What to Understand about Christianity’s Decline in America

Last month, Pew Research Center published survey data from 2018 and 2019 on religion and Americans. The big takeaway: the number of non-religiously affiliated Americans was growing; the number of Christians was declining. Here’s how they summed it up:

The changes underway in the American religious landscape are broad-based. The Christian share of the population is down and religious “nones” have grown across multiple demographic groups: white people, black people and Hispanics; men and women; in all regions of the country; and among college graduates and those with lower levels of educational attainment. Religious “nones” are growing faster among Democrats than Republicans, though their ranks are swelling in both partisan coalitions. And although the religiously unaffiliated are on the rise among younger people and most groups of older adults, their growth is most pronounced among young adults.

To talk about these numbers and what they suggest about the future of Christianity in the US, Quick to Listen turned to CT’s news editor Daniel Silliman, who has closely studied American religious life. Daniel joined digital media producer Morgan Lee and editor in chief Mark Galli to discuss why Christianity continues to decline, the relationship that “nones” have to faith, and what similarities or differences these numbers have with the religious situation in Western Europe.

This episode of Quick to Listen is brought to you in part by Intensional. D.A. Horton unpacks how God addresses these issues and where to take it from there in his new book Intensional. Go to dahorton.com to learn more about Intensional.

This episode of Quick to Listen is also brought to you by Christianbook.com, your go-to source for everything Christian. Books, Bibles, gifts, music and more, all in one place. And always from people who share your values. Go to Christianbook.com.

What is “Quick to Listen”? Read more

Subscribe to Quick to Listen on Apple Podcasts

Follow the podcast on Twitter

Follow our host on Twitter: Morgan Lee

Subscribe to Mark’s newsletter: The Galli Report

Follow our guest on Twitter: D aniel Silliman

Music by Sweeps

Highlights from Quick to Listen: Episode #188

What surprised you about this most recent batch of data from Pew?

Daniel Silliman: The report isn’t shocking; it’s not totally different than what we’ve seen before. It has more to do with a continuation of trends. The numbers that most of us have been using from Pew are getting old enough at this point that there was some question about if they were still right. Are things still moving in the way that we think they are? So this report expands what we know, and it extends what we know, it kind of updates our information, but it doesn’t dramatically complicate the picture of the last 20-30 years of religious trends.

Article continues below

It didn’t seem that it was a lot more dramatic—it’s not that it’s happening so much faster than it was—but it is still sizeable. The big numbers are that the percentage of Americans identifying as Christian in the last 10 years has dropped by 12 percentage points. And then in the other direction, the percentage of Americans saying they have no religion or no affiliation—the “nones”—has gone up 5 percentage points, and we’ve seen this larger story about the rise of the “nones,” which we should talk more about what that means.

The other stat that stuck out to me was the statistic about self-reported church attendance. And self-reported monthly church attendance has gone down nine percentage points within the last decade, which is interesting.

If people identifying as Christians has dropped by 12 percentage points, and people identifying as “nones” has risen by five, what’s happening to the other seven percentage points?

Daniel Silliman: There is an increase in non-Christian religions—Muslims and Buddhists, as well as some Hindus—but the five percentage points is in relationship to the previous number, not to the total.

Part of Pew’s summary includes different demographics where the “nones” are increasing. Do you find any of the stats about those demographic groups surprising? Or are there any of them that you want to highlight?

Daniel Silliman: The number among millennials—there are more “nones” among younger generations. There’s a real age difference in the decline of religion, and younger people are more likely to disaffiliate than older people. So the change in millennials—which they’re defining as anyone born between 1981 and 1996—the percentage point change has been 13%, which is pretty noticeable.

I think the story with race and college education is kind of interesting because it doesn’t map onto a lot of other things. So between college graduates and non-college graduates, we don’t see a huge difference in disaffiliation. White and Black, we don’t see a huge difference. Non-Hispanic and Hispanic. Like these are all happening roughly the same. So you’re seeing a culture-wide disaffiliation that doesn’t break down by race or education.

Article continues below

Race and education are huge predictors in American life for all sorts of things, but not how religious you are.

What historical trends do you think have led to these changes?

Daniel Silliman: I tend to think there are sort of two larger historical movements happening.

