One of the more astonishing phenomena of our times is the speed at which the United States is becoming a post-Christian nation.
Of course Christianity has been declining throughout the West for at least a couple of centuries. The decline has however been a gradual one. Until three decades ago it seemed like the United States was bucking the overall trend. In the 1980s the Religious Right still had immense political clout and this was based on the fact that conservative Christians (especially Evangelical Christians) really did form an enormous voting bloc. They had power and that power was based on numbers.
Since the 80s it seems to have been all downhill, at a very rapid pace.
It’s worth taking a look at Pew Research’s Religious Landscape Study. They did two very extensive surveys seven years apart, in 2007 and 2014. In that short time span the percentage of the American population identifying as Christians fell from 78% to 71%. It was not just a relative decline – the absolute numbers fell from 178 million to 173 million.
Mainline Protestants fell from 41 to 36 million. Evangelical Christians are holding their own in terms of absolute numbers but declining as a share of the population. Catholics have declined in both absolute and relative terms.
And this is in just seven years.
If you’re a Christian there are other even more disturbing trends in the survey. The number of people identifying as out-and-out atheists has jumped sharply. These are people who are not merely irreligious, but anti-religion. And the decline in Christian belief has been most dramatic among Millennials, and most dramatic of all among the younger Millennials.
Of course there are always problems with surveys such as this. If the US was still 71% Christian then everything that has happened in the past thirty years would have been impossible and incomprehensible. Obviously the vast majority of those who identify as Christian for the purpose of surveys are not Christian in any meaningful sense. That has almost certainly been the case for at least a century. The difficulty is to estimate how many of these people are genuine believers who actually practise their religion and it’s a formidable difficulty. It would also be useful to know not just how many supposed Christians are merely nominal Christians but how this compares to other religions.
It’s also possible that being a Christian doesn’t mean what it used to mean. We’ve seen the hierarchies of most churches become more and more liberal and secular in outlook but does this apply to the ordinary rank-and-file church members? While I would suspect that most members of the rank and file are considerably less liberal than their leaders I would also suspect that they are a lot more liberal than the general run of church-goers half a century ago. If the latter is true then the prospects for any genuine revival of Christianity are grim.
It’s also worth noting that the churches that have tried hardest to survive by compromising with liberalism are the ones that are dying out most quickly. I have very mixed feelings about the Evangelicals but they do seem to be doing significantly better than the other Christian churches.
There’s another interesting conclusion to be drawn from all this. There was a popular idea a while back that Christianity would survive simply because Christians have more children than secularists. That idea is clearly completely wrong. Christians almost certainly are having more children but a very large proportion of those children end up being secular liberals. This is a subject I addressed a while back in my post conservative delusions – the War of the Cradle.