Why 1940s America wasn’t as religious as you think — the rise and fall of American religion

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tags: religion



Tobin Grant blogs for Religion News Service at Corner of Church and State, a data-driven conversation on religion and politics. He is a political science professor at Southern Illinois University and associate editor of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.

It’s common for people to believe that religion was always more vibrant in the past. Earlier generations were always more religious than we are, right? Not always.

Religiosity can rise and fall just like other things do over time. In fact, America of the 1940s was about as as religious as America today.

Coming out of World War II, America was not very religious. The war had put a halt on many of the things that increase religiosity, particularly marriage and procreation. Churches, just like other organizations, were slowed by drain on resources and volunteers during the war. The post-war years turned this around. The economy improved. The baby boom ensued. And religion grew.


The 1950s were also a time when America began to see itself as a Christian nation in a cold war with atheistic communism. President Eisenhower joined a church after being elected, becoming the first president to be baptized while in office. In 1954, the phrase “under God” was added to the pledge of allegiance to signify the religious stance of the country.

The rise of religion was clearly evident to those living in the midst of it. Magazines including Life and McCall’s featured issues on religion and the so-called religious revival. Some even labeled it the “Third Great Awakening.” Sociologists noted the rise in religiosity, writing about it in aptly named titles such as There is a Religious Revival!, The Surge of Piety, and The New Shape of American Religion. In 1956, National Council of Churches (NCC) published a forum on the question with a who’s-who of 1950s religion and culture including

●President Eisenhower

●Adlai Stevenson

●Billy Graham

●Norman Vincent Peale

●Eugene Carson Blake (then president of NCC), and

●Nathan Pusey (president of Harvard University).

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