The Future of Christianity in America, Part I
In previous articles for Conciliar Post—and in related discussions—I’ve cautioned that Christians should avoid both the language and perception of persecution, as well as refrain from interpreting shifts in culture and politics as an attack on the faith. I’ve written much on what we shouldn’t believe, but the question remains: “What should we believe?” I freely admit that much of my writing to this point could be summarized as: complaining about complainers—and that an acknowledgement of the universal church’s genuine struggles has been noticeably absent from my rebukes. Therefore, I believe an assessment of Christianity in America is in order. This is not a comprehensive study but a cursory glance from one writer’s perspective, which I hope will foster discussion on how we Christians see ourselves in the broader American culture and how we interact with this culture.
Given the scope of this project, I will divide this discussion into parts. In this post, we will explore the demographic reality of Christianity.
While some parts of the media or blogging community give the impression that Christians are a persecuted minority on the run from the forces of secularization, the reality is that, nominally, the vast majority of Americans identify as Christians.1 Pew’s 2007 Religious Landscape survey finds that about 78% of American adults self-identify as Christian. We have the largest population of Christians in the world, outnumbering the next largest Christian population (found in Brazil) by 70 million.2 Further, Christianity is still, by far, the largest religion on the planet, encompassing nearly a third of the Earth’s population.3 Long seen as the realm of European whites, Christianity is in fact the majority religion in Central and South America and has exploded in sub-Saharan Africa.4 China is on the way to having the largest Christian population in the world in just fifteen years.5 The Pope is an Argentinian. Desmond Tutu, a black South African, is one of the most famous spiritual leaders of the past century. I have a brand new, leather-bound copy of the Bible in Persian Farsi on my desk. Our faith is not only demographically dominant in the United States, but it is globally pervasive in a way that gives me goosebumps. The Great Commission marches on.
Not only do most Americans (and much of the world) self-identify as Christians, but so do many of our leaders. Pew’s most recent data on the religious affiliation of our members of Congress reveals a higher percentage of believers than in the rest of the country.6 Not only is Christianity by far the dominant religion in the United States, but our leadership is also overwhelmingly “Christian.” The faith of politicians is often a major talking point during elections. Mitt Romney’s Mormonism and the possibility of Barack Obama being a secret Muslim come to mind.
Admittedly, while Christians are still by far the dominant religious group in the United States, the “nones”, or individuals with no religious affiliation, have grown in recent years.7 One important point to note here is that while some have conflated the rise of “nones” with a rise in atheism, this does not correlate with the data. Agnosticism saw a small rise in the same five year period, but atheism stayed mostly the same. Many of the “nones” are still open to some form of supernaturalism.8 The vast majority of Americans, it seems, are still willing to believe in God. The rise of the unaffiliated is better seen as a clarification of belief than as a decline in belief.
It’s also important to discern what this high number of Christians means. Writing for Christianity Today, Ed Stetzer argues that just a third of the nominally Christian American population is “convictional.” In other words, about 25% of Americans have a committed, life-altering relationship with Jesus Christ. The bulk of “Christians” is comprised of individuals who either occasionally attend church as a social or family activity or who simply identify as Christians because of their heritage.9 I’ve seen no numbers on the authenticity of self-identified Christians outside of the United States, but I suspect the numbers would be similar in the rest of the world, though perhaps skewing towards more convictional in nascent and/or persecuted Christian populations like that in China.
At this juncture, it seems that we’ve established two very confusing facts about Christianity in America. First, the vast majority of Americans are Christian. Second, only a minority of Americans are Christian. Both are correct in their own particular way. Most Americans identify as Christian, regardless of what that may actually mean to the individual. I, and I suspect many reading this article, follow Stetzer in believing that only a fraction of self-identified Christians have genuinely committed themselves to the God-man of the New Testament. Unfortunately, this data can be used to fuel virtually any narrative. Skeptics and critics can point to the dominance of Christianity in our culture and attribute to it any number of evils. Christians can appeal to Stetzer’s data that only a minority of Christians are “convictional” and attribute those same evils to secularism instead (not to mention play the persecuted minority card).
Another Pew poll helps us make some sense of the contradiction. While it may be true that only a quarter of Americans could, in the narrowest sense, identify as Christian, Americans broadly still like Christians. According to the poll, Catholics, Evangelicals, and Jews, are viewed warmly by the public. Buddhists, Hindus, and Mormons fall around the middle of approval and disapproval, while Muslims and atheists are viewed coldly.10 Whether or not they’re genuinely faithful themselves, Americans see the Judeo-Christian traditions favorably.
From this brief survey, we see that most Americans identify as Christian, though their commitment to actual religious practice is questionable. Further, even if most Americans aren’t personally committed to Jesus Christ, they still view Christianity warmly. Atheism is viewed much less favorably. Today, America is an eminently Christian-friendly nation, perhaps one of the few remaining in the world that can actually be classified as a “Christian nation.”
The cultural dominance is not unchallenged, however. Next time, we will examine recent legal and cultural challenges to Christianity’s reign in America.
2. Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, “The Global Religious Landscape.” December 18, 2012. http://www.pewforum.org/2012/12/18/global-religious-landscape-exec/
4. Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life,”Global Christianity–A Report on the Size and Distribution of the World’s Christian Population.” December 19, 2011. http://www.pewforum.org/2011/12/19/global-christianity-exec/
5. Tom Phillips, “China on course to become ‘world’s most Christian nation’ within 15 years.” The Telegraph. April 19, 2014. “http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/china/10776023/China-on-course-to-become-worlds-most-Christian-nation-within-15-years.html
6. Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, “Faith on the Hill.” January 2, 2013. http://www.pewforum.org/2012/11/16/faith-on-the-hill-the-religious-composition-of-the-113th-congress/
7. Pew Research Center, “Nones on the Rise,” October 9, 2012. http://www.pewforum.org/2012/10/09/nones-on-the-rise/
9. Ed Stetzer, “The State