In examining the state of religion in the United States today, we see the complexity of religious life in our society, plus emerging trends like the rise of the megachurch, secularization, and the role of religion in social change.
Religion and Social Change
Religion has historically been an impetus to social change. The translation of sacred texts into everyday, nonscholarly language empowered people to shape their religions. Disagreements between religious groups and instances of religious persecution have led to wars and genocides. The United States is no stranger to religion as an agent of social change. In fact, the United States' first European arrivals were acting largely on religious convictions when they were compelled to settle in the United States.
Liberation theology began as a movement within the Roman Catholic Church in the 1950s and 1960s in Latin America, and it combines Christian principles with political activism. It uses the church to promote social change via the political arena, and it is most often seen in attempts to reduce or eliminate social injustice, discrimination, and poverty. A list of proponents of this kind of social justice (although some pre-date liberation theory) could include Francis of Assisi, Leo Tolstoy, Martin Luther King Jr., and Desmond Tutu.
Although begun as a moral reaction against the poverty caused by social injustice in that part of the world, today liberation theology is an international movement that encompasses many churches and denominations. Liberation theologians discuss theology from the point of view of the poor and the oppressed, and some interpret the scriptures as a call to action against poverty and injustice. In Europe and North America, feminist theology has emerged from liberation theology as a movement to bring social justice to women.
A megachurch is a Christian church that has a very large congregation averaging more than 2,000 people who attend regular weekly services. As of 2009, the largest megachurch in the United States was in Houston Texas, boasting an average weekly attendance of more than 43,000 (Bogan 2009). Megachurches exist in other parts of the world, especially in South Korea, Brazil, and several African countries, but the rise of the megachurch in the United States is a fairly recent phenomenon that has developed primarily in California, Florida, Georgia, and Texas.
Since 1970 the number of megachurches in this country has grown from about fifty to more than 1,000, most of which are attached to the Southern Baptist denomination (Bogan 2009). Approximately six million people are members of these churches (Bird and Thumma 2011). The architecture of these church buildings often resembles a sport or concert arena. The church may include jumbotrons (large-screen televisual technology usually used in sports arenas to show close-up shots of an event). Worship services feature contemporary music with drums and electric guitars and use state-of-the-art sound equipment. The buildings sometimes include food courts, sports and recreation facilities, and bookstores. Services such as child care and mental health counseling are often offered.
Typically, a single, highly charismatic pastor leads the megachurch; at present, most are male. Some megachurches and their preachers have a huge television presence, and viewers all around the country watch and respond to their shows and fundraising.
Besides size, U.S. megachurches share other traits, including conservative theology, evangelism, use of technology and social networking (Facebook, Twitter, podcasts, blogs), hugely charismatic leaders, few financial struggles, multiple sites, and predominantly white membership. They list their main focuses as youth activities, community service, and study of the Scripture (Hartford Institute for Religion Research b).
Critics of megachurches believe they are too large to promote close relationships among fellow church members or the pastor, as could occur in smaller houses of worship. Supporters note that, in addition to the large worship services, congregations generally meet in small groups, and some megachurches have informal events throughout the week to allow for community-building (Hartford Institute for Religion Research a).
Historical sociologists Émile Durkheim, Max Weber, and Karl Marx and psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud anticipated secularization and claimed that the modernization of society would bring about a decrease in the influence of religion. Weber believed membership in distinguished clubs would outpace membership in Protestant sects as a way for people to gain authority or respect.
Conversely, some people suggest secularization is a root cause of many social problems, such as divorce, drug use, and educational downturn. One-time presidential contender Michele Bachmann even linked Hurricane Irene and the 2011 earthquake felt in Washington D.C. to politicians’ failure to listen to God (Ward 2011).
While some scholars see the United States becoming increasingly secular, others observe a rise in fundamentalism. Compared to other democratic, industrialized countries, the United States is generally perceived to be a fairly religious nation. Whereas 65 percent of U.S. adults in a 2009 Gallup survey said religion was an important part of their daily lives, the numbers were lower in Spain (49 percent), Canada (42 percent), France (30 percent), the United Kingdom (27 percent), and Sweden (17 percent) (Crabtree and Pelham 2009). Secularization interests social observers because it entails a pattern of change in a fundamental social institution.
