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date: 23 September 2019

Nones by Many Other Names: The Religiously Unaffiliated in the News, 18th to 20th Century

Abstract and Keywords

This essay deals with news media coverage of the religiously unaffiliated—people who have no preferences when it comes to institutional religion. Also known by many other names such as “unbelievers,” “unchurched,” “churchless,” “unsaved,” “heathens,” “pagans,” “atheists,” “agnostics,” “spiritual but not religious,” and, most recently, “nones,” the religiously unaffiliated are a reflection of America’s religiosity and spirituality. Drawing primarily on resources available from the print media age, especially newspapers and general audience news magazines, this essay examines news media interest in the religiously unaffiliated from the late 1800s to the 1970s until the present day. Finally, it also outlines recurring and emerging themes in news media coverage of the religiously unaffiliated.

Keywords: media coverage, religiously unaffiliated, nones, institutional religion, atheists, agnostics, religiosity, spirituality, print media

In The Spiritual Unrest, muckraking journalist Ray Stannard Baker explored the state of churches in early-twentieth -century America. After an exposé of “the richest church in America,” Trinity Episcopal Church, Wall Street; a brief survey of attendance figures for Protestants, Roman Catholics, and Jews; and a string of pessimistic pronouncements from leading churchmen, Baker lamented

Not only have the working classes become alienated from the churches especially from the Protestant churches but a very large proportion of well to do men and women who belong to the so called cultured class have lost touch with church work. Some retain a membership but the church plays no vital or important part in their lives.…. And what is more this indifferentism is by no means confined to the “wicked city” but prevails throughout the country in small towns and villages as well as in large cities—except possibly in a few localities where “revivals” have recently stirred the people.1

Those drawn away from churches, Baker notes, are not primarily “infidels or free-thinkers” but rather “Churchless Protestants,” who might claim a denominational identity but who do not maintain membership, attend worship, or contribute to churches. With these, Baker counts a more diffuse population of the “unchurched” as well as a growing cadre of “Americanized Jews,” who abandon Jewish heritage, synagogues, and communities to blend into the larger Christianized American culture.

The religious “indifferentism” that Baker describes at the dawn of the twentieth century foreshadows the institutional religious decline that characterizes reporting on the religiously unaffiliated in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. The “infidels,” “free-thinkers,” “Churchless Protestants,” “unchurched,” and “Americanized Jews” in Baker’s reporting are the ancestors of the late modern religiously unaffiliated who, then as later, point to ecclesial and wider philosophical fissures in the American religious landscape. Curiosity in popular media about the unaffiliated likewise points backward in American history to a certain, perhaps essential, ambiguity about the role of religion in the nation itself.

Nones by Many Other Names

“Unbelievers,” “unchurched,” “unsaved,” “churchless,” “free-thinkers,” “heathens,” “pagans,” “metaphysicals,” “nothingarians,” “atheists,” “agnostics,” “secular,” “humanist,” “publicans,” “spiritual but not religious,” “woo woo,” and, most recently, “nones” (people who respond “none” when asked about their institutional religious preferences) are among the many names that have been applied to the religiously unaffiliated. Surveys on religious affiliation, identity, and practice have been a staple of news reporting on religion since at least the turn of the twentieth century. But the more formal sociological term “religiously unaffiliated” seldom appears in popular discussions of religion. Still, the many names given the unaffiliated and the demographic characteristics applied to them have said at least as much about how Americans and narrators of American culture in news media understand normative religiosity and spirituality; the role of religion in national identity, democratic ideology, and political practice; and the process of religious and wider cultural change in America as about who the unaffiliated might be, what they do or do not believe, and how they act might upon their religious, spiritual, or philosophical beliefs in everyday life. The story of nones in the news, then, is the story of how America articulates its religious and spiritual self-identity, including its shadow sides within and beyond institutional religion.

The presence of the marginally religious, unreligious, and antireligious has been a significant element in national identity and character from the earliest days of the nation. Indeed, scholars have long concluded that church membership was marginal at best in colonial America, with no more than 20 percent of the population holding membership in an established church.2 Despite the enduring American mythology of early settlement as motivated by Puritans’ desire to practice religion freely, for many colonists “religious freedom,” no matter that they would likely have seen themselves as at least nominally Christian, meant freedom from all religious dogmas and institutional demands, including the demand to claim a creed and attend worship regularly. Thus as the young nation and its states grappled with questions of religious liberty, the tones of Thomas Jefferson’s famous call for religious tolerance—“it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg”3—made its way into lively political debates, sermons, and other reporting in early American news reporting.

American religiosity, or the professed and practiced lack thereof, and its effects on the nation have drawn the attention of reporters in national, regional, and more specialized or obscure media outlets. The busy intersections of traditional and emerging religiosity, and of intuitional and ad hoc spirituality, have been considered in popular newspapers and magazines since the founding of the nation, and various electronic media outlets have continued the conversation into the early twenty-first century. From the days of print media dominance to the new media age, a wide swath of lay correspondents have supplemented the work of professional reporters by sharing their views on religious pluralism, tolerance, indifference, and change through editorials and letters to editors. All of these outlets and contributors weave a complex, diversely mediated construction of the religiously unaffiliated and their impact on religiosity in the United States.

