What Am I Reading? Mark Chaves, "American Religion"

I recently finished Mark Chaves’ American Religion: Contemporary Trends (Princeton University Press, 2013). It presents an account of the state of American religion that manages to be brief, accessible, and packed with information. These characteristics are also the stated goals of Chaves, so it is also an example of an author having and achieving clear aims. It is a book of substance and not one of style or rhetorical flair,* and it is worth your time.

Chaves’ overarching thesis is that contrary to popular opinion, the state of American religion over the last several decades can be summed up in one word: “continuity.” Chaves argues that claims that religion is undergoing either a renaissance or death are both wrong (10). In a key table that helps to orient the book (6-7), nearly 30 ways of measuring American religiosity are listed (i.e. “Prays at least several times a week,” “Birth of a child has strengthened religious faith,” “Knows God exists and has no doubts,” etc.), and without exception the percentages have only lightly fluctuated in decades (8).

Chaves says he uses the most reliable material for this opinion. He relies mainly on “the General Social Survey (GSS), a survey of the American adult population that has been conducted at least every other year since 1972.” (4) He also employs “the National Congregations Study (NCS), a national survey of local religious congregations from across the religious spectrum,” which have been in operation since near the turn of the 21st century (5). According to Chaves, despite its youth as a study “they offer the best information we have about congregational change since 1998.”** This is not my area of expertise so I’m inclined to cautiously assent to Chaves’ claim to be using excellent sources, but if any of you disagree please comment!

So is there anything interesting happening in American religion? Chaves says yes. Despite the apparent reality that there has not been major upheaval, he is quick to point out that “even in the midst of substantial continuity in American religion there are signs of change in the direction of less religion.” (11) There are some potentially anxiety-inducing (or positive, depending on your theology) signs, like the dwindling prestige and desire of vocational ministry (chapter 6) and the increasing intermingling of “religiosity and some kinds of political and social conservatism" (chapter 8). The latter sign, in Chaves’ view, has not led to “true polarization or culture war—yet.” (94)

Along the way tidbits are mixed in that would be interesting by themselves. For example, the rejection of inerrancy appears to be specifically tied to education. When “college graduation rates stopped increasing rapidly,” so did the eschewal of inerrancy. Based on Chaves’ research it seems clear to me that we need to get a higher percentage of people in college (34-6)!

I don’t want to provide too many examples of his analysis, but I want to encourage you to read his book. So get to it!


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*A rare exception to this occurs on pgs 18-9, where he shares a “sociology of religion” joke! I won’t spoil it for you, except to say that he was probably right to throw cold water on it.

**Chaves oversees the NCS (5).

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