One is that we’re comparing both our numbers and our own cultural memory to the 1950s—like that’s kind of the backdrop of “normal” in the way that we talk about things. But it turns out in the longer horizon of American history, the 1950s were a kind of aberration. They were very, very religious. In the success coming off of World War II, the religious revivals, including all of the stuff that Billy Graham did, America just had this kind of flush of confidence and success that came at the same time as this, a new interest in religion. Part of that, of course, is the context of the Cold War and the fact that America was increasingly defining itself as opposed to the Soviet Union, which of course was atheistic. So you have godless communists versus God-full America.

And I think what happened there, and a lot of the historical research bears this out, is that nominal religion really, really rises in America at this time. The pressure to say that you’re a church member is really intense.

Evangelicals feel pretty divided about this. On the one hand, historically white evangelicals were quite happy to see America take religion seriously and be thinking about religious things and talking about the Bible, talking about church, but at the same time, there’s a pretty sharp critique of nominal Christianity.

But if you look at the longer trend, it really starts changing in the early 90s. So I, I’m less likely to think that this is a 500-year history from the Reformation to Walmart, and more likely to think that like the political landscape of America has changed in a way that’s like shifted—especially nominal religion—on our sense of what it means to be a good American.

I think we’ve had in the recent history of this country, where religiosity has been very prized. And belonging to these groups, whether it’s the Elks or your local bowling league, or having a denominational affiliation has been really prized. And it just doesn’t seem to matter to people anymore, at least not in that kind of abstract way.

Article continues below

That’s why I was really interested in the monthly attendance or self- reported monthly attendance. It has gone down nine percentage points in this new poll, but among the declining group of people who say that they’re Christians, monthly church attendance has only gone down by one percentage point. So I think we’re seeing a broad change of religiosity—which will change things for white evangelicals—but as an evangelical, it might not be a dramatic change in the number of people who have some fervent belief or some active church life.

Let’s talk about the “nones,” since that seems to be the big category that Christians are juxtaposed against. First of all, how long has the “nones” existed as a category? And is “nones” a synonym for atheists or agnostics? What are some common misconceptions about this demographic?

Daniel Silliman: It’s a category created by pollsters; I think Gallup did it first. But at some point, in the 90s, pollsters just made it an option to say, “none of the above.” So it used to be in the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s, Gallup would call you and ask, “What religion are you?” And then they would list Protestant, Catholic, Jew, Buddhist, etc. And there was no “I’m not religious” option available.

When you get into the weeds of polling, it’s always the case that pollsters are kind of creating the categories. If you don’t give people any categories, you get a much weirder set of answers. So some pollsters just realized that they’re not giving people a nonreligious option. And as soon as they started asking the question, there were people that liked that option.

Pew actually breaks them out though and separates atheists and agnostics from “nones.” So they’re not the same. Atheists are 4% of American adults, up from 2% ten years ago. And agnostics—people who say they don’t know whether or not God is out there—is at 5%, up two percentage points from 3% a decade ago. But then 17% of all Americans are nothing in particular.

The recent studies have shown that this group of people is more likely to be called spiritual, but not religious. They look a lot like new age stuff. There’s kind of unbundled spirituality or a collective spirituality. They might believe in angels and Jesus, but also crystals and taro. It’s not that they believe, you know, in a materialistic universe, just like Nietzsche or Darwin, until we die. It’s more a grab bag of individualized, personalized spirituality that they think can help you live a better, fuller life, but as something that you don’t really do in a community. You do it by yourself.

Article continues below

I think most of them believe in a god of some sort. We should understand the “nones” to have no religious beliefs. What they have is no religious affiliation. They don’t want to be connected to or defined by a group. They want to decide for themselves what practices they’re going to be involved in and what beliefs they’re going to embrace. Which you know, that’s also true of a lot of people in churches who hold the creedal confession over their particular church maybe a little loosely. It’s not a totally different impulse that a lot of us feel in our Christian churches, in our Christian lives.

We’ve been discussing some of the common explanations for a decline in these numbers. Are we missing any other ones that people commonly use to interpret this situation?