What follows will nod toward this wider range of media participation; but the essay cannot take up all forms of media and all manner of contributors throughout American history. Thus it focuses primarily on the extensive resources available from the print media age, in particular newspapers with national readership such as the New York Times, Washington Post, Christian Science Monitor, and Los Angeles Times, as well as general audience news magazines like Time and Newsweek. Likewise, though the United States is a comparatively young nation, the fact that it developed along with mass media means that it is impossible to consider news media throughout the whole of American history. This essay, then, brackets important moments from the late 1800s to the 1970s by way of marking major currents of news media interest in the religiously unaffiliated that flow into the present day.

At the outset it is worth noting that the category of the religiously unaffiliated itself presents a particular descriptive and analytical challenge in that, unlike Methodists or Mormons, the religiously unaffiliated are, by definition, characterized by a pointed lack of definition, particularly any definition that is framed in singular institutional and philosophical terms. There is no Church of the Risen None, no Association of the Affiliated Unaffiliated. As the long string of names affixed to those in the larger population who may have little else in common beyond their unwillingness to claim a specific religious affiliation attests, nones resist classification, categorization, and fixed nomenclatures. We know them largely through how others with complex and arguably compromised perspectives and motivations describe them. This nebulous reality means that an exploration of nones in the news necessarily meanders through American media and wider cultural history, relying on sometimes suspect characterizations and oblique glances. Though one characteristic of nones in the twenty-first century is that they do increasingly self-identify as such and often strive to articulate their own approaches to existential meaning-making, they nonetheless remain a demographic remainder, the colloquial “none” designation “specifying what a phenomenon is not, rather than what it is.”4 This essay cannot pretend to define the unaffiliated once and for all; it can only follow their diffuse tracks across the landscape of American religious and spiritual history by way of surveying news media representations of religious belief and unbelief, affiliation and unaffiliation, somewhat more broadly than might be required in a study of a particular institutional religious group.

Nones Past and Present: Recurring and Emerging Themes

Thomas Jefferson and Ray Stannard Baker signal something of the narrative poles of this exploration of news media coverage of the unaffiliated: America on the one hand as a nation characterized by religious pluralism and associated tolerance and, on the other, as a religious and therein essentially Christian nation whose religious backsliding, at both personal and institutional levels, is a cause for alarm.

An article from the spiritualist newspaper, the Banner of Progress, stands stridently at one end of this spectrum and points anxiously to the other. Responding to calls for legislation—“Sunday Laws”5—to shore up American religiosity, the piece offers a litany of statistics showing a pervasive resistance to church attendance across the country. “Quite 150,000 persons in Chicago,” the anonymous author reports, “are entirely beyond the influence of the Gospel,” while of the 24,000 citizens of Leavenworth, Kansas, “not over 3,000…. attend Protestant worship.”6 Low proportions of church membership and even lower rates of worship attendance from St. Louis to Cleveland to New York, the article suggests, highlight the continuing religious indifference Baker will lament a half century later.

This indifference, the article continues, promises to quell the call for “strident regulations for individual conduct as are desired by religionists” such as Senator Henry William Blair, a staunch advocate for legislation that would strengthen America’s “valid” Christian identity. Writing in support of a proposed Religious Education Amendment, Blair opined with an ominous bellicosity:

I do not believe that it is possible that the American nation will develop in the direction of toleration of all religions—that is, so-called religions. Whether the general public conviction shall be right or wrong, I yet believe that instead of selecting and finally tolerating all so-called religions, the American people will, by constant and irresistible pressure, gradually expel from our geographical boundaries every religion except the Christian in its valid forms. I do not expect to see the pagan and other forms existing side by side with the former both peaceably acquiesced in for any length of time.7

The chasm between the viewpoints of American free-thinkers, spiritualists, and others among earlier generations of the religiously unaffiliated, and more strident Christianists like Blair, sets out questions expressed through continuing media interest in the unaffiliated up to the twenty-first century: What does the presence, and later the growth, of the number of religiously unaffiliated augur for America? How do varieties of religious practice, religious tolerance, and religious indifference or hostility in the United States impact national identity, character, and well-being?

Another set of questions about the religiously unaffiliated is also evoked through consideration of media coverage of the unaffiliated over time. These have to do with where the unaffiliated fall within the social structure of the nation and how they do or do not contribute to a largely assumed Durkheimian construction of religion as a force for social cohesion. In this view, the salient value of any religion is not so much the spiritual truths it might offer. Rather, Durkheim argued, “religion is something eminently social. Religious representations are collective representations which express collective realities.”8 While there is no end to academic and popular disagreements with Durkheim’s sociological understanding of religion, his theory has had considerable resilience within the modern media consciousness to the extent, first, that an insistence on the development of religious categories tends to characterize public discourse about religious groups, including that offered by various news media outlets. In reporting on the religiously unaffiliated, this often takes the form, on the one hand, of a certain straining to generalize the practices and characters of the unaffiliated while also, on the other, of offering diverse strings of names for them—“unbelievers,” “unchurched,” “infidels,” “pagans,” and so on —that, ironically, undermine the categoricalizing press toward cohesion. Likewise, the social cohesion model tends to frame religious difference in terms of friction or outright conflict between social categories that would be abated primarily through mission and conversion, if not through the “expulsion” suggested by Blair. As participants in the American social structure, the religiously unaffiliated function either as the shadow side of normative Protestant Christianity that exposes its spiritual lapses and failures or as a bright light that illuminates the rational and moral limits of institutional Christian practice.

