April 19, 2019
“What’s your church?” In certain parts of the US it’s still one of the first questions you hear when meeting people for the first time. Yet, a new survey by Gallup finds that membership in religious congregations is plummeting. Only half (50%) of the public report that they are a member of a house of worship — church, synagogue or mosque. This represents a precipitous decline over the past few years. In 2013, just five years earlier, nearly six in ten (59%) Americans said they were a member of a religious congregation. The drop marks the first time in the history of Gallup’s polling, which stretches back to 1938, that fewer than a majority of the public reported belonging to a religious congregation.
Younger and older Americans are increasingly inhabiting completely different religious planets. Only 42% of Millennials claim membership in a religious congregation compared to more than two-thirds (68%) of Traditionalists, sometimes referred to as the Silent Generation, the cohort born in or before 1945. Even more notable than the 26-point generation gap between America’s oldest and youngest adults, is that only 57% of religious Millennials—those who identify with a religious tradition — report being members of a congregation.
Nowhere has the disparity in church membership become more acute then between Democrats and Republicans. In the late 1990s, more than seven in ten Democrats (71%) and Republicans (77%) said they belonged to a congregation. Today, fewer than half (48%) of Democrats are members of a church, synagogue or mosque while 69% of Republicans are.
There is a yawning divide between America’s conservatives and liberals when it comes to congregational membership. While two-thirds (67%) of conservatives report that they belong to a place of worship only 37% of liberals say the same. In the late 1990s, a majority of liberals (56%) claimed membership in a religious congregation.
The religious gap between married and unmarried Americans has also grown over the last two decades. Today, fewer than half (45%) of unmarried Americans report being members in a religious congregation compared to 59% of married Americans. In the late 1990s, marital status made much less difference in the likelihood that one belonged to a church. 64% of unmarried Americans and 71% of married Americans were members of a church or other house of worship at that time.
The 2018 General Social Survey found that nearly one in four (23%) of Americans are now religiously unaffiliated, but twice as many members of the public no longer claim membership in a formal religious community. Moreover, while belief in God remains strong in the US — if perhaps more varied than previously thought — the vitality of religious life depends on regular association and interaction that congregational membership provides.