In March, Gallup reported that, for the the first time in more than eight decades of polling, a majority of Americans were not members of any church. For almost sixty years, those numbers had held steady, with over 70% of respondents reporting church membership. The number had barely moved right up until until 2000. Then, in the first decade of the 21st century, it declined significantly. Since then the rate of decline has increased, with the latest poll showing 47% of Americans still claiming church membership.
Gallup ties these numbers to “generational change,” citing a growth in the number of Americans who cite no religious preference, and noting that while a 66% of Americans born before 1946 belong to a church, that number declines with each seceding generation until only 36% of millennials report church membership. “The decline in church membership,” writes Gallup, “then, appears largely tied to population change, with those in older generations who were likely to be church members being replaced in the U.S. adult population with people in younger generations who are less likely to belong.” But that’s no answer at all. In fact, it’s just another way of saying exactly what the data shows—church membership is declining.
However, there is a good answer to why American churches are seeing fewer and fewer members. That answer is vividly illustrated in a action underway by the Roman Catholic bishops of the United States, who moved this week to sanction President Joe Biden for his belief in a woman’s right to control her own body.
American church membership is declining because many American churches have determined to hang a sign above their doors, one that a large majority of Americans can read quite well: “You are not welcome here.”
Joe Biden is only the second Catholic president in U.S. history. He is also a practicing Catholic who clearly feels deeply about his faith, taking time to attend services regularly even in the midst of the busiest circumstances. Biden actively seeks out a place to attend mass both before and after major decisions in his life, both when he is in the limelight, and when he is at his most alone. The church was, and is, key to his acceptance of the massive tragedies in his life, and his religious practices have sustained him at times where it would have been easy to surrender to despair.
Joe Biden is not just a member of the Catholic church, he is someone for whom that identity as a Catholic, is a lynchpin. It’s not just his history, it’s his core. Saying that Biden “goes to church regularly” is deeply underselling the extent to which he has committed himself to his faith all his life.
And so, knowing this, the Roman Catholic bishops of the United States are now setting out to hurt Biden—and defying the Pope to do it.
As The New York Times reports, 73 percent of American bishops voted to begin drafting a framework to deny communion—a fundamental aspect of the Catholic faith—to politicians who believe government should not criminalize abortion. This move, which is clearly directly aimed at Biden, is little short of expulsion. In times past, denial of the holy eucharist has been a statement of profound distance from the church. It’s one step away from being turned away at the door. A scarlet letter. And the bishops are clearly ecstatic at their ability to snub this man who, all his life, has leaned on the church and made his faith a central tenant of his actions.
That, in doing so, they are also sidelining not just a majority of Americans, but a majority of practicing Catholics, was surely only a minor factor into their decision. That they are actively underscoring a patriarchal claim over women likely never entered their minds.
To underline the pure political play being made here, the bishops will hold off on conducting the final vote on this action until closer to the midterm elections. That will allow them to put their decision on a nice platter and hand it over to Republicans so that they can declare—as numerous right-pundits already have—that Biden is not a “real Catholic” or a “real Christian”. Because, in 2021, you can only be a real Catholic, if you are a real, Trump-following Republicans.
The bishops have no illusion that their actions will cause President Biden to revise his position around abortion. They’re doing this expressly to hurt him. Yes, they’re doing it to harm Democrat’s chances politically, but even more they’re taking this action to hurt Joe Biden deeply, personally, where he lives. In both of these things, they may succeed. And then they will cherish how intensely they have caused harm to a good Catholic, and to many other good women and good men, and feel themselves justified. They will clutch that feeling to themselves and feel warmed by it.
Because 74% of American bishops demonstrated conclusively that the most important feature of their position, is the ability to act out of spite for their own satisfaction—no matter who it harms, or what damage it does to the church.
And it will do damage. Of course the bishops will get immediate and sustained approval from conservative Catholics who will rush to give them a big high-five for smacking down that oh-so-pious, not-a-real-Christian, Biden. Yeah, buddy, they will show him.
And the next Gallup poll will show that membership has dropped. Again. And Gallup will talk about how younger people just don’t have the commitment to church. Again. And the bishops will have a conference and figure out who needs to be hurt next time.