The Banner of Progress article, for its part, concludes that “it is the independent, thinking class who never attend church.” For the proto-nones of mid-nineteenth-century America, diminished church membership and fitful attendance are marks of intellectual and cultural evolution that distinguish the religiously unaffiliated from “the mass of people…. the unthinking, easily led, and humbugged portion” who are willing to allow clergy and legislators to “do all the thinking for others.”9 Baker, by contrast, sees the “unchurched” as made up primarily of the non-Catholic working classes who are beyond the compassion of highbrow Protestant churches, which he excoriates as “paralyzed by their own wealth and the pride of their traditions” so that they are unable “to have any grasp of the new spiritual impulses which are permeating our common life—the new democracy.”10 For both writers, the religiously unaffiliated enact critiques of institutional religion. Arguably, the role of the unaffiliated in constructing a religiously infused social cohesion is to set out the boundaries of normative American religiosity beyond which they stand and to point to the possibilities of transformation of the religious landscape through, on one view, increased abandonment of traditional religion or, on another, greater inclusion within its socioecclesial structures.

This latter aim was the focus of reporting throughout the first half of the twentieth century. An article at the dawn of the century, for instance, reports on a “Concerted Movement by Catholics in New York” to “bring the unchurched mass within its fold” by offering services specifically for non-Catholics.11 A small item in the New York Times lauded the combined efforts of Catholics and Protestants in offering the morality play “Everyman” at no charge “for the benefit of the unchurched” of Boston,12 while the Washington Post celebrated churches in the nation’s capital, planning revival services “with a view to bring into the fold ‘careless and unchurched’ of all classes and distinctions.”13 Another report noted the mission of United Presbyterians to reach unchurched farmers across rural America by preaching the Christian gospel “in terms of farm life” rather than “‘higher criticism,’ so-called, nor with a gospel of ifs, ands, and buts.”14 Outside the major national publications, smaller regional and local papers likewise highlighted mission to the unaffiliated, as in an article in the Brownsville, Texas, El Heraldo newspaper on a revival with special ministries for young people who remain “unsaved and unchurched.”15 The theme of rechurching the unchurched would continue throughout the twentieth century in news media coverage, increasingly augmented by social scientific scholarship and demographic data.

The 1920s to1940s: Tallying Unaffiliation

Nones by Many Other NamesThe Religiously Unaffiliated in the News, 18th to 20th CenturyClick to view larger

Figure 1 Anxiety over the unchurched was mapped geographically and politically. The Washington Post, September 12, 1909.

The theme of mission and evangelization was consistent in news reporting through the 1930s, with a number of articles making clearer the need for an assertive gathering-in of lost sheep by featuring empirical reports on church membership and attendance with increasing statistical sophistication and larger subject populations as the century unfolded. A provocative piece in the Washington Post offered a shaded map of the country within which the number of church members are shown as equivalent to the population of the eastern seaboard states—essentially the original British colonies—plus Ohio. The unchurched, which the article reports “probably outnumbers our church members in the proportion of about three to two,” would fill the rest of the country, from the Midwest, to the deep South, to the Western coastal states (Figure 1).16

Time magazine offered two reports in an August 1927 issue on church decline, one focusing on membership losses among Mainline Protestant churches and the other offering data related to religious affiliation among union workers as compared to “professional and business men.”17 The same year, the African American weekly the Chicago Defender called for “a federation of all Negro churches so that they all may work on a united program for the things which are to the best interest of the kingdom of God in general and the Negro in particular,” including evangelizing a reported 7 million African Americans who were living outside the church.18 A New York Times headline sounded a similar alarm: “Unchurched Youth Held Kentucky Peril: 1,000,000 in State Not Members of Sunday School, Reports Princeton Presbytery.”19 As the new decade began, the Washington Post reported almost gleefully on a planned city-wide religious survey to be conducted by some 2,500 volunteers, which would support a “visitation evangelism campaign” that Episcopal bishop James E. Freeman insisted was “of vital importance to the city.”20

The twined news media themes of mission to the unaffiliated and tracking their numbers in the population show that, the expressed and legislated religious tolerance that characterized the founding decades of the United States notwithstanding, the religiously unaffiliated were seen almost wholly as subjects for religious conversion. The normative approach to media coverage of the unaffiliated was pastoral. Cambridge metaphysicals and San Francisco free-thinkers might have considered themselves the intellectual betters of mainstream Christians, but Christians themselves saw the presence of large populations of the unaffiliated in exactly the opposite light—as a failure of proper religious formation enabled by a deeper failure of learned clergymen to effectively translate Christian teachings into the workaday vernacular. The “unchurched,” as they are presented in newspaper and magazine articles through the Great Depression, are the poor, laborers, farmers, and others without access to the theological insights that make Christian practice both more reasonable and more engaging than common entertainment, other worldly distractions, or the corrupting lure of unbelief.

