This history suggests that, despite the headlines to the contrary, we are not necessarily seeing a period of religious decline. Rather, this may be just the latest in a series of moments when more Americans are intent on custom-tailoring their religious identities. The Pew numbers support this: At least a third of Americans today do not maintain the affiliation with which they were raised.
Change of a similar magnitude marked America’s first period of religious upheaval, the 18th century’s Great Awakening. Then, too, another quickly growing portion of the population was leaving traditional ways behind. Called the “New Lights,” as opposed to the “Old Lights” of traditional belief, they replaced what one minister called the “old rotten and stinking routine of religion” with hugely popular open-air revivals, building on long-simmering dissatisfaction with existing worship styles to become newly ascendant denominations. Many of these churches are those that appear to be losing numbers to the “nones” today.
The man often credited with jump-starting this new phase of American religious life, the itinerant evangelist George Whitefield, was known for sermons calling into question the divisions between Christians, which was as close as anyone at the time might get to praising disaffiliation. Standing on a balcony in Philadelphia, the city in which Benjamin Franklin once estimated that Whitefield could reach a crowd of 30,000 with his unamplified voice, the orator called out to the sky to ask “Father Abraham” who could be found in heaven.