Every ten years, the United States Constitution mandates a count of every resident of the United States. This count, known as the U.S. Census, collects information essential to the functioning of American democracy, determining legislative districts and the allocation of government funds. For urban planners and sociologists, it provides an important historical record to study changes in the way people live over time.
This week, data from the 2010 U.S. Census was released for the state Ohio. Having recently graduated from the University of Cincinnati with a degree in urban studies, I was disappointed to see a 10.4% decline in the city of Cincinnati’s population. I was not terribly surprised, however, as it continues a powerful trend that has been going on for decades. Since 1950, federal housing and transportation policy has funded suburban sprawl at the expense of the urban core. Cincinnati’s population loss parallels population loss in the cities of Cleveland, Dayton, Akron, and Toledo. Columbus, a municipality that incorporates growing suburban areas into its boundaries, would have posted a similar decline in population if its suburban neighborhoods were excluded. City leaders may talk about making their cities more liveable and attractive for business, but they don’t stand a chance in the face of large-scale policy that is working against them.
Just as cities gain and lose population, religious movements gain and lose followers. Fifty years ago, denominationally-based Christian churches dominated the American religious scene, whether they be Roman Catholic, Methodist, Lutheran, Episcopalian, Presbyterian, or other. Today, these denominations are all in decline. Leaders of struggling churches may change music styles, program offerings, and marketing techniques, but they don’t stand a chance in the face of larger-scale forces working against them.
Authors Robert Putnam and David Campbell track valuable data in their 2010 book, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us. They describe an American religious scene that has shifted in two directions. On the one side, Christian conservatives are moving away from mainline churches to evangelical, nondenominational churches. On the other side, people who are not conservative Christian evangelicals are leaving religion altogether. I frequently hear debate about why my own denomination, the United Methodist Church, is in decline. On the one side, I hear that the church is not enough like the growing evangelical, nondenominational churches. On the other side, I hear that over-emphasis on conservative, evangelical growth is the reason for the church’s decline. In a polarized culture, both sides are right.
This blog is still new, but I’d like to conduct a census of my readers. How do you identify yourself religiously (or non-religiously)? In a changing religious landscape, has your religious identity changed? Share as you will in the comment section below!