America's Religious Identity -- Boom, Shocks, and After-shocks (Part 2 -- Long 1960s)
In the Post World War II era, religion boomed in America, along with all sorts of other service and fraternal organizations. Their wives, many of whom had worked at America's factories during the war, returned home, had babies (remember Leave It to Beaver?). This is the generation to which the famed Baby Boomer Generation was born, and as the War babies and post-war babies matured into adulthood, they encountered a new kind of world, and in many ways remade the world -- especially religiously.
According to Robert Putnam and Dennis Campbell, writing in American Grace, there has been one major shock (the Long 1960s) and two Aftershocks since the religious boom of the 1950s. Religious attendance among young adults reached its apex in 1957, when 51% of young adults claimed regular church attendance (growing from about 31% in 1950). That number would fall just as quickly as it rose as the 1960s hit.
The fraction of all Americans who said that religion was "very important" to them personally fell from 75 percent in 1952 and 70 percent as late as 1965 to 52 percent in 1978, while the fraction who said that "religion can answer today's problems" dropped from 81 percent in 1957 to 62 percent in 1974. According to the Gallup Poll, weekly church attendance nationwide plummeted from 49 percent in 1958 to 42 percent in 1969, by far the largest decline on this measure ever recorded in such a brief period. (American Grace, pp, 97-98).
What is most telling is that even as total attendance figures saw a decline, this was most pronounced among young adults. They note that "among twenty-somethings, the rate of decline was more than twice the national average." For those fifty and over, there was no change recorded, but for those who were age 18 -29, the drop from 1957 to 1971 was from 51% to 28%. This cohort is now in their late 50s to early 60s, and while some of them came back to church, not all did. The reasons for the decline are many -- including reactions to war, civil rights, sexuality, and more.
This was the period of Shock, there was an aftershock to follow, and we must move to it in the next posting.