I've remarked before on the decline of Christian influence and of traditional ideas about morality in American culture, but since my last column on this subject I've encountered more evidence.
In the May 6 online edition of the New York Times, contributing op-ed writer Thomas B. Edsall wrote about a fascinating statistical comparison he'd undertaken.
Rioting in Baltimore had led conservatives to argue that the city's social unrest stemmed from a failure of liberalism and Democratic politics, Edsall said.
Intrigued, he hit on the novel idea of comparing conditions in Baltimore to those in Muskogee, Okla., a largely Republican, Bible-Belt city memorialized in Merle Haggard's classic 1969 anthem, Okie from Muskogee.
Remember that song? For those who weren't around, here are sample lyrics:
"I'm proud to be an Okie from Muskogee, a place where even squares can have a ball. We still wave Old Glory down at the courthouse, and white lightning's still the biggest thrill of all."
Folks didn't smoke marijuana in Muskogee, Merle proclaimed. They didn't take their trips on LSD.
As for sexual tenets, Muskogee-ites didn't make a party out of loving: "We like holding hands and pitching woo."
Well, today, friendly Muskogee couples evidently hold more than hands. In 2013, nearly half the births to whites in Muskogee were to unwed mothers.
That's notable, because a nationwide increase in out-of-wedlock births often is portrayed as a problem among poor blacks in inner cities.
Also, Muskogee, population 38,000, is ravaged by methamphetamine abuse, has nine drug treatment centers and logs drug arrests by the hundreds.
Expanding his search, Edsall discovered that in 2010, nine U.S. states recorded white teenage pregnancy rates at least 10 percentage points higher than the national average for whites: Oklahoma, West Virginia, Arkansas, South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, Louisiana and Kentucky.
All nine states voted for Republican Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential election. In eight of those states, the biggest religious group was the conservative, evangelical Southern Baptist Convention.
There's much more in his lengthy article. It includes unsettling heartland statistics concerning poverty and cohabitation outside marriage, for instance.
This line caught my attention: "Conservative religions have proved powerless to halt unwed motherhood, cohabitation and other trends that defy traditional morality."
You might say, even the Bible Belt doesn't care much about the Bible anymore.
In fact, these same social trends now extend not only across the United States, Edsall said, but across much of the world. More on that in a moment.
Meanwhile, the Pew Research Center issued a new report about religion in America, based on 2014 data. (In an earlier column, I had cited older Pew numbers.)
As reported by Nate Cohn in the New York Times online on May 12, Pew found "the Christian share of the population has been declining for decades, but the pace rivals or even exceeds that of the country's most significant demographic trends, like the growing Hispanic population. It is not confined to the coasts, the cities, the young or the other liberal and more secular groups where one might expect it, either."
Simultaneously, the ranks of Americans claiming no religious affiliation are swelling. "Nones," as they're called, number 56 million, or 23 percent of adults. That's up from 36 million and 16 percent in 2007, roughly a 50 percent increase.
You might ask why all this is happening, why Christianity and its traditional moral codes increasingly seem irrelevant to greater swaths of people.
I've been asking myself that. I'm not a social scientist or even a theologian, but here are what I suspect might be four contributing factors to religion's loss of influence:
1) The Second Demographic Transition. I'd never heard of this until I read Edsall's op-ed. It's a global phenomenon, apparently well-known among demographers.
"Regions as diverse as Europe, Japan, South America, Canada and the United States are undergoing a profound shift in fertility, reproductive attitudes and behavior," Edsall wrote. "The changes include rejection of premarital virginity, social acceptance of single parenting, and the replacement of values stressing family obligation with values stressing personal autonomy."
Around the world, a Belgian demographer told Edsall, old moral controls have weakened and behavior previously thought to be immoral is now destigmatized.
I'd like to know more about how this transition is affecting faith on other continents and within other religions, as well as here at home.
2) The explosion of the Internet. It's no coincidence that millennials, who appear to be leading the rejection of traditional religion, also are the most plugged in. The Internet offers an endless variety of alternative spiritual systems and debunkers and philosophical niches and just information in general. Christianity faces more competition than it once did.
3) Aggressive evangelism by atheists. A small subset of nones, sometimes called the New Atheists, are battling religion in the marketplace of ideas, competing for converts, lampooning belief, making atheism acceptable — and have been pretty effective.
4) The widespread perception that Christianity and Republican politics are synonyms. Scroll through readers' comments below online articles that mention faith. You'll typically find numerous comments from people who assume all Christians are ultra-conservatives. It's the same with the emails I receive from my columns. The strident mingling of church and politics has turned off many folks.
There probably are other factors in this social sea change.
I'd be interested to hear your theories.