Liberation theology combines Christian principles with political activism to address social injustice, discrimination, and poverty. Megachurches are those with a membership of more than 2,000 regular attendees, and they are a vibrant, growing and highly influential segment of U.S. religious life. Some sociologists believe levels of religiosity in the United States are declining (called secularization), while others observe a rise in fundamentalism.
Social scientists refer to the use of a church to combat social injustice in the political realm as:
- the protestant work ethic
- conflict management
- liberation theology
- justice work
Megachurches tend to have:
- a variety of male and female clergy
- numerous buildings in which to meet
- high attendance for only a limited time
- large arenas where services are held
Do you believe the United States is becoming more secularized or more fundamentalist? Comparing your generation to that of your parents or grandparents, what differences do you see in the relationship between religion and society? What would popular media have you believe is the state of religion in the United States today?
What is a megachurch and how are they changing the face of religion? Read “Exploring the Megachurch Phenomena: Their Characteristics and Cultural Context” at http://openstaxcollege.org/l/megachurch.
Curious about the LGBT religious movement? Visit the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) and Human Rights Campaign (HRC) web sites for current news about the growing inclusion of LGBT citizens into their respective religious communities, both in the pews and from the pulpit: http://openstaxcollege.org/l/GLAAD andhttp://openstaxcollege.org/l/human_rights_campaign.
How do Christians feel about gay marriage? How many Mormons are there in the United States? Check outhttp://openstaxcollege.org/l/Pew_Forum, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, a research institute examining U.S. religious trends.
Barrick, Audrey. 2011. “Church Trial Set for Lesbian Methodist Minister.” Christian Post, Feb 15. Retrieved January 22, 2012 (http://www.christianpost.com/news/church-trial-set-for-lesbian-methodist-minister-48993).
Beck, Edward L. 2010. “Are Gay Priests the Problem?” ABC News/Good Morning America, April 15. Retrieved January 22, 2012 (http://abcnews.go.com/GMA/Spirituality/gay-priests-problem/story?id=10381964).
Bird, Warren, and Scott Thumma. 2011. “A New Decade of Megachurches: 2011 Profile of Large Attendance Churches in the United States.” Hartford Institute for Religion Research. Retrieved February 21, 2012 (http://hirr.hartsem.edu/megachurch/megachurch-2011-summary-report.htm).
Bogan, Jesse. 2009. “America’s Biggest Megachurches.” Forbes.com, June 26. Retrieved February 21, 2012 (http://www.forbes.com/2009/06/26/americas-biggest-megachurches-business-megachurches.html).
Crabtree, Steve, and Brett Pelham. 2009. “What Alabamians and Iranians Have in Common.” Gallup World, February 9. Retrieved February 21, 2012 (http://www.gallup.com/poll/114211/alabamians-iranians-common.aspx).
Hartford Institute for Religion Research a. “Database of Megachurches in the US.” Retrieved February 21, 2012 (http://hirr.hartsem.edu/megachurch/database.html).
Hartford Institute for Religion Research b. “Megachurch Definition.” Retrieved February 21, 2012 (http://hirr.hartsem.edu/megachurch/definition.html).
McKenna, Josephine. 2014. "Catholic Bishops Narrowly Reject a Wider Welcome to Gays, Divorced Catholics." Religion News Service. Retrieved Oct. 27, 2014 (http://www.religionnews.com/2014/10/18/gays-missing-final-message-vaticans-heated-debate-family/).
Newport, Frank. 2003. “Americans Approve of Displays of Religious Symbols.” Gallup, October 3. Retrieved February 21, 2012 (http://www.gallup.com/poll/9391/americans-approve-public-displays-religious-symbols.aspx).
Pew Research Forum. 2011. “The Future of the Global Muslim Population.” The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, January 27. Retrieved February 21, 2012 (http://www.pewforum.org/The-Future-of-the-Global-Muslim-Population.aspx).
Ward, Jon. 2011. “Michele Bachman Says Hurricane and Earthquake Are Divine Warnings to Washington.” Huffington Post, August 29. Retrieved February 21, 2012 (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/08/29/michele-bachmann-hurricane-irene_n_940209.html).
- liberation theology
- the use of a church to promote social change via the political arena
- a Christian church that has a very large congregation averaging more than 2,000 people who attend regular weekly services