A new census of U.S. religion indicates that LDS church membership grew by 50 percent between 2000 and 2010, to 6.1 million. According to Catholic World News, the census estimates that there are now “50.0 million evangelical Protestants [and] 22.7 million mainline Protestants (a decline of 13% over ten years).” What’s surprising to me about this is that — despite the unrelievedly pessimistic reporting of the death of the mainline churches over the past couple of decades — there are still almost half as many mainline Protestants as evangelicals. It takes time to spend down cultural capital. (Also, when it comes to religion, you never know when the key investor might put some more capital into a struggling enterprise.)
The census also reports that only 48.8 percent of Americans have a formal religious affiliation — so we’re a deeply religious country that is nonetheless significantly less “churchy” than it used to be. A similar dynamic is evident in Catholicism specifically: The number of “active Catholics” fell by 5 percent over the 2000-10 period. This may be what Pope Benedict XVI means when he talks about a “smaller” church: The number of people in the formal organization is declining, but anyone who follows Catholicism closely can testify that the commitment, enthusiasm, and thus cultural impact of those who remain is greater. In my (Protestant) understanding of ecclesiology, there is a role for both the visible churches and the invisible church, and that so many Americans who are religious believers choose not to have an institutional affiliation is not necessarily something to worry about. Churchill famously referred to himself not as a pillar of the church but as a buttress: one who supports it from the outside. The visible churches need buttresses, and in America, they have many.