In my last post, I discussed the erosion of social trust in the United States and made the case that parishes have an important countervailing role to play in the restoration and maintenance of social trust. Echoing Pope Francis, I wrote:
Little acts are powerful and they do add up to something bigger. They add up if we do the small things not only one-on-one for individual people but also to build beloved communities—families, parishes, workplaces, civic organizations—that then do bigger things for even bigger communities and more people.
But what’s the bigger picture? What major trends are the little actions up against?
Recently, I became a subscriber to sociologist Ryan Burge’s excellent Substack, Graphs about Religion. Here and in his posts on X (Twitter), Burge creates and comments on gorgeous, inventively designed graphs about trends in American religion. On September 4, Burge posted an article titled, “Church Attendance Used to Drive Up Trust, It Doesn’t Anymore,” in which he took a deep dive into the data from the General Social Survey (GSS) from the 1970s though the 2010s. Here is what he found.
Since the early 1970s, the GSS has been asking Americans, “Generally speaking, would you say that most people can be trusted or that you can't be too careful in dealing with people?” At that time, just under 50% said yes, most people can be trusted, and 50% replied that you can’t be too careful. A small percentage, under 5%, said that it depends on the circumstances. That “it depends” answer has stayed flat over 50 years (it has inched up to about 9%), while the other two answers have steadily diverged. In 2022, 65% of people chose the distrusted option and 26% said other people could be trusted. While the divergence has been steady, Burge notices that “trust really took a dive in the 1990s. It dropped about eight percentage points in that decade from the prior one.”
Burge associates the trust responses with frequency of church attendance. In every decade up to the 2010s, the more often that someone went to church, the more likely they were to trust their fellow citizens. But that relationship flipped in the aughts decade, especially starting around 2017. The upshot:
It’s clear that at a minimum, there’s no more positive association between religious attendance and trust. If anything, it may be a slightly negative relationship now … Religious attendance used to clearly drive-up interpersonal trust, by about 5% from the bottom of the attendance spectrum to the top. Now, overall trust [among frequent attenders] seems to decline just a bit (2-3 percentage points).
Burge asks, what’s going on? Here is where he can only speculate because generalizations from data speak to correlation, not fully to causation. His hunch is this:
Church used to be a great way to interact with folks who were different than you. They voted for a different candidate; they came from a different economic background. Folks with doctorates sitting next to folks with a high school diploma. That offers a tremendous amount of opportunities to learn about other people. Build bridges, generate social capital, and all kinds of good things. Now, houses of worship have become monocultures.
The research I have been doing for the past three years—interviewing members of a handful of Catholic and Protestant churches and observing their worship, volunteerism and social life—partially confirms, yet also complicates, the picture from the polls. Greater diversity of members’ careers, education, race/ethnicity and socioeconomics does promote the social capital that Burge mentions. But churches are going to be monocultural in at least some regards; they cannot always do a great deal about increasing diversity on every front. Here’s a very brief portrait of how that can play out.
An Evangelical megachurch in New England describes itself on its website with the adjectives, “Jesus-focused, multiethnic, modern, multigenerational, family-friendly.” In my visits to this church on several Sundays, the reality lived up to the advertising on all five points. The church service and sermons aim to unite the people in expressing joyous faith, and they constantly offer opportunities to “meet your church neighbor.” I have not heard political and culture-conflict issues mentioned there.
By contrast, an Evangelical megachurch in Michigan, despite having many of these same qualities, leans into the culture wars. As profiled in the Atlantic, the church’s pastor has grown his church in part because he offers sermons, conferences and opportunities for public witness that reflect the grievance culture of Fox News and the One America Network. Reflecting its local community but also drawing together a self-selected community, this church’s congregation is much more white than the other one.
Finally, a New England Catholic parish that, after two waves of mergers, serves all the Catholics in a large town, is ethnically diverse to a level that reflects the demographics in the area. For reasons of both its size and the ecclesiology of Catholicism, its membership appears to represent a wider socioeconomic range that than the other two churches. Like the first church, it rarely touches controversial social issues from the pulpit or in any public way. Both of these churches might be said to be trying to prevent becoming political monocultures in a practice of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” I would argue, as I did at the end of my prior post, that that’s a flawed approach, even though it is common.
The differences that stand out between the Catholic parish and the New England megachurch on trying to avoid becoming monocultures overall is that the Catholic parish has more raw material to work with but doesn’t have a full strategy for doing so. The absence of youth and families in the pews is noticeable and becoming worse. The megachurch very clearly wants to be multiethnic, multigenerational and family-friendly, and it crafts its services and programs accordingly.
Here are my hunches: The Michigan megachurch enjoys a lot of trust among its members, but these members are likely to look with suspicion on their fellow citizens who differ from them. The New England megachurch and the Catholic parish have similar good trust in general among their members, yet their sheer size means that the benefits of the trust are only felt with the people they know at church. I don’t have reason to doubt that their active members are, more so than not, taking attitudes of trust out into society with them. But the Catholics have been getting hurt in their trust at the hands of the Church itself, both by mergers and clerical misconduct (a priest in this parish was recently removed under the shadow of scandal). The ultimate risk for the Catholic parish in building trust is that there will not be people to rub shoulders with.
Brian Stiltner is an ethicist and a professor of theology and religious studies at Sacred Heart University.