TRENDS & Liberal religions’ loss has not been our gain. Conservative religions, at best, used to hold steady as a percentage of the population; now we are not even doing that.

by , “Flunking Sainthood,” 5/8/18.

… For a long time, the strict-religions theory seemed to explain a great deal, at least in the United States: in the 1980s and 1990s, conservative religions were indeed thriving even as mainline Protestantism’s numbers went down the toilet.

More recent work has called this into question, driven by the reality that almost all religious traditions are now struggling — even conservative ones like evangelical Protestantism and Mormonism, which once seemed so reliably immune.

Sociologist Darren Sherkat calls the old strict-church theory the “supply side” thesis, since it assumes that religion is akin to a free market economy in which a religion might increase its market share through the conversions of people who are attracted to its unique message. Sherkat contrasts it with the other main thesis that is gaining ground, secularization:

. . . secularization theories argue that as the United States becomes more secular, religious attachments will become less important. Hence, secularization proponents expect to find that nonaffiliation is increasing, that religious switching is more common, and that more fundamentalist and exclusivist religious groups will decline or only increase through fertility differentials.

And that is indeed the case: all three of those factors he mentions are now happening. If supply-side theories alone could explain why liberal religions seemed to decline in the 1990s and beyond, Sherkat argues, we would see evidence that the exodus from liberal traditions such as mainline Protestantism was matched by a corresponding growth in conservative religions that was not already due to those religions’ higher fertility – and the data don’t show that.

That’s not to say that the secularization theorists have it all right, either; Sherkat says their “grand, linear, evolutionary perspective” of religious decline “is just as far-fetched as the supply-side stories yearning for a sectarian Christian America.” Rather, religious decline is related to broader demographic patterns that are complex and ever-changing, from declining fertility and immigration to generational replacement. A big part of the problem is that Americans are having fewer kids.

Princeton sociologist Robert Wuthnow explains it well:

Some argued that [mainline Protestantism declined because] people wanted strict churches and these had become too lax. The better evidence, though, showed that nearly all the decline in mainline denominations was attributable to demographics. Mainline members were better educated and more likely to be middle class or upper-middle class than the rest of the population. As such, mainline members married later, had children later, and had fewer of them. Memberships declined because there were simply fewer children being born into these denominations. Evangelical Protestants, meanwhile, escaped these demographic problems. As long as they kept marrying young and having large families, their growth would make up for the mainline losses. There is just one problem: the same demographics that caused problems for mainline churches are now prevalent in the whole society.

To sum up: liberal religions’ loss has not been our gain. Conservative religions, at best, used to hold steady as a percentage of the population; now we are not even doing that.

Instead, the real growth has been in nonaffiliation, as people are no longer switching religions so much as dropping out altogether. About 7% of Americans claimed no religious identification in the early 1970s, when the General Social Survey began tracking it. In 2016, according to PRRI, that group (the “Nones”) had nearly quadrupled to 26% of the U.S. population – and there are signs it will only accelerate through cohort replacement. As you can see from the infographic up top, among younger Millennials in 2016, 39% had no affiliation.

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MEMBERSHIP & The Strict Church Theory: Why Strict Churches Grow Faster #LaurenceIannaccone #PennStateUniv

bpc_icon_theory.jpg Strict Church Theory


Strict churches are stronger because they reduce free riding, or the ability of members to belong yet not contribute to the group. The theory predicts that strict churches will tend to retain members and foster ongoing commitment while lenient churches will tend to lose members and exhibit very low levels of commitment. This theory builds off of rational choice assumptions and is compatible with the religious economies perspective.


Iannaccone, Laurence. 1994. “Why Strict Churches are Strong.” The American Journal of Sociology. 99(5): 1180-1211.

Kelley, Dean. (1972) 1986. Why Conservative Churches are Growing.Macon, GA: Mercer University Press.

by The Association of Religion Data Archives (ARDA),

Department of Sociology
The Pennsylvania State University
211 Oswald Tower
University Park, PA 16802-6207

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More Theories

Learn about other theories of religion:
arrow.jpgChurch/Sect Cycle
arrow.jpgCivilization Theory
arrow.jpgCognitive Theories
arrow.jpgConversion Theory
arrow.jpgCyclical Theory
arrow.jpgDemographic Transition Theory
arrow.jpgModernization Theory
arrow.jpgRational Choice/Religious Economies
arrow.jpgSocial Network Theory
arrow.jpgSub-Cultural Identity Theory of Persistence and Strength

ALCOHOL & Fast Growing Churches More Likely to Set Rules on Alcohol Use

by David Briggs , US Congregational Life Survey, 7/22/13.

The actress Katherine Heigl has publicly lamented, “If I start going back to church, I’d have to stop the smoking and drinking.”

There is reason for her and others to feel that way.

While many congregations have dropped prohibitions on activities such as homosexual behavior and sex before marriage, the rate of religious communities setting rules on alcohol and tobacco remained fairly steady, according to the U.S. Congregational Life Survey.

In the case of rapidly growing congregations, there is some evidence of increasing strictness regarding both activities. One study showed the percentage of fast-growing churches in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) having rules on smoking and drinking increased more than four-fold from 2002 to 2011.

In 2002, just 2 percent of fast growing Presbyterian congregations reported having special rules or prohibitions regarding members smoking or drinking alcohol. In 2011, nine percent of fast growing churches had special rules on smoking and 11 percent reported rules on drinking.

Smoking chart
The figures are in stark contrast to the dramatic decline in the percentage of fast-growing congregations with special rules regarding homosexual behavior or unmarried adults living together.

More than three-quarters of fast-growing Presbyterian congregations in 2002 reported having rules on homosexual behavior; just 17 percent reported having such rules in 2011. The percentage of fast-growing congregations with rules or prohibitions on cohabitation dropped from 55 percent in 2002 to 13 percent in 2011.

Ida Smith-Williams, a researcher with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the U.S. Congregational Life Survey, compared survey data from 114 fast growing Presbyterian churches in 2011 with responses from 93 fast growing Presbyterian congregations in 2002.

Overall data from the congregational profiles in the 2001 and 2008 U.S. congregational life surveys show far more rapid declines among churches in reporting special rules on cohabitation and homosexual behavior than in rules regarding smoking and drinking.

In the 2001 survey, a quarter of congregations reported having special rules or prohibitions regarding alcohol use and 15 percent reported rules on smoking. In the 2008 survey, 19 percent of congregations had rules on drinking and 13 percent had regulations on smoking.

Compare those modest drops to the changes in the areas of sexuality. Two-thirds of congregations in the 2001 survey reported having special rules on homosexual behavior and 55 percent had guidelines about unmarried adults living together. In the 2008 congregational profile, 38 percent of congregations reported special rules on homosexual behavior and 32 percent had rules on cohabitation.

Why were the rules on smoking and drinking more likely to remain a part of congregational life, or in the cases of some fast growing churches become even more prevalent, during a period of growing religious individualism?

In part, the retention of guidelines on alcohol and tobacco use may also reflect a shifting emphasis in religion and the larger culture in promoting public health even if it means greater regulation of individuals.

That fast-growing churches would be more associated with rules on drinking and smoking also may not be so surprising.

In analyzing the findings, Smith-Williams said the first thing that came to her mind was the strict church theory described by sociologists such as Laurence Iannaccone that notes having clear guidelines tends to screen out members who lack commitment and stimulate participation among those who remain.

Many congregations appear to be easing up on older prohibitions. But none of these special rules appear to be disappearing from American religious life. The rules congregations choose, and how they decide to promote them, are a key part of their identity.

Read more on how growing congregations are keeping up with changing times.

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