The headline of the New York Times was “Big Drop in Share of Americans Calling Themselves Christian.” It was a story reporting on a recent survey by the Pew Research Center.
According to the survey, “The Christian share of the U.S. population is declining, while the number of U.S. adults who do not identify with an organized religion is growing.” More specifically, seventy-one percent of Americans identify themselves as Christians, down from 79 percent in 2007.
The biggest increase and the subject of much of the media coverage was the religiously-unaffiliated, or the “nones” as they are sometimes called. They went from 16 percent of those surveyed in 2007 to 23 percent today. And among 18-to-25-year olds, the percentage of the unaffiliated rose to 34 percent.
While Pew declined to speculate on what is behind the statistical decline of self-identifying Christians, the New York Times didn’t hesitate. Clearly, they claimed, part of the reason is the “politicalization of religion by American conservatives.” The one outside expert quoted in the piece reinforced the notion of a “backlash against the association of Christianity with conservative political values.”
This so-called explanation ignores the inconvenient fact that the biggest decline noted, again, is in the liberal mainline denominations.
So what ought we to make of this report? Well, the first thing, as with all such reports, is to acknowledge its critics who call some of its findings into question. For instance, over at the Gospel Coalition, Joe Carter pointed out that the “Christianity in decline” meme ignores the fact that, according to the survey, the number of Evangelicals is growing, and the percentage of Americans who describe themselves as such remains stable.
Mark Gray of Georgetown University offered similar criticisms regarding the conclusions drawn about Catholicism.
Still, the fact remains that fewer Americans self-identify as Christians. And Russell Moore is correct to note that what the statistical decline most reflects is the demise of what he calls “Bible Belt near-Christianity.”
As Moore writes, “For much of the twentieth century, one had to at least claim to be a Christian to be ‘normal.’” But this is no longer the case. “Those who don’t believe can say so—and still find spouses, get jobs, volunteer with the PTA, and even run for office.”
And jettisoning controversial teachings, especially on what he calls “pelvic autonomy,” won’t help, Moore says, because “people who don’t want Christianity, don’t want almost-Christianity” either.
“We do not have more atheists in America,” Moore stated. “We have more honest atheists in America.” And that’s exactly right.
The rise in the religiously-unaffiliated has not been accompanied by a rise in those describing themselves as “atheist” or “agnostic.” This suggests that part of what we’re seeing, especially among the young, is the decline of voluntary affiliation, what sociologist Robert Putnam famously called “bowling alone.”
Recent Washington Post articles have pointed out the reluctance of Americans born after 1980, or the so-called “Millennials,” to marry, have children or identify with a political party.
As Chuck Colson once said, what we’re seeing in this rise of the religiously-unaffiliated is “yet another example of Americans’ increasing preference to ‘bowl alone.’” We “want the benefits of a tradition or community,” Chuck noted, “without putting in the work, including the willingness to subordinate your desires to a larger whole, which is what makes community possible.”
Moore’s and Colson’s complementary takes point to a sobering truth: the cultural context in which American Christians are living out their faith has changed. But, as my colleague Shane Morris put it, “Christianity isn’t shrinking. A storm is just washing away those houses built on the sand.”
All the more reason to make sure our houses are built on the solid Rock.
— by John Stonestreet
Stonestreet is the Director of Strategic Partnerships for the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview and is heard on Breakpoint. Copyright© 2015 Prison Fellowship Ministries. Reprinted with permission. BreakPoint is a ministry of Prison Fellowship Ministries.