QUICK TAKES – Is American Christianity Really in Decline, or Is It Just Undergoing a Makeover?

Current Events

In this week’s edition of QUICK TAKES on current and newsworthy issues involving religion and theology by POLITICAL THEOLOGY TODAY, we investigate the implications of the recent Pew Foundation study entitled “America’s Changing Religious Landscape”, which much of the media has concluded demonstrates a precipitous and significant decline of Christianity in the United States. We posed the general question to our contributors of how real is the decline, what does it mean, and what are its implications for sustaining an American public theology, which in the past, despite our highly valued culture of pluralism, has often reflected implicit Christian presuppositions.

QUICK TAKES is a feature managed by PTT Current Affairs Editor Carl Raschke.  If you would like to be part of the “rapid response teams” that responds in this section to news of the week, please send the editor an email along with a brief description of the general topics on which you would like to comment

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Pew Study Conceals Both the Demography of “Decline” and the Increasing Diversity in American Christianity

Much of the attention given to the Pew Research Center’s “America’s Changing Religious Landscape” survey has focused on the overall decline in Christian affiliation as a share of the population versus the increase in the unaffiliated, often referred to popularly as the “nones.”   Since 2007, the last time the Pew Research Center conducted the survey, those who identify as Christian has fallen 7.8%, from 78.4% to 70.6%. Over the same period, those who identify as “unaffiliated”, which includes those who describe themselves as atheist, agnostic, or “nothing in particular,” rose 6.8%, from 16.1% to 22.8%.

That contrast has provoked headlines such as “Big Drop in Share of Americans Calling Themselves Christian”, “Christianity faces sharp decline as Americans are becoming even less affiliated with religion”, and “Americans becoming less Christian, more secular amid marketplace of American religion”. The decline in Christian affiliation, coupled with a rise in the unaffiliated even had Fox News pundit Bill O’Reilly waxing apocalyptic, implying that the United States faces a Roman Empire-style collapse.

O’Reilly may well be right about the United States’ eventual demise, but I doubt it will have much to do with declining religious affiliation or, as he also said, the “rap industry.”  Nevertheless, such a focus on the overall decline, which is largely concentrated among mainline Protestants and Catholics, ignores the fact that evangelical Protestants only saw a relatively modest decline of 0.9% and have likely over the same period seen their numbers increase in absolute terms.

It also sidesteps the reality that the historically black Protestant denominations have remained largely stable, with around 16 million adult adherents. Even amidst decline, most Christian traditions have become more racially and ethnically diverse, in some cases substantially so, and adherents to non-Christian religious traditions now account for a slightly larger percentage of the population, up from 4.7% in 2007 to 5.9% in the recent study.

It’s anyone’s guess, of course, what all this means politically, at least from within the contours of the reality that the report claims to describe. I suspect that, generally speaking, it doesn’t mean all that much, at least in the short-term. Overall identification with Christianity is, it seems, on the wane, but identification with a particular religious tradition, especially with Christianity in the United States, isn’t necessarily an indication “faithfulness,” or even a desire to follow specific moral, social, and theological prescriptions, whatever these may be (as the report stresses, it’s based on self-reporting).

Indeed, given that Americans on the whole have in the past tended to significantly over-report other normal markers of religious identity, such as church attendance, it’s quite possible that the Pew survey and its respondents are just catching up to the reality on the ground and in practice, at least in part.

That’s not to dismiss the survey, as it does appear to register a certain shift. It is, rather, to contextualize it, by suggesting that the United States has probably always been less Christian in practice than popular and politically expedient pieties would have us believe and, therefore, much more complex with regard to religious identity. Moreover, even if the United States has become less Christian in terms of simple identification, it still remains the case that Christians as a whole maintain an undeniably solid share of the religious landscape, at just over 70%.

Nevertheless, I do think that the whole narrative of decline that numerous quarters have trotted out as a way to frame the report may in itself have political implications (and, on a side note that I can’t justify here, that’s in part because I think declension narratives always conceal theological-political commitments, whether intentionally or not).   How we contexutalize things matters, and understanding the report in terms of a “sharp decline” or as an indication that Americans are becoming “less Christian, more secular” provides easy fodder for the “culture warriors” among us—and that’s not insignificant as we head into an unnecessarily drawn out and ridiculously expensive presidential election.

