Abandon The Pews?

The reasons are legion. The “Nones” (the “non-affiliated”) try to answer the question in an article “The Unchurching Of America” by Jean Hopfensperger. Kay Christianson is a retired corporate manager who as a teenager and young adult prepared herself to take the vows of a sister and enter a Catholic convent. But over that time she said she developed many questions that were not answered. At one point she says she was very angry. She says: “They say pray and your prayers will be answered. That didn’t happen. I was angry. I don’t have any anger with the Catholic Church. I left because the premise of the belief system didn’t work for me. Jesus was a wonderful teacher.” Rather shocking is a survey by Saint Mary’s Press of Winona that indicates the median age of young people leaving the Catholic Church is just over 13.

Interviews with 30 Minnesotans who left Protestant churches revealed that most  thought there is a real “disconnect” between core Christian teachings and real life. Many Christians are turned off from the political stance taken by evangelical Christians who voted for Trump, an admitted sexual predator and pathological liar who either paid for sex or sexually harassed many women by groping, grabbing, fondling, and kissing them. Some ex-Catholics stated the Bible clashed with science—and that science won out. This forced them to become leery of Biblical teachings. Others said they just tired of the same church ritual every Sunday. Young people expressed the opinion that their church has lost relevance and credibility. One Protestant “None” put it this way: “Religious leaders spend their time talking about what happens at the end of the world when practically everyone sitting in the pews are probably worried about how they are going to survive to the end of the month.”

Flat Earthers, Snake handlers, and the  Flying Spaghetti Monster
Earthers are curious about how they fit into whatever life really is, so some turn to weird religions that may inspire them. Human imagination knows no limits, so people will leave mainstream religions, even if they are considered odd, to look for life’s meaning in other very odd places. Take the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster as an example. Officially called Pastafarianism, it was created by an Oregon State physics graduate who was fighting whether Intelligent Design, the idea that God created everything rather than evolving over billions of years, should be taught in the public schools. In protesting to the Kansas Education Department, he wrote he was supported by more than ten million people who believed the universe, created by a Flying Spaghetti Monster, was just as valid as a universe created by God. It is a recognized religion in New Zealand!   

The Tennessee Snake Handlers are a fascinating religious group. They quote the gospels of Luke and Mark to support their rituals: “And these signs shall follow them that believe in my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues. They shall take up serpents, and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.” The minister who developed snake handling as a religious test was married four times and was known to hit the bottle. George Went Hensley was an ordained minister of the Church of God Holiness. There are about 125 churches in the Appalachian Mountains and western Canada that practice snake handling. Alas, Hensley is no more. He died of a rattlesnake bite while conducting a worship service in Florida.

   Not only do we have snake handlers, chicken worshippers, and voodoo religions, we presently have the Flat Earthers who claim that 200 scriptures in the Bible support their contention we are all living on a pancake. They evidently don’t believe that first  picture of earth taken from outer space.  Hellenistic astronomers discovered the earth was round in 3rd Century B.C. No matter. Over 650 worshippers paid $350 each to attend the second annual Flat Earth International Conference held in Denver. We certainly have diversity.

Prosperity Gospelers 

Recently the head of the worldwide Anglican Communion, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, probably did not help to refill the pews around the world by making the following comments: “God is not male or female.  All human language about God is inadequate and to some degree metaphorical. We can’t pin God down. God is not a father in exactly the same way as a human being is a father. God is not definable.” He added that the centuries-old Church of England doctrine teaches that God is “without body, parts, or passions.” Do these comments provide answers to religious faith or do they confuse poor sinners? Inquiring minds want to know.

My favorite prosperity gospel guy was Benny Hinn, a Canadian faith healer who could cure people by putting his hands on their heads, rendering them unconscious on stage before God and large paying audiences. He always had assistants catch the cured before they hit the floor. Very entertaining.  There seems to be hundreds of ministers who believe that prayer can make you wealthy. Television is loaded with ministers seeking profit, even if it is a total perversion of the gospel of Jesus Christ. The most popular and influential prosperity preacher was Oral Roberts whose pleas for money for his Oral Roberts University were tear-streaked and highly emotional.  Kenneth Copeland, now a very wealthy TV preacher, learned his con from Oral Roberts when he was a student at Oral Roberts University. He flew and drove his teacher to important meetings. Copeland now owns mansions and a lot of “stuff” in Florida.  If you seek soap opera entertainment watch the aptly named Creflo Dollar plead for money on his TV show. He finally convinced his followers he needed an $85 million dollar private jet to preach the prosperity gospel around the world.

Even the classic religious heretic but god-like Donald Trump has a spiritual advisor named Paula White. She got his attention by buying a condo from him some time back. She is chairperson of Trump’s evangelical advisory committee. She has led a fascinating and profitable life by leading a non-denominational megachurch and her own TV show “Paula White Today.” She just asked her congregation to give her their January paychecks to keep her ministry going. She presently owns mansions and other properties. Google her name so you can send her your check.

Trump’s Main Support: The Christian Identity Church

The Christian Identity Church rarely makes headlines today, but it did years ago when member Timothy McVeigh blew up the Oklahoma City federal building with a truck loaded with explosives and killed 158 adults and children. But the philosophy of this church permeates the evangelical “Christians” who voted 81% for Trump. The Christian Identity movement is a virulently racist and anti-Semitic organization that teaches that blacks were created to serve whites because whites represent God’s chosen people. It teaches that blacks are intellectually inferior to whites. The most famous Christian Identity group is the long-living Ku Klux Klan born after the Civil War during Reconstruction days.  The KKK and subsidiary white power groups are responsible for the lynching of over 4,000 blacks.

To cut to the quick, southern white evangelical Christians made a Faustian deal with the devil Trump because they saw a chance to rid the country of Roe V. Wade and to fill the federal courts and the Supreme Court with judges opposed to same sex marriage and other laws that would eliminate homosexual discrimination in the workplace and society. They liked Trump’s campaign of making America great again (MAGA) when rich white men ran the government. Actually Trump’s campaign was based on “Making Trump Great” and to hell with America. But the evangelicals are responsible for the growth of “Nones” in religion. Research now proves that the more the religious right engages in right-wing politics, the more people get fed up and abandon their Christian churches. Research proves that in states where the Christian right fought same-sex marriage the number of people identifying as church-attending Christians declined. The rise of “Nones” in Republican states after the Christian right entered politics makes those red states look like nearby blue states. 

Researchers admit that many people join churches because it is socially desirable in communities. But if their religion gets heavily involved in cultural politics, they often leave the religion in disgust and grow the “Nones” category.
 (I was completing this column when this New York Times story hit my computer. Absolutely amazing this is happening in a country with 60 million Catholics.) 
The opening paragraph: “Dozens of local and federal law enforcement officers conducted a surprise search of the offices of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston on Wednesday, looking for evidence in a clergy sexual abuse case that has ensnared the local archbishop, Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo, who also serves as president of the United States Catholic Bishop’s Conference.”