The 1950s: From Anti-Atheist Paranoia to the Invisible Unaffiliated

Underneath this pastoral concern, the pervasive counting of the religiously unaffiliated suggests a deeper anxiety over the extent to which mainstream Christian believers saw themselves as able to hold ground—almost literally—against an increasingly secularized American culture of unbelief. From the post-Depression to the postwar years, this anxiety would come to express itself in more ominous tones in the news media, especially as anti-Communist and Cold War paranoia found its way into the American popular imagination in the late 1940s and 1950s. Within this national mindset, containing the unaffiliated in demographic categories and cataloging their various names was a stock feature of mainstream reporting. Reports on efforts to strengthen and purify the Christian mainstream also appeared with increasing regularity.

Reconciling the rapidly developing scientific worldview and religious tradition in the light of World War II brought new terminologies for unbelief into the popular lexicon: atheism, agnosticism, and secularization, these in uncomfortable relationship to the threat of global totalitarianism, the technologies of the Atomic Age, and Darwinian evolutionary theory. A 1940 story in Time detailed proceedings of a conference with more than 600 Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish leaders, theologians, philosophers, educators, politicians, and scientists, among them Enrico Fermi, Talcott Parsons, Paul Tillich, Aldus Huxley, and Eugene McCarthy. The aim of the August Conference on Science, Philosophy, and Religion and Their Relation to the Democratic Way of Life21 was to “harmonize science, religion, and philosophy in their true relation to the democratic way of life.”22

A message from Albert Einstein, delivered by proxy, “sounded the only false note of the conference,” Time reported, when the physicist suggested that “teachers of religion must have the stature to give up the doctrine of a personal god…. They will have to avail themselves of those forces which are capable of cultivating the Good, the True and the Beautiful in Humanity itself.” This uncomfortable humanist tone was corrected by F. Ernest Johnson of Columbia Teacher’s College. Johnson offered a thundering critique of modern secularity—a term that appears in various forms more than 30 times in Johnson’s address—and a defective American religious tolerance. “In accommodating ourselves to the fact of religious heterogeneity, we have abandoned the principle that men must seek an ultimate spiritual sanction for even their most ‘secular’ acts,” he insisted.23 Removing Judeo-Christian influence from education diminished not only the moral character of learners but undermined American democracy, which, as Time shared Johnson’s solemn conclusion with Americans, “depends for its validity and permanence upon the sanctions of religion.”

The Conference on Science, Philosophy, and Religion and Their Relation to the Democratic Way of Life, which convened regularly from 1940 to 1968, was a significant intellectual and political force in World War II and postwar America, and coverage of its inaugural meeting signaled a new turn in reportage on religious belief and affiliation or the lack thereof. Where earlier coverage of the religiously unaffiliated expressed pastoral concern for unbelievers and periodic critique of the failures of institutional religions to engage them, the emphasis shifted dramatically during the mid-twentieth century, with judgment falling more heavily on unbelievers as not merely un-Christian but antidemocratic and un-American. The tepid nomenclature of the unaffiliated as “unchurched” increasingly gave way to that which made no reference to the possibility of eventual Christian conversion: “atheist,” “agnostic,” “free-thinker,” and “secular humanist” would mark the unaffiliated not as recoverable lost sheep but as dangerously anti-American black sheep.

Early in this transition, a story quoting the Episcopal presiding bishop, Henry St. George Tucker began by striking the more pastoral tone of the previous era while revealing the political anxieties of the current one, stressing the need to bring the “millions of unchurched Americans” into the fold as a bulwark against foreign unbelief and its nefarious social political and consequences. This effort to more thoroughly Christianize America was “the surest way to make foreign countries Christian.”

By contrast, the Episcopal bishop of Long Island apparently believed that Christianity on its own was insufficient to ensure the moral purity of the Church or the nation, according to an article in Time magazine on the firing of one John Melish, rector of a Brooklyn church, and his son, William Melish, who served the same church as associate rector. The firing had nothing to do with any defect in the senior Melish himself. Rather, it hinged on accounts of the younger Melish’s involvement in “outside activities” with “reputed atheists, Communists, agitators of world revolution, totalitarianism, and almost every article which denies the Christian Doctrine of Man.”24

As 1950s McCarthyism took hold, the linkage between religiosity and patriotism became tighter, and unbelievers and the otherwise unaffiliated were subject to much greater scrutiny. McCarthy’s campaign was supported in no small measure through Roman Catholic periodicals like Catholic World, Our Sunday Visitor, and the Brooklyn Tablet, though the Jesuit magazine America tepidly described McCarthy’s largely evidenceless charges of Communist sympathizing against American politicians, activists, intellectuals, artists, and celebrities “pretty irresponsible.”25 McCarthyist tones were struck in mainstream news reporting throughout the period. In 1953, Time reported on the faith of US soldiers in Korea as it had reinforced their democratic ideas. “The men in the Army have learned what an atheistic ideology, backed by violence, can do to a country,” said a chaplain quoted in the article.26

Outside of Christianity, Time reported on a revival in American Judaism encouraged by “a new pride felt by U.S. Jews” over the defeat of Nazism and the formation of a Jewish state of Israel. Still, the story noted underlying conflicts among Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform Jews, due to the larger numbers of open unbelievers included in the latter group. “The U.S. synagogue is no longer a community of believers,” Time reported.27

Added to the religiously infused politics of the 1950s were the somewhat unconventional religious enthusiasms of President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Though self-professed as “the most intensely religious man I know,” Eisenhower is nearly as well known for the fact that he did not belong to a church when he became president in 1952 as he is for his efforts to turn back secularism in the nation.28 “Our form of government makes no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious belief, and I don’t care what it is,” Eisenhower famously said in a 1952 address.29 Eisenhower’s remarks have been alternately mischaracterized as an indifference to the specifics of religious affiliation or as a command for Americans to increase rates of institutional religious membership and participation. In reality, the then president-elect was speaking extemporaneously about the Judeo-Christian roots of American democracy. Regardless, Eisenhower’s religious musings did influence rates of at least nominal religious affiliation.

