Church membership is drooping, but the US is still profoundly religious

Inside the Washington National Cathedral (Wikimedia Commons/Caroline Léna Becker)

Washington — Right across from our hotel here on Thomas Circle (roughly 14th and Massachusetts Avenue Northwest) is Luther Place Memorial Church with a huge statue in front of Martin Luther, who almost on purpose started the Protestant Reformation. (You could look it up.)

And quite close to that church is National City Christian Church. Both structures are big, imposing and -- by American standards -- quite old.

Those descriptions also fit a church a few blocks away, New York Avenue Presbyterian, which Abraham Lincoln used to attend and which today houses, in its Lincoln Parlor, an early Emancipation Proclamation document, along with the Lincoln pew in the sanctuary.

In fact, as I recently wandered around our nation's capital, I was struck over and over first by how many churches (to say nothing of synagogues, mosques and other houses of worship) help make up the structural and social fabric of Washington, and second, by how much this remains a reflection of the central role religion continues to play in this country.

This is true even though that role has in some ways diminished or at least been modified in recent years as the number of people who claim no religious affiliation continues to grow and change the American religious landscape.

Perhaps the most impressive religious structure in Washington is the National Cathedral, where my wife and I attended a beautiful Sunday afternoon evensong service with friends. As I noted recently on my daily "Faith Matters" blog, this Episcopal cathedral raised anew the question of whether such an extravagant building (think St. Peter's at the Vatican) is a waste of money that should be better spend on helping needy people. Discuss.

As for me, I've decided that art (and what is the Washington National Cathedral if not art?) is a necessary expression of worship and need not justify its existence as beauty.

All the houses of worship scattered around Washington became for me a metaphor of the endless ways in which religion is woven into almost every news story these days. Affordable Care Act? It's partly about religion. Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Again, religion plays a big role. And on and on.

It's one more reason the American public needs journalists who understand the religious angles of all these stories and can help them make sense of things.

Why does the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issue statements on immigration, abortion and many other divisive social issues? Because those matters are in some way connected with faith, and faith needs to have a voice in the public square.

I was in Washington to attend the annual conference of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists, which once had me as its president. I wasn't here to do a thorough analysis of religious life in the capital. But I found it impossible not to notice how deeply religious structures -- the ones still used that way -- are woven into Washington's various neighborhoods.

No doubt some of the mainline Protestant churches here, as almost everywhere else in the U.S., are struggling. But as the Lutheran and Disciples of Christ churches close to each other on Thomas Circle show, there's still a place for Protestant Christianity here.

And there's still a place for it, Catholicism and Orthodox Christianity elsewhere around the nation, too. Protestantism already has lost its place as a majority religious tradition among Americans and other branches may not be growing as they once were, but the U.S. remains a profoundly religious country.

All you need do to see a demonstration of that is to wander the streets of Washington with your religious antennae working.

How many people passing by Martin Luther's statue in front of Luther Place Memorial Church could tell you anything about his life and significance? Well, that's another story -- a sad one about Americans' widespread theological and biblical illiteracy. But that's a story for another day.

[Bill Tammeus, a Presbyterian elder and award-winning former faith columnist for The Kansas City Star, writes the daily "Faith Matters" blog for the Star's website and a monthly column for The Presbyterian Outlook. His latest book is Woodstock: A Story of Middle Americans. Email him at]

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