This essay was first written for Word&Way’s award-winning monthly magazine. And while much of that content appears only in print, we’re sharing this piece with our paid subscribers to A Public Witness.
Each week, nearly three million people watch Full Frontal with Samantha Bee on TBS. Featuring a mix of real news, cultural commentary, and satire, the show aims to both inform and entertain. A recent segment focused on declining religious participation in the United States.
“God. Your thoughts?” is how Mike Rubens, a correspondent for the show, comically introduced the delicate subject to two “interviewees” wearing Scooby-Doo costumes on the Las Vegas Strip.
“I don’t consider myself religious,” a street proselytizer decked out in Christian garb told Rubens.
“What are you doing here tonight?” the correspondent then asked.
“We are trying to share the truth about the gospel of Jesus Christ,” he replied.
The absurdity of the interaction revealed the dynamic at play. The idea people have of “religion” is an obstacle for those working to convince people to become religious.
“What does it mean,” Rubens asked, “if even the religious guy doesn’t like religion?”
That question is less ridiculous than it seems. Long before COVID-19 emptied church pews, people who previously called themselves Christian were rejecting the label. The incremental nature of the trend can mask its severity, as small changes over time result in huge shifts.
To provide some perspective, consider the results of the General Social Survey that tracks the religious belonging of Americans. Since the 1990s, it has revealed this steady erosion of participation in organized religion. Then in 2018, the biennial poll revealed that the size of the religiously unaffiliated category was statistically the same as both evangelical Protestant and Catholic respondents. Pretty soon, the “nones” would be the biggest “religious” group in the United States.
This development made Ryan Burge accidentally famous. A Baptist pastor and political science professor in Illinois, Burge pointed out this demographic reality on Twitter after combing through the GSS data. Lots of people took notice. He got phone calls from reporters, landed columns in major media outlets, and found himself sitting in the desert to record an interview with Mike Rubens for Full Frontal.
“Mike was really straight up with me,” Burge explained in an interview with Word&Way. “You’re not the funny part. The other part’s the funny part. You’re the informational part, so don’t try to be funny. Which is such a relief because that’s not what I do.”
What Burge does do is use data to help others, including pastors and church leaders, understand the complicated relationship between religion and politics in the United States. Twitter, writing in the New York Times, and playing the non-funny expert to TV satire all provide larger platforms than scholarly journals and academic conferences for getting his message out.
And what does his expertise in religion and politics have to do with people not going to church? Well, it turns out that politics is a likely culprit for those empty pews.