Thus, in 1957, Time reported on “the amazing boom in U.S. church membership, notably accelerated in the postwar years, is moving with unabated power.”30 Jubilant about the 62 percent of Americans claiming affiliation against a dismal 20 percent at the midpoint of the previous century, Time did not offer reflection on the fate of the remainder, and discussion of religious unbelief, the unchurched, and unaffiliation was noticeably muted through the end of the decade. Coverage of atheists and agnostics likewise fell off in Time and other popular news outlets through the1950s, with those pieces finding their way to American readers tending to highlight associations between unbelief and Communism, as in a Washington Post and Times Herald article on duplicitous gestures of friendship and respect toward American Christianity from “atheist governments behind the Iron Curtain.”31

In general, 1950s media reports present a Cold War America that did not believe in unbelievers in its midst and that represented the religiously unaffiliated, when it did, largely as foreign forces of moral and political threat held up as images of everything that Christian America was not. The nearly 40 percent of Americans without a declared religious affiliation floated ghostlike into the more religiously and otherwise socially fraught 1960s and 1970s, their relative invisibility a counterpoint to the nervously laughing insistence of the Right Reverend Henry Knox Sherrill, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, in a 1949 report in the Los Angeles Times, “I don’t think there are any Communists in the Episcopal Church.”32

The 1960s to 1970s: The Great Unaffiliated Awakening in the Vietnam Era

Two news reports in the autumn of 1958 hinted at themes in religious affiliation, identity, and practice in the coming decade. In Time’s quite easily passed-over, three-sentence note, “Downgrade?,” the usual posting of annual denominational church affiliation figures was set aside, as the magazine flatly remarked, “This year, for the first time since World War II, the increase in U.S. church membership failed to keep pace with the population increase.” Affiliation numbers were still on the uptick, with churches and synagogues showing membership gains 0.9 percent. But this rate was nearly half that of the 1.7 percent population increase and a mere third of the 3 percent membership increase the previous year.

It is arguably a sign of journalistic prudence not to make much of a one-year change in a demographic measure. Yet a more substantive piece by the Los Angeles Times later in the month pointed to a change in American religiosity in which the news media itself was thoroughly implicated: the rise of religious television. Religious radio had made important inroads in American culture from the dawn of the medium, beginning when Pittsburgh’s KDKA radio began broadcasting the services of Calvary Episcopal Church in 1921 through the more animated preaching of Aimee Semple McPherson in the 1920s and 1930s.33 But in its early days, religious radio spoke mainly to affiliated believers, using the unaffiliated primarily as foils for lessons on the perils of sin. But the dramatic homiletic style that dominated radio apparently had little appeal for unbelievers.

Profiling the director of the Commission on Radio and Television for the Southern Baptist Convention, the article highlighted a new approach to evangelization afforded by television in which “the producer fights not to be preachy or dwell from start to finish on some religious tenet.” Explained the “young dynamic” Rev. Paul Stevens, “We’re after the man who comes home, takes off his shoes, gets a beer out of the refrigerator and turns on the television.…. We want to reach the unchurched and show them that the basic Christian message is a guide to living in the modern day world.”

The unchurched were coming back into view, both numerically and as a focus of media attention, but broadcast media, and television in particular, would be a double-edged sword as far as proselytizing the unaffiliated was concerned. While the use of professional actors and more subtly crafted scripts might appeal to the unaffiliated, that very appeal could render televised religion more appealing than local worship, drawing less committed church members themselves into the ranks of the unaffiliated.34 As well, more readily accessible media representations of American Christianity, especially as radio and television quickly yielded the restraint of KDKA’s Episcopalian services to more flamboyant Evangelical presentations, could increase awareness of and sensitivities to elements of Christian dogma and practice unattractive to more moderate viewers.

Whether through the growth of broadcast media, other cultural forces, or the latter in the context of the former, the tone of print media coverage of the unaffiliated changed quickly and dramatically once the paranoid scourge of McCarthyism and Cold War anti-atheism abated. Early in the 1960s, for instance, Time published a short piece that highlighted what would become significant themes in the new era that spoke to the new space occupied by the unaffiliated and affiliated alike. Chief among them was the changing definition of religion itself, which increasingly moved outside of the institutional, Durkheimian frame that characterized earlier understandings.