Daniel Silliman: The other one that comes up a lot is politics. Christian Smith, a sociologist at Notre Dame, says there are three major changes: The Cold War, 9/11 or the beginning of the war on terror, and the longer impacts of the rise of the Christian Right. And he basically argues that people increasingly understand religion to be a political category, and that makes it a problem for people who don’t share the politics that they perceive go along with Christianity. So even though they might be fine with Jesus, they will say that they’re Christian because they think what you’re really asking is if they vote a certain way or support certain political issues.

The weird thing about this category is that the groups that are most affiliated with those politics are not the ones that are in decline. So there’s a thing where people are leaving liberal churches or disaffiliating with liberal churches or left of center churches, where politics might be more likely to lean left. And they’re leaving it because they’re mad about not liberal churches, but politically conservative churches.

So that’s, that’s a strange thing, and I think some people have pushed back on Christian Smith with this argument, but how churches’ and Christians’ political activities change the way we understand these categories and identities is another thing to think about.

What is one of the arguments or reasons for the fact that liberal churches are the ones losing members more than conservative churches?

Article continues below

Daniel Silliman: One argument is that identifying with a church has to do something for you socially. It can maybe help you with contacts, networking for your business, or it can just mark a distinction between you and the broader culture. And the idea is that conservative churches are counter-cultural and serve the sociological function for people to reaffirm your identity and reassure yourself for the cultural struggle that you live in every day.

But I don’t quite think this works because if you look at the places were conservative churches are thriving, those tend to be conservative places. If that argument were true, you would expect Southern Baptist in New England to be booming and Southern Baptists in Alabama to be really struggling because there’s not a lot of distinction between the broader culture. And that’s just not quite the case.

If you look at some of the liberal or left-leaning denominations, it tends to be when they make a bolder cultural stance that they start losing members. So the Episcopal church—which is very much identified with most of the members of the Supreme Court, lots and lots of presidents affiliate with it, it’s a church of a lot of power and prestige—and then they start doing some controversial things, like making statements that all homosexuals are children of God in the mid-60s, and that upsets a lot of people and they lose a bunch of numbers and that sort of starts the decline that we see in that church today.

And you would think that taking controversial stands should have increased their numbers, and it seemed to have the opposite effect. So I’m not, I’m not totally persuaded by the cultural conflict, cultural tension, thesis of church adherence. But you do hear that pretty frequently, and that is a pretty common explanation.

How do you think most Christians interpret these numbers, and how do you think they should be interpreting them?

Daniel Silliman: I think many people look at these changing numbers, many evangelicals look at these changing numbers, and see a great opportunity for evangelism. Christians are losing—white Christians in particular—are losing a cultural dominance, and we’re losing the ability to just kind of assume that people are like us and people understand us, and people accept us. But for the purposes of sharing what’s different about Christianity, that’s not a bad thing. That actually could be a kind of opening for all sorts of evangelism and even revivalism.

Article continues below

And we’re not seeing disappearance of religious questions in America. We’re not saying a disappearance of spiritual longing. We’re seeing people just trust the Christian identity or not feel like that label means anything to them anymore. And we’re seeing people struggle with affiliation or not like the affiliation and church membership anymore. We’re absolutely not seeing a secularization and a disappearance of religious questions.

Mark Galli: Nor a lack of interest in the person of Jesus if they have the opportunity to encounter Him in the gospels. Christ is just as an enigmatic, fascinating, mysterious, attractive person. And that’s often the way a lot of people are doing evangelism on the front lines. They’ll say, “well, let’s not talk about the church. Let’s not talk about doctrine. Why don’t you just look at the person of Jesus and see what tell me what you think?”

Daniel Silliman: I want to say one last thing on that point. I think the broader changes in America are about the changing contexts in which we believe in. And what we’re losing, as white evangelicals in particular, is just a dominance and authority. But we’re not losing the power of Jesus or the gospel message, or even in the audience for those.

In the book Resident Aliens by Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon, they talk about being shocked growing up in the South when suddenly movie theaters were open on Sunday. And this was seen as a great secularization of their town. And the question is, but was the existence of movie theaters being open on Sunday what you were worried about in your town?

Like maybe losing a cultural norm of nominal Christianity isn’t such a bad thing for making the argument about the power and importance of Jesus and the gospel message in modern lives.

Can you talk about what religious decline looks like in Western Europe, or specifically Germany where you once lived? Can you compare and contrast that to what it looks like in the US?

Daniel Silliman: The big difference in Europe is the official role that religion has in most countries. In the US of course we have to disestablishment and so there are lots of churches and lots of religious competition, and there is a religious marketplace. So if you go back to the colonial period, each colony would have had an official religion, but after the Revolution, there would be this sudden burst of options and people competing “for souls and purses.” And you never really get that in Europe.

Article continues below

There are obviously Methodists in England’s and Pietist in Germany, but there’s always an official religion that really defines what religion is, and really define sort of the public category of religion. Religious identity has both very dramatically declined in Europe, but there was also just a really different sense of what part of your religious identity as public and what part is private. In Germany, people would be Protestant in the same way that someone in the US might be from Texas. Like it doesn’t tell you about their deepest held beliefs necessarily, it tells you where they come from and some sort of historical fact about them.

While in the US, religion has been a choice. Even as we see these numbers change, it’s still about individual choice. That makes it much more significant in individual lives and much more of a vibrant conversation rather than just the backgrounds or in the case of Germany, something that actually shows up on your ID.

Let’s talk more about the ramifications about all this. Is religion just another institution or is it that as people are becoming less religious, it’s actually accelerating institutional decline overall?

Daniel Silliman: I’m not totally sure how to choose between those two choices. I do think part of the power of these institutions—churches, but also community institutions—institutions that were really grounded in the place that you lived was that it put us in contact and conversation and commitment with people who disagreed with us.

The alternative to these kinds of institutions is increasingly ideologically aligned lives. When we sort ourselves on social media or we decide what of the million TV stations we’re going to watch, we get to choose based on our affinity for certain ideas. And I think historically these other organizations, political parties and churches and other types of social clubs, just mixed us up more and gave us a sense that like, “maybe I don’t like Democrats, but Joe is all right” or “maybe people who are opposed to unions are suspicious fat cats, but Tammy seems to have a reasonable argument to make.”

I think that’s the transformative aspects, and churches are a part of that story, they’re not the driver of that story. But that’s the like big social fall out that is connected to these changes that I think America is concerned with and challenges our life together in America.

Article continues below

It’s really easy to kind of forget how hard it is to be a part of a community. I go to church and some of those people are really annoying and I think as Christians, we should be able to look at ourselves and see the same inclination that we’re seeing across the culture. They’re not different than us. We’re where we’re all living in the same world and faced with the same attractions and repulsions as everyone else.

But community is hard. Opting out of community is a pretty attractive thing a lot of times, but it’s bad for us as individuals and it’s bad for the country.

We’ve seen immigration particularly invoked around population decline or growth and birth rates. Does this also play out in terms of religiosity in America?

Daniel Silliman: There’s definitely studies that show that first-generation immigrants are different than second and third. They’re different in rates of how many children they have, and also different in rates of religiosity. Immigration has an effect, but I don’t know what the long-term effect is.

The short-term effect that you see is that churches that are more ethnically diverse are less likely to decline than churches that are more a majority culture. Like churches that are 90%, 95%, 98% white are more likely to be shrinking than churches that are 50% white or 60% white.

So like contrasting the Assemblies of God, which is quite racially and ethnically diverse with Southern Baptist, Southern Baptist have been declining where the Assemblies of God has not. But whether that’s a long-term strategy of growth or not, I think is an open question.

Is there any reason to think that these trends of Christianity declining will reverse themselves or slow down? Or should we expect similar headlines for the next couple decades?

Daniel Silliman: My historian training tells me don’t predict the future, but I would be surprised if these numbers turn around within a few years. We would definitely need to have a podcast to talk about what’s happening if these numbers turn around. It just seems that everything’s leaning this way. So I don’t know what lever is big enough right now to change this sort of cultural decline—specifically to make nominal Christianity more powerful culturally. It’s not a dramatic change in evangelicals, it’s not a dramatic change in churchgoers, but it is a dramatic change in the looser identifications. I don’t have an answer to what would change that. If it happens, we should get back together and talk about it again.

Quick to Listen is produced by Morgan Lee and Matt Linder

Share: