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What's in Store for American Religion When Faith in God is Waning?

ow long can a people or a government endure without that simple bond under a watchful God?,” asked minister John Cotton, worried about church attendance and religiosity. Recent polling raises this question anew, with reports from Gallup and Pew Reports showing a “new low” in Americans who expressed belief in God. According to Gallup, only 81 percent of Americans answered affirmatively on whether they believed in the existence of God. Many lament this seeming decline in religious belief among Americans, and some openly fear the consequences of the erosion of a common bedrock like faith at a time when American society seems riven with so many public fissures on, well almost everything.

But America’s relationship with faith has never been steady. When Cotton first asked that question, the year was 1650 — not 2022. And much as then, our worried fascination with a perceived declension of God in American life might very well be premature, incomplete, or simply wrong. Cotton certainly was. He and other Puritan leaders feared that a precipitous decline in church membership in colonial New England would doom their fledgling theocracy, or at the very least secularize it to the point of ruin.  Their fear of a collapse of faith in America was actually more a concern for their collapse of power.

He was right to suspect Puritan authority (and thus, his authority) was eroding among younger generations of Americans, but not that they would suddenly abandon God. Their rejection of orthodox religious worship, it was said, would lead to the implosion of society. In fact, early America prospered. And it was precisely the younger generations who were overrepresented in the wave of religious revivalism and renewal that swept the country during the Great Awakening. Young people responded enthusiastically to a movement that promised them greater political and religious autonomy in a society that had denied them both to some degree. The Awakening called into question existing institutions and representations of God, fundamentally rupturing American religious and social normatives, a process known as schism. On the other hand, it also left in its wake a society more democratic, more empowered, and especially more religious.

The cycle continued: the people in power feared the collapse of religion in America, their assumptions  were wrong, and belief—new and old—reasserted itself in American life. In the wake of the American Revolution, and accelerating into the antebellum period preceding the American Civil War, Americans feared that a perceived decline in religiosity would inevitably accompany social and political decay. Many, especially a new group called evangelicals, interpreted cataclysms like the Civil War or economic downturns as signs that the country was being divinely punished for a growing lack of piety and subservience to God. Throughout the 19th century, slavery or opposition to it, immigration, economic and social change, were all seen at times by different interest groups as unmistakable signs that the country was falling apart. Even among those who disagreed on the symptoms, it was widely agreed that the cause was the perceived decline in American religiosity; the same “simple bond under a watchful God” that Cotton had referenced two centuries before.

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