Reporting on a small survey of ministers, priests, and rabbis, psychologist John D. Shand catalogued “righteous,” “puritanical,” “humanist,” “theistic,” and “law-observing” approaches to religion, ultimately warning social scientists that the clergy’s experience-based view of religion challenged the “superficial criteria” used by social scientists to describe religion “such as affiliation with a religious body, coming to public worship regularly, receiving the sacraments, having peace of mind, having maturity, and being converted.”35 The article is significant to an understanding of an emerging religiosity in late-twentieth-century America in that, first, it expanded without judgment the categories through which religiosity was named. Second, it considered religion from a personal, psychological perspective rather than a primarily social one. This orientation characterized late modern news media treatments of religiosity among both the religious and unreligious unaffiliated. Finally, it situated religious leaders themselves as subjects of religious change rather than as keepers of fixed traditions.

As the decade unfolded, configurations of belief and unbelief harked back to earlier American traditions of religious tolerance and also pointed toward a pluralism that extended well beyond the Protestant, Catholic, Jew,36 and dangerous or invisible “other” imaginary that had long defined the normative boundaries and margins of American religiosity and spirituality. Within this reawakened ethos of tolerance, designations of the religiously unaffiliated as “unchurched,” “unsaved,” or, even more pejoratively, “pagan” and “heathen” gave way in news reporting to more specific and complex descriptors often relying on subjects’ self-identification. This renewed the American lexicon for the unaffiliated, as when Time included a description of a “Humanist,” which it capitalized in a rarely seen gesture of respect, as “a believer in an ethical nonreligion in which the Supreme Being is man.”37 The article discussed atheists, agnostics, and Christians joining in cooperative work for the betterment of society, with unbelievers and doubters positioned as respecters of democracy and ordered society rather than fomenters of totalitarian unrest.

A tally of articles using the terms “humanist” and “unchurched” in the New York Times amplified new interest in nontraditional practice. From 1950 to 1959, some 434 mentions of humanists were included, down by a quarter from the previous decade. But in the 1960s, references to humanists and humanism grew by nearly 30 percent to 751 and climbed another 30 percent to 1,112 in the 1970s. During the same periods, references in the newspaper to the “unchurched” declined by half.38

But numbers hardly tell the whole story. Rather, the growing number of news articles highlighting religious diversity, tolerance, and exploration as positive social and cultural values began in the 1960s to turn back the Christianist restrictiveness of the Cold War years. Thus, in 1965, the New York Times quoted the general secretary of the World Council of Churches as calling for greater efforts toward religious cooperation and coexistence. Christian churches, said the Reverend D.W.A. Visser t’Hooft, “must get accustomed to the idea that as far as we can see ahead today no religious or philosophical or ideological creed is going to dominate all alone.”39

This reconstruction in the popular news media of a more open and accepting American Christianity and more pluralistic and tolerant practices of religious and unreligious engagement allowed not only for more respectful discussion of unaffiliated others. It also opened the media to consideration of new religious–unreligious amalgamations such as “The Atheist Rabbi” in Detroit who described himself as an “ignostic”—“someone who will only accept the truth of statements that can be empirically proved”40—or a Roman Catholic bishop in Mexico who extolled the virtues of Freudian psychology as “a useful method of purification.” He made this statement despite the fact that a program of psychoanalysis at a monastery in his diocese resulted in 40 monks leaving the order.41

Is God Dead?

Perhaps the watershed moment in reporting on religious change in the 1960s was Time magazine’s famous 1966 “Is God Dead?” issue. The issue featured an extensive article that explored the “radical” theological work of a group of Protestant “Death of God” scholars, who had been working to rearticulate Christian teaching in light of modern science and culture.42 The Death of God group had been the subject of earlier reporting in national news media outlets,43 but the scandal of the Time feature had much to do with the timing of the issue—it was released on the eve of Easter and Passover—and a provocative cover that itself became a feature of late modern cultural history, appearing in movies, television programs, and other media as a symbol of a growing American culture of unbelief.

The issue generated considerable controversy in the immediate aftermath of its publication; Time received more letters in response to the issue than it had to any previous issue. In many ways it continues to be a touchstone in conversations on religion and media. But, in the context of the moral challenges of the civil rights, feminist, and antiwar movements, the issue arguably also opened the news media to new considerations of American religion and spirituality. Time itself would backpedal somewhat on the matter in the concluding issue of the decade, with an “Is God Coming Back to Life?” cover with bright yellow sun rays and a feature story on revitalized approaches to Christian ministry that offered the thin assurance, in the face of reports of declining church attendance, that “the young are not as irreligious as they seem—far from it.”44

But where Time’s Christmas gift to readers was idea that the unchurched could be brought back into the fold with hip, new ministries, other news outlets provided a less sanguine grab-bag of new spiritualities that once again extended the lexicon for the unaffiliated and offered to the popular imagination an expanded inventory of alternatives to traditional religion. The Los Angeles Times, for instance, wrote of a former Roman Catholic priest angling to be a spokesman for “the largest religion in America…. made up of people unaffiliated with any church.”45 Sociologist and Roman Catholic priest Andrew Greeley wrote an extensive piece in the New York Times Sunday Magazine that described the range of “neo-sacred” exploration and “offbeat religious behavior” on college campuses. From Wicca to spiritualism, to astrology, to occultism, Zen, and transcendental meditation, to divination with the I Ch’ing and spiritualized forays into psychedelic drug use, Greeley described his own struggle to understand the “authentically, if perhaps transiently and bizarrely, religious” practices of young people disillusioned with both the certainties of traditional institutional religion and empirical, rationalist science.46