Such an approach is unfortunate, even if it’s not entirely inaccurate.  More interestingly—and more important religiously, socially, and politically—the report is just as much about the increasing diversity of the American religious landscape, which mirrors the country as a whole. That’s a good thing, which, to me, is the real takeaway.

Hollis Phelps is Assistant Professor of Religion at the University of Mount Olive.  He is the author of Alain Badiou: Between Theology and Anti-theology (Acumen, 2013).

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If Christianity As We Know It Is on the Wane In America, We Need to Dig Deeper For the Sources of Our Public Theology

The Pew Center for Religion and Public Life recently released their 2014 demographic study called “America’s Changing Religious Landscape”.  This exhaustive investigation shows some significant shifts in American religious identity since their last investigation of this sort in 2007. In just seven short years, the number of Americans identifying themselves as Christians has declined from 78% to 70% of the population, while those with no religious identification grew almost as significantly (from 16% to almost 23% of the population).

Americans, it seems, are abandoning not only Christianity, but also organized religion, very rapidly. Certainly, a significant majority still identify themselves as Christian, but the trend line is moving quite dramatically toward the “none” category, especially among young people—the so-called Millennial generation.

What the Pew study cannot tell us are the causes and consequences of these changes for American Christianity and American public life. Some will certainly wring their hands and shake their heads, while others will as predictably cheer and smile, at the demographic changes this report describes. As a Christian and an American, as well as a theologian concerned with the quality of our public moral discourse, I am ambivalent about them. Reading America’s Changing Religious Landscape, I see reasons for both hope and fear.

In 1929 H. Richard Niebuhr published The Social Sources of Denominationalism, arguing that American Christianity was defined more by racial, ethnic, class, and regional identities than by the gospel of Jesus Christ. The Christian denominations in the United States were, in Niebuhr’s estimation, merely the expression of closed communal loyalties.

By the 1950s, denominational identities had loosened and the differences between them had lessened as each denomination began to understand itself as a particular expression of the “Judeo-Christian ethic” at the heart of the “American way of life.” As Will Herberg described it, in his book, Protestant, Catholic Jew, to be American, during the Cold War, was to be Judeo-Christian, in some form or another.

As a result of the cultural challenges posed by the 1960s and 70s, as well as by the end of the Cold War in the 1980s and 1990s, a sort of cultural fragmentation took place that spelled the beginning of the end of the consensus about “the American way of life” and the centrality of the “Judeo-Christian ethic.” The current demographic shifts described by the Pew study may be seen as the continuation of these trends. The “ascriptive loyalities,” that once supported Christianity but also confused it with extra-religious forms of belonging—like ethnicity, class, region, or even nationality—have unraveled. It is no longer necessary to identify oneself as Christian in order to participate fully in American public life.

Such changes, I hope, may be good for the Christian churches in America. Having the crutch of American identity unceremoniously kicked away may force churches to rely upon deeper and more authentic resources. Though many may abandon Christianity, those who remain may stay because they sincerely identify with and are profoundly shaped by the particular beliefs, practices and commitments of Christian faith rather than a vague sense of civic obligation.

These changes may also, I hope, be good for American public life. In an era when no shared identity and common moral norms are simply taken for granted, Americans may be forced to dig deeper. American moral and political discourse could move beyond the shallow clichés and unthinking tropes that have characterized much of its public life toward a richer, more diverse, and more contested argument about our obligations to one another and the world. America may become more secular, not in the sense of a moral consensus divorced from religious norms, but in Charles Taylor’s sense of a moral discourse in which less and less is simply taken for granted. Reasons will have to be offered, rather than simply assumed. Arguments will need to be made, rather than opponents simply being dismissed as outside the bounds of acceptable viewpoints.

