Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Church and state in America: trends

In my spare time, I’ve been reading Mark Noll’s America’s God, which I recommend highly to anyone who needs a 500+ page diversion.

In the course of arguing that evangelical churches--above all, Methodists and Baptists (especially the former)--contributed mightily to the creation of our national identity in the early republic, Noll offers some telling statistics. In 1840, there were some 18,000 post offices and 21,000 postal employees; there were roughly 10,000 Methodist clergy (and three times as many clergy altogether). In 1860, there were roughly 28,000 post offices, 30,000 postal employees, 54,000 churches, 23,000 Methodist clergy, and 55,000 clergy altogether. By contrast, in 1997 there were 38,000 post offices, 850,000 postal employees, 350,000 churches, 39,000 Methodist clergy, and 350,000 clergy altogether. Viewed another way, the ratio of federal receipts to church receipts in 1860 was 2.5:1; in 1997, it was 23:1. The 1860 ratio of federal employees to clergy was roughly 1:1; the 1997 ratio was 8:1. In 1860, there were roughly 35 churches for every bank; in 1997, there were roughly 4 churches for every bank.

As Noll observes (p. 202), "To the extent that [these figures] are even approximately accurate, they might provide grounds for modern jeremiads about the lamentable decline of religion in America. For this book, they are meant to serve a historical purpose, which is to indicate the central, indispensable, defining place of the churches--at a time when most of the churches were evangelical--in the organization of American national culture on the eve of the Civil War."

Let me add three observations. First, the 1997 numbers for churches probably underestimate the number of people who are part of the "ecclesiastical economy," since they don’t take into account non-clerical church and parachurch employees. Second, I’d say less about the decline of the churches than about the rise of the federal government. Church growth has been quite healthy. What’s changed dramatically--d’oh-- is the size of the federal government.

Finally, I don’t think these numbers really capture cultural influence. Consider this, for example: the typical child spends seven hours a day, five days a week in a public school, while spending at most 6 hours a week in church (if he or she goes twice a week and twice on Sundays; 1-2 hours is probably closer to the norm. How much "quality time" with parents should we add to that?

Discussions - 4 Comments

Another factor: "Church" doesn't mean what it once did. On the evangelical side, we have so much airheaded pragmatism, e.g. Rick Warren. In the "mainstream," we have so many liberal activists, in dog collars but with mimimal religious content.


You're right. Most churches probably don't provide an alternative to "the culture."

Even outside the growth of government, the comparison between churches and commercial society is quite striking. There's another way (imperfect, of course) of thinking about cultural influence: money. I wonder how people's giving habits have changed - did people give more of their money to their churches than they do know (about 2%, I think, for regular churchgoers)? Or, to put it another way, do they devote more resources (time and money, mainly) to entertainment (movies, tv, video games, browsing web sites...) than they do to church and family activities?

2: Thanks, Professor Knippenberg. As David Frum once put it, for many "Christians" there is a gospel of "God will make you rich. God will make you thin. God will improve your sex life."

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