The spiritual turn of the late 1960s and early 1970s would add a third term to media explorations of the religiously unaffiliated, inviting media consideration of, for example, the “holistic,” “human potential,” and “encounter” spiritualities as meaningful alternatives to institutional religious practice made famous by Big Sur’s Esalen Institute, a favorite topic of Los Angeles Times columnist Max Lerner.47 This tended to erode believer–unbeliever, churchgoer–unchurched binaries in news reporting that had previously focused primarily on the relationships of normative believing Christian churchgoers to unbelieving, church-avoiding agnostics, atheists, humanists, secularists, and others who might either be drawn back to faith or alienated from the good social order it allowed depending on the actions of Christians themselves. “Society’s new language,” as Lerner called it, expressed more widely spread engagement with “other mystiques” that drew from “the women’s liberation movement…. the human potential movement and the encounter culture…. from Zen, from the whole Esalen touch-me complex, from meditation, and mysticism.”48

While much media attention on unaffiliated spiritualities focused on young people, reporting through the 1970s also tracked the growing number of clergy—particularly Roman Catholic priests—“fleeing their flocks” and also the continuing decline in church attendance and affiliation among those over age 30.49 Reporters looked for religiously recognizable characteristics among the “unchurched” even while they prophesied the demise of organized religion. Reporting through the 1960s and 1970s included its fair share of stories on the “menace” of atheism. But even discussions of atheism increasingly highlighted not belief or unbelief as newsworthy foci of reporting in themselves, nor were stories consistently negative in tone. Rather, as in a discussions of the legal and ideological activism of Madalyn Murray O’Hair, branded by Time as “An Aggressive Atheist,”50 mainstream media portraits of the unaffiliated and unbelieving could also offer significant nuancing to counterbalance knee-jerk condemnation. A profile of O’Hair, thus, assured readers that “there appear to be no links between Ms. O’Hair’s promotion of atheism and the Communist brand” and held up the bad behavior of Christian ministers in debates with O’Hair.51

All in all, media representation of the variously unaffiliated during the Vietnam Era was noteworthy for its expansion of the vocabulary used to describe the unaffiliated themselves and approaches to existential meaning-making within the new spirituality as well as for a marked moderation in tone toward the unbelieving unaffiliated. The turn to the spiritual would expand in the American culture generally and in news reporting on religious unaffiliation, and media outlets would continue to track the decline in institutional religious affiliation. But, even through the rise of the Religious Right in the Reagan and first Bush presidencies, neither the pastoral consternation of the early decades of the twentieth century nor anything like the Christianist, anti-Communist zeal of the Cold War era returned in great measure to mainstream news reporting on the religiously unaffiliated. Religious difference, choice, and tolerance had been reinvigorated as cultural values during the 1960s and 1970s, and these values would likewise characterize reporting at the end of the twentieth century in America.

Further Reading

Albanese, Catherine L. A Republic of Mind and Spirit: A Cultural History of American Metaphysical Religion. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007.Find this resource:

Bender, Courtney. The New Metaphysicals: Spirituality and the American Religious Imagination. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010.Find this resource:

Jacoby, Susan. Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism. New York: Henry Holt, 2004.Find this resource:

Noise, David. Nonbeliever Nation: The Rise of Secular Americans. New York: Palgrave, 2012.Find this resource:

Schmidt, Leigh Eric. Restless Souls: The Making of American Spirituality. San Francisco: Harper-Collins, 2005, 2012.Find this resource:


(1) Ray Stannard Baker, The Spiritual Unrest (New York: Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1910), 56.

(2) Roger Finke and Rodney Stark, The Churching of America: Winners and Losers in Our Religious Economy (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2002), 24.

(3) Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, (1781, 1787, 1853), Query XVII, 170.

(4) Glenn M. Vernon, “The Religious ‘Nones’: A Neglected Category.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 7, no. 2 (1968). Quoted in Cary Funk et al., “Nones on the Rise: One in Five Adults Have No Religious Affiliation,” Washington, DC: Pew Forum on Religion in Public Life (October 9, 2012), 7.

(5) On this, see Alex McCrossen, Holy Day, Holiday: The American Sunday (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2001).

(6) “The Unchurched,” San Francisco Banner of Progress, reprinted in The Boston Investigator 49 (April 8, 1868): 389, Column B.

(7) Henry William Blaire, “Letter to the Editor,” Mail and Express (April 19, 1890). Quoted in American State Papers Bearing on Sunday Legislation, compiled and edited by William A. Blakely (Washington, DC: Religious Liberty Association, 1911), 366. Blair had previously supported an amendment to the Constitution that would “acknowledge Almighty God as the source of all authority and power in civil government, the Lord Jesus Christ as the Rule among the nations, and his will as the supreme law of the land, in order to constitute a Christian government.” It is this legislative agenda, which included “Sunday Laws” restricting commerce, gainful employment, travel, and other activities on “The Lord’s Day” that provoked anxiety described among spiritualists and free-thinkers as well as among Jews and Christians whose Sabbath was not observed on Sunday. On this see Susan Jacoby, Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism (New York: Henry Holt, 2004), 78–80.

(8) Émile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 11.

(11) “Want the Unchurched: Concerted Movement by Catholics in New York,” Los Angeles Times (January 20, 1900).

