America's Religious Identity -- Boom, Shocks, and After-shocks (Part 1)

The 1950s saw one of the largest booms in religiosity that Americans have ever witnessed.  All you had to do was open the doors and the churches were full.  Liberal and conservative, Mainline, Catholic, Evangelical -- everyone was doing well.  And the key to success, interestingly enough, were the men returning home from the War.  Yes, it was the returning GI's and their wives, the so-called "Greatest Generation" that fueled this incredible spike in religious (and civic) involvement.   Robert Putnam and Dennis Campbell lay out this scenario in American Grace.

[T]he distinguishing features of the men now accompanying their wives to church were that they were mostly young fathers, mostly veterans, and mostly college-educated.  The postwar boom in church going was fueled above all by men who had survived the Great Depression as teenagers and World War II as grunts, and were now ready at last to settle into a normal life, with a steady job, a growing family, a new house, and a car, and respectable middle-class status.  Church going was an important emblem of that respectability. (American Grace, pp. 85-86).
Thus, between 1940 and 1960 church membership climbed from about 49% of the population to 69%.  My parents were part of this generation -- well, my father was in the war, my mother was still in her mid-teens when the war ended and the Baby Boom began.   During this period Mainline churches were out front, the bastions of religious respectability.  I remember growing up in the late 1960s and early 1970s in Klamath Falls, Oregon, and our Episcopal Church was full of families.  The Disciples of Christ, like many denominations, purchased land in new subdivisions and planted churches there, expecting them to boom.  Consider that, according to the authors, between 1945 and 1960, in inflation-adjusted dollars, church construction went up from about $26 million to $615 million dollars.  As the construction of churches expanded, people did come, at least for a time, but then as the 1960s set in things began to change.  A new generation came of age and they were looking for something else besides religious respectability.  But more about this "shock" generation in Part 2. 

What needs to be noted here is that this generation of joiners and builders, the men and women who provided the backbone for our religious institutions and "peopled" our churches with children, are passing from the scene, and they are being replaced by generations much less interested in sustaining religious institutions.  [To be continued]


Country Parson said…
I'm looking forward to your continuation. Over the years I have had members of that generation shove photos of overflowing Sunday Schools under my nose demanding to know why they could do that and we (I) couldn't. It wondered, out loud, where all those kids, now mature adults, are today. Not in church, apparently. Perhaps whatever it was they learned in Sunday School was not up to the task of formation in Christ. It was not a well received observation.
David said…
We (those children) were taught to be personally responsible for ourselves. Not so much for the community. We were also constantly told how incredibly lucky we were, we were on the cusp of a new age. No more war. Hunger and sickness a thing of the past. They should have let the children do the dreaming.
John said…
"[G]enerations less interested in sustaining religious institutions."

From the description provided it would appear that the prior generations of " builders" was not so interested in sustianing religious institutions as they were interested in preserving their "emblem of respectability." In our time participation in religious institutions is no long a sure guaranty of respectability. Respectability is no longer measured by who we associate with, and in fact in many quarters respectability is no longer itself an object of desire. We no longer measure our self-worth by how our community measures us. Such has been a consequence of the decline of "community" in America.

Looking forward, if church is no longer a viable tool for attaining social status, is it now more possible to see church as it was originally intended, a community of believers, who build up and support one another in their faith and in their walk with God?

The first step is to discern Gods will regarding the church and its role in our society and in our world.

Anonymous said…
During the 1960s we went to church and Sunday School every Sunday with our five school age children. So did the two Palmer families, each with four children, and the Cowans with four, the Martz family with six. and three or four other families with three, four, or five. Right here we had the core for a fully graded Sunday School. A group of committed teachers were present week after week, and there were interesting study opportunities for the parents. Strong adult leaders provided morning and evening activities for some twenty teens. Demographics are part of the difference between churches back then and churches today.
Robert Cornwall said…
Keith, thank you for the reminder that family size matters. I always say, if we could get a couple of families with a dozen kids each, we'd be in business!

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