These changes in America’s religious landscape may, I hope, provoke moral renewal in both the Christian churches and the American body politic. But, that is far from certain. These changes may be seen differently. The diversity of American life may simply leave us skimming along the ephemeral surface of things in search of the illusive and illusory goal of personal satisfaction. This is my fear. The open marketplace of ideas in an increasingly diverse society may lead to its natural result, the commodification of identity, purpose, and relationships.

The changes identified by the Pew study may be another step toward the anomie and loneliness of self-centered individualism described in Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. Diversity may simply lead to the smorgasborg of possibilities, chosen merely on the basis of taste and desire, provoked by nothing deeper than personal satisfaction. In a competitive marketplace, American religious communities may degenerate into mere spiritual mechanisms for personal satisfaction, promising, like all advertisement, more than they can possibly deliver.

Like all social bonds, they may become the temporary resting place of individuals ready to cut and run when self-fulfillment proves elusive. The acids of the marketplace may dissolve the profound social bonds of both America and Christianity, not for the sake of a universal commonwealth of identity and belonging, but for the sake of an unrestrained ego that knows and values nothing beyond its own satisfactions.

Pew’s demographic report cannot tell us what the future holds. Nor can it tell us whether the hopes or fears they provoke will be realized.  We stand, collectively, on the edge of a destiny that is both beyond our control and dependent upon our own choices. The future of the Christian churches and American public life is uncertain. No demographic research can give us those answers.

Tim Beach-Verhey is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at St. Andrew’s University. He holds a BA from Hope College, an M.Div. from Union Theological Seminary, and a Ph.D. from Emory University.  He previously taught at Davidson College before serving as a pastor at Faison Presbyterian Church in North Carolina for five years.  Beach-Verhey is the author of Robust Liberalism: H. Richard Niebuhr and the Ethics of American Political Life  (Baylor University Press, 2011).

One thought on “QUICK TAKES – Is American Christianity Really in Decline, or Is It Just Undergoing a Makeover?

  1. If one follows the Generational Theory of William Strauss & Neil Howe (“Generations: A History of America’s Future”, “The Fourth Turning”, what we are seeing now is quite normal for a nation at the end of an “inner directed era” (Third Turning) approaching a secular crisis. This is what happened after the Revolutionary War, when Civic oriented former Revolutionary War soldiers developed the Constitution along a very secular vein and after the Civil War (which ended badly. Religious revivals did not start again in these cycles until the Second Great Awakening (1820s-30s), the Missionary Generation Awakening (1890s-1900s and of course the Baby Boomer Awakening (1960s mid 1970s).
    What was atypical about the period after WWII was that because WWII was in effect, a “three cornered war” in which the US went to war in effect with two enemies, Naziism/Japanese Militarism and Communism and pivoted in 1945-6 from one to the other a) a concerted attempt was made to maintain the psychological mobilisation of the American People from WWII right through the 1950s and to “sand down” religious and ethnic differences at least amongst White Americans from the situation Reinhold Niehbur described to Will Herberg’s “Protestant Catholic Jew (epitomised and established by the differentiation between the three in the US Armed Forces chaplaincies) and b) a concerted effort was made with a great deal of business money behind it to build up and sell conservative Christianity as a counter both to “godless Communism” on the outside but also as a counterattack against the ideas of the New Deal on the inside of the US. This attempt to market conservative Christianity was mainly to GI and Silent Generation people who in a normal generational cycle would have been quite secular and lasted will until the Baby Boomer Awakening in the 1960s and even well beyond. For that reason, we are seeing a normal playing out of the Generational Cycle, in which CIvic Millennials are rejecting the perceived excesses in religiousity of their Baby Boomer parents just as GI Generation Civics found the religious excesses of their Missionary Generation parents from the Oxford Movement/Moral Rearmament to the Ku Klux Klan passe in the 1930s and sought secular solutions to critical problems such as joining labour unions. But because of the attempt to sell GIs on religious affiliation if not religiousity post WWII we think that the US was more religious longer and see this decline as something new. Never fear. There will likely be a new religious revival of one sort or another by about the 2030s assuming the US dosen’t lose the next set of it’s wars.

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