(12) “‘Everyman’ for the Churchmen,” Special to the New York Times (January 18, 1903).

(13) “To Wake Up Churches: Episcopalians to Launch Series of Missions in Lent. Revival Features Planned. Special Collection of Hymns of the Moody and Sankey Type Being Prepared—Part of Great National Movement—Many Washington Churches Will Participate,” Washington Post (January 30, 1916).

(14) “Would Reach the Farmers: United Presbyterians Want Them in Church,” Los Angeles Times (May 28, 1912).

(15) “Two Daily Services Held During Revival,” Heraldo de Brownsville (March 31, 1936).

(16) “Church Members in Population: They Would Fill the White States, and Unchurched Would Fill Dark States,” Washington Post (September 12, 1909).

(17) “Church Members,” Time 10, no. 6 (August 8, 1927): 22; “Membership Losses,” Time 10, no. 6 (August 8, 1927): 22.

(18) “Religious Writer Advocates Unification of the Churches: There Are About Seven Million People in the Country Who Need Evangelizing,” Chicago Defender (August 20, 1927): A1.

(19) New York Times (August 1, 1929).

(20) “Religious Survey Begins Tomorrow: Leaders Have High Hopes of Results Census Will Yield. 2,500 Will Take Part,” Washington Post (March 9, 1930).

(21) For historical notes and archival information on the conference and archival information, see the Jewish Theological Seminary Library website at

(22) “Science and Religion,” Time 36, no. 13 (September 23, 1940): 52, quoting Louis Finkelstein of Jewish Theological Seminary.

(23) F. Ernest Johnson, “Religion and the Philosophy of Education: Interpretive Forces in Human Life,” Vital Speeches of the Day 7 (November 1, 1940): 36.

(24) “Pastoral Relationship,” Time 53, no. 11 (March 14, 1949): 66.

(25) Robert S. Ellwood, The Fifties Spiritual Marketplace: American Religion in a Decade of Conflict (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1997), 30–31.

(26) “Christian Soldiers,” Time 61, no. 24 (June 15, 1953): 77.

(27) “Back to the Synagogue,” Time 55, no. 14 (April 3, 1950): 60.

(28) Howard F. Bass and Mark J. Rozell, “Religion and the U.S. Presidency,” The Oxford Handbook of Religion and American Politics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 478–479.

(29) Henry, Patrick. “And I Don’t Care What It Is”: The Tradition-History of a Civil Religion Proof-Text,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 49, no. 1 (1981): 35–47.

(30) “Record High,” Time 70, no. 12 (September 16, 1957): 85.

(31) William McGaffin, “Red Propaganda Represents Party as Friends of Christians”, Washington Post and Times Herald (September 28, 1954).

(32) “Bishop Sherrill Airs Views on Communism,” Los Angeles Times (January 27, 1949).

(33) Anthony J. Rudel, Hello Everybody: The Dawn of American Radio (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2008), 178–192.

(34) On the effect of religious broadcasting on religious affiliation in Britain, see Grace Davie, Religion in Britain Since 1945: Believing Without Belonging (Oxford: Blackwell, 2004). For commentary in the United States context, see Joseph O’Brian Baker and Buster Smith, “None Too Simple: Examining Issues of Religious Nonbelief and Nonbelonging in the United States,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 48, no. 4 (2009): 719–733.

(35) “Homo Religionis,” Time 77, no. 16 (April 14, 1961): 70.

(36) Will Herberg, Protestant, Catholic, Jew: An Essay in American Religious Sociology (1955; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983).

(37) “The Supreme Being: Man,” Time 80, no. 7 (August 17, 1962): 71.

(38) ProQuest Historical Newspapers database search for the terms “humanist” and “unchurched” in the New York Times, 1850 to 2009. Conducted May 17, 2013.

(39) “Coexistence Plea Made at Cornell,” New York Times (December 6, 1965).

(40) “The Atheist Rabbi,” Time 85, no. 5 (January 29, 1965): 98.

(41) “From Atheism to Analysis,” Time 86, no. 15 (October 8, 1965): 84.

(42) John T. Elson, “Toward a Hidden God,” Time 87, no. 14(April 8, 1966): 98.

(43) E.g., “‘New’ Theologians See Christianity Without God,” New York Times (October 17, 1965); and “Finite Cannot Measure Infinite, Los Angeles Times (December 14, 1965).

(44) “The New Ministry: Bringing God Back to Life,” Time 94, no. 28 (December 26, 1969): 48.

(45) “Ex-Priest Says ‘Unchurched’ Largest Sect,” Los Angeles Times (July 19, 1969).

(46) “There’s a New-Time Religion on Campus,” New York Times (June 1, 1969).

(47) E.g., Max Lerner, “The Whole Person Must Face the Whole World,” Los Angles Times (January 23, 1972): H7.

(48) Max Lerner, “Society’s New Language….,” Los Angeles Times (May 19, 1973).

(49) “A Host of Problems,” Time 102, no. 22 (November 26, 1973): 105.

(50) “An Aggressive Atheist Rebuffed,” Time 88, no. 15 (October 21, 1966): 74.

(51) John Dart, “Atheist O’Hair Spreads the Word of Unbelief,” Los Angeles Times (July 15, 1977).