Poll: US synagogue membership stable, as number of churchgoers plummets
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Poll: US synagogue membership stable, as number of churchgoers plummets

Slightly over half of American Jews are members of a place of worship, Gallup finds; for Christian worshipers, biggest drops are seen among Democrats and Hispanics

People worship at Grace Baptist Church in Mt. Vernon, New York, April 17, 2016. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
People worship at Grace Baptist Church in Mt. Vernon, New York, April 17, 2016. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

The number of US adults who belong to a church or other religious institution has plunged by 20 percentage points over the past two decades, hitting a low of 50 percent last year, according to a new Gallup poll published Thursday.

At the same time, the number of Jewish Americans who are members of a synagogue has likely remained steady, the survey found.

Gallup said church membership was 70% in 1999 — and was close to or slightly higher than that figure for most of the 20th century. Since 1999, the figure has fallen steadily, while the percentage of American adults with no religious affiliation has jumped from 8% to 19%.

Among major demographic groups, the biggest drops were recorded among Democrats and Hispanics.

Among Americans identifying with a particular religion, there was a sharp drop in church membership among Catholics — falling from 76% to 63% over the past two decades as the church was buffeted by clergy sex-abuse scandals. Membership among Protestants dropped from 73% to 67% percent over the same period.

The study did not specifically look at other religions, but said that the number of Jews and Mormons who have had membership at a place of worship has likely remained consistent over the past two decades. For Jews, slightly more than 50% have maintained their membership at a synagogue.

American Jews prepare for Passover in Brooklyn, New York, April 17, 2019. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

For Mormons, close to 90% have been members of a church over the past 20 years.

Among Hispanic Americans, church membership slipped from 68% to 45% since 2000, a much bigger decline than for non-Hispanic Americans.

The poll noted a big discrepancy over that 20-year period with regard to political affiliation: Church membership among Democrats fell from 71% to 48%, compared to a more modest drop from 77% to 69% among Republicans.

David Campbell, a University of Notre Dame political science professor who studies religion’s role in US civic life, attributed the partisan divide to “the allergic reaction many Americans have to the mixture of religion and conservative politics.”

“Increasingly, Americans associate religion with the Republican Party — and if they are not Republicans themselves, they turn away from religion,” he said.

Mark Chaves, a professor of sociology, religion and divinity at Duke University, said that as recently as the 1970s, it was difficult to predict someone’s political party by the frequency of their church attendance.

“Now it’s one of the best predictors,” he said. “The correlation between religiosity and being Republican has increased over the years.”

The overall decline in church membership is driven by cultural and generational factors, said Nancy Ammerman, a professor of the sociology of religion at Boston University.

“Culturally, we are seeing significant erosion in the trust people have for institutions in general and churches in particular,” she said. “We are also seeing a generational shift as the ‘joiner’ older generation dies off and a generation of non-joiners comes on the scene.”

The new Gallup findings underscore that generational dynamic. Among Americans 65 and older, church membership in 2016-2018 averaged 64% percent, compared to 41% among those aged 18-29.

The St. Augustine Roman Catholic Church in Philadelphia, September 27, 2015. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

“The challenge is clear for churches, which depend on loyal and active members to keep them open and thriving,” wrote Gallup poll analyst Jeffrey Jones. “How do they find ways to convince some of the unaffiliated religious adults in society to make a commitment to a particular house of worship of their chosen faith?”

“These trends are not just numbers, but play out in the reality that thousands of US churches are closing each year,” Jones added. “Religious Americans in the future will likely be faced with fewer options for places of worship, and likely less convenient ones, which could accelerate the decline in membership even more.”

Professor Scott Thumma, who teaches sociology of religion at Hartford Seminary, suggested several likely factors behind the decline. Among them, he said, are the phenomena of religious young adults delaying marriage, postponing having children, and, when they do, having fewer children.

He also suggested there was diminished social pressure to formally join organizations.

“I’ve encountered many persons in churches that have attended for several years but did not officially join or become a member,” he said by email. “This is also evident in persons switching from one congregation to another without joining any.”

The findings are based on Gallup surveys conducted over the last 20 years, with most surveys including at least 2,000 US adults and having a margin of error of plus or minus three percentage points. Some findings are based on aggregated interviews from 1998-2000 and 2016-2018, with each period including interviews with more than 7,000 adults.

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