Wednesday, October 19, 2005


... be blamed on liberalism; so say researchers from three universities. So what explains the decline?

According to the researchers, the same thing which explains population declines in the American black population (here, here, & here), in Europe, and in Russia ... declines in live birth rates.
Differences in fertility rates account for 70 percent of the decline of mainline Protestant church membership from 1900 to 1975 and the simultaneous rise in conservative church membership, the [researchers] said.
"For most of the 20th century, conservative women had more children than mainline women did," wrote three sociologists -- Michael Hout of the University of California-Berkley, Andrew Greeley of the University of Arizona, and Melissa Wilde of Indiana University -- in an Oct. 4 article in Christian Century.

"It took most of the 20th century for conservative women to adopt family-planning practices that have become dominant in American society," the writers said. "Or to put the matter differently, the so-called decline of the mainline may ultimately be attributable to its earlier approval of contraception."
Mainline churches held title to 60 percent of total Protestants in 1900, the share fell to 40 percent by 1960.
Many religious observers and some sociologists attributed the drop ... to the lethargy of liberalism and the appeal of biblical certainty. But simple demographics can account for almost three fourths of the mainline decline, the trio of [researchers] said.
"In the years after the baby boom, the mainline [fertility] rate declined earlier than did the rate of conservatives. Only in recent decades has the fertility rates of the two groups become similar."
The study covered the period 1900 to 1975 and the differences in fertility rates between conservative church women (Baptist, Assembly of God, Pentecostal, etc.) and Mainline church women (Presbyterian, Methodist, Episcopal, Lutheran, etc.).
The trio also studied other factors that could have influenced the real-life shift in memberships. For instance, they looked at how many people switched from mainline to conservative churches during the period, and vice versa. [...]

The researchers investigated other possible causes for mainline decline -- support for homosexual and abortion rights, a lower view of the Bible, a higher "apostasy" rate, and fewer conversions from outside the Christian fold. But they dismissed these other factors as "irrelevant" because none could produce numerical changes significant enough to explain the shift in church membership.
"Higher fertility and better retention thus account for the conservatives' rising share of the Protestant population," they concluded.
I'd suggest liberalism is indeed related to the decline. The very philosophies of life which led the better educated, better placed, better bred, white-collar mainliners to decrease their average family size were liberal at the root (large family stigma, peer pressure, materialistic elitism, selfishness, greed, and a culturally narrowed vision are all elements of a liberal worldview).

These same liberal philosophies are increasingly present in conservative church circles.
However, the authors suggested, the trends underlying the mainline's decline "may be nearing their end."

Fertility rates are now virtually the same between the two groups and will produce only a 1 percent decline in mainline membership over the next decade, they noted.
"Unless conservative Protestants increase their family size or mainline Protestants further reduce theirs, this factor in mainline decline will not be present in the future."
Moreover, fewer people are now switching membership from mainline churches to conservative ones. While 30 percent of conservatives in the 1930s had come from mainline churches, only 10 percent of those counted among the conservatives in the early '90s had made the switch, the authors said.

However, the sociologists cautioned, it will be some time before the conservatives' "demographic momentum" exhausts itself -- perhaps 50 years -- because those born during the conservatives' belated baby boom of the 1970s will be filling those pews for quite a while.
Still those of us who consider ourselves conservatives cannot afford to sit on our rump roasts and wait for the time to come ... we need to study the data and determine its validity, then respond accordingly.

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