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By Rabbi Allen S. Maller

The Southern Baptist Convention, which considers baptism a key marker of Christian faith, and also its own denominational vitality, has increased its membership by more than 160 percent in the last 64 years, yet it only had 314,959 baptisms in 2012 — a low not seen since 1948.

“It’s a sad situation,” said Thom Rainer, president of LifeWay Christian Resources. “In 1948 we had 6 million members of the SBC but today we have more than 15 million members.”

Rainer’s research on the nation’s 80 million “millennials” (born between 1980 and 2000) shows that only 15 percent call themselves Christian.

Catholic baptism rates also fell during the same period— from just more than 1 million baptisms in 1970 down to 793,103 baptisms in 2011.

One of the reasons for the decline in baptisms is the increase in mixed marriages.

One in four U.S. households were multifaith in 2006, up from 15 percent in 1988, says Naomi Schaefer Riley in her book, ”‘Til Faith Do Us Part.” Such couples often compromise by skipping  specific faith rituals such as baptism to avoid contention.

Even so, divorce is three times more prevalent in interfaith families with children than in same-faith households, often leaving the children of those broken marriages confused or indifferent about God, rituals or what would have been their religious community, if their parents had married in, or unified their family through conversion of one partner to the religion of the other.

Mark Gray, senior research associate at Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, tied the sliding baptism rate to the decline in marriages officiated by a priest. The Catholic Church regards marriage as a sacrament to be celebrated in the sacred space of a church.

“If you haven’t been married in a church, you will be less likely to present your child for baptism.”

In 1970, there were 426,000 marriages in U.S. Catholic churches —  20 percent of all U.S. marriages that year. By contrast, in 2011, there were 164,000 such weddings — only 8 percent of all marriages. But in both years, Catholics were 23 percent of the national population.

Some would say the decline in Catholic weddings and baptisms is due to the child molestation scandals, citing official figures from Germany to support this. In 2010, 181,000 Catholics officially left the church after the sexual abuse scandals involving German priests were made public. Another 126,000 left in 2011 and 118,000 in 2012 followed suit.

But Jews, who have had only a few such scandals, also seem to be suffering from the same American trends. The percentage of Jews who marry non-Jews and influence their partners to become Jewish,  has declined compared to three or four decades ago. Also more Jews say they are not religious than two decades ago.

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