Will we U.S. Catholics return to the pews once the pandemic is over? Of course, some of us have already returned. Others fully intend to do so. Probably there are yet others, however, who have discovered that they enjoy Sunday mornings free and have begun to wonder why, apart from a feeling of guilt, they used to spend that time in church. And then there are the people—who knows at this point how many?—who have found new and different spiritual practices and nourishment over the course of the past year. Maybe they are Zooming with a community hundreds of miles away from where they live. Will they want to return to their parishes? Will they be willing to put up with the old normal—the poorly prepared homilies and lackluster music of many parishes; in English-speaking parishes, the insults to robust, plain-spoken English that abound in the 2011 translation of the Mass? What if these Catholics have even (heaven forfend!) been listening to women preach? Will they still be willing to attend and support a Church that is sunk in antiquated patriarchy? It isn’t hard to imagine that, for a lot of us, the answer might be yes. Old habits can reassert themselves quickly. But one can also imagine 2022 accelerating the rate of attrition by a couple of decades, leapfrogging ahead to what 2042 would have been like without the pandemic. Dissatisfactions that might have festered for decades might burst forth all at once. If they do, how will bishops and pastors respond?
David E. Campbell, Geoffrey C. Layman, and John C. Green have produced an essential study of a trend that was well under way before the pandemic; as they simply put it, “Americans are pulling away from religion.” (Full disclosure: I participated with Campbell in an Institute for Advanced Catholic Studies project on the growth of religious non-affiliation, and I hosted him through the center I direct to speak on that topic.) This is a work of political science, with an emphasis on science. The stories that the authors tell are grounded in data sets and experiments, the full details of which are available in a fifty-page online appendix. The book’s basic aim is to understand the political implications of what the authors call a “secular surge” in the United States, by which they mean “the expanding size, increased political engagement, and emerging collective identity of secular Americans.” The main lessons have to do with U.S. politics, but there are plenty of other lessons here both for Church leaders and for those who work in Catholic education.
Before the book turns to “political seismology”—its account of what changes the new fault line between secularists and religionists might bring to the political landscape—it surveys the lay of the land and clarifies such terms as “secularists” and “religionists.” People without religious affiliation—the so-called Nones—now constitute somewhere between 18 and 25 percent of the U.S. population, up from 5 percent in 1972. But, as the authors point out, there is considerable diversity among these people. The key distinction for this book is between non-religiosity and secularism. Some people without religious affiliation embrace distinctively secular beliefs, identities, and activities. These are the secularists: they have a “secular worldview,” and can thus be defined by what they are, not merely by what they are not. By contrast, non-religionists lack both religious and secular beliefs and values. As such, they are typically disengaged both from religious and civic institutions. Many of these disaffected non-religionists gravitated to Donald Trump in the 2016 primaries, drawn to his appeals to nativism and white racial grievance. According to the authors’ research, “only 43 percent of Nones are Secularists, while 45 percent are Non-Religionists.” The secularist Nones tend to have more education and higher incomes than the non-religionists.