Small wonder the church is shrinking

It seems the church is shrinking.

The mosque and synagogue, too, for that matter. Not that this is breaking news. It has long been known that the numbers of Americans who belong to religious organizations are dwindling. But last week, that decline hit a milestone. For the first time since Gallup began tracking religious membership back in 1937, it has dropped below half. Back then, 73% of us belonged to some house of worship. Today, just 48% do.

Experts cite multiple reasons for the slippage, including the Catholic Church’s many sex scandals, growing distrust of institutions in general and a modern disinclination to be pigeonholed into any single theological tradition. While there is surely merit to all those observations, it seems likely that where Christianity — more specifically, the white, evangelical church — is concerned, there is also another explanation for the disappearance of the missing congregants:

They were driven away.

Consider it a byproduct of the rise, a little over 40 years ago, of the so-called religious right as a political force. Suddenly, Jesus of Nazareth, the itinerant rabbi whose life, death and life have inspired believers for two millennia, was adopted as a mascot of Republican conservatism.

Granted, the 1980s was hardly the first time — or the last — people allowed their politics to be informed by their faith. As the lives and ministries of Jim Wallis, Jeremiah Wright, William Barber II and Martin Luther King Jr. amply attest, the progressive left has often done the same thing.

No, the difference 40 years ago wasn’t the fact of faith in politics, but the substance of it. We went from “feed my sheep” to cutbacks in school lunch programs. From “love ye one another” to ignoring AIDS because it was “only” killing gays. From “woe unto you who are rich” to tax cuts for the wealthy and trickle-down leftovers for everyone else. From compassion for “the least of these” to condemnation of mythical welfare queens and other lazy and undeserving poor.

It was a faith less of joy than of perpetual outrage, less of hope than of abiding fear. Which means that ultimately, it was not faith at all, only the degradation thereof. It reached its sorry nadir when the religious right made common cause with the 45th president. He broke commandments like glass, but they didn’t care. He was a biblical illiterate, but they didn’t notice. Indeed, this year at CPAC, when his people rolled him out in the form of a literal golden idol, they lined up to take pictures.

And really, if you were a person seeking God, seeking the comfort of faith, the solace and sustenance of faith, would you be drawn to that? Fat chance.

Small wonder the church is shrinking. And yet, even when they feel let down by the church, seekers don’t stop seeking. Note that Gallup also reports that, depending upon how you word the question, as many as 87% of us still profess belief in God.

That’s a minor miracle. You might even call it good news. And it speaks to the challenge — and opportunity — facing every preacher watching a congregation dwindle.

Faith can shape politics, yes. But when politics start shaping faith, maybe you’ve lost your way. When you find yourself preaching exclusion and rejection in the name of Him who said, “Come unto me,” maybe it’s time to recalibrate. Or even repent. Maybe that’s what the people who used to fill those pews are waiting for. Because, yes, the church is shrinking.

But they know that God is not.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Email him at lpitts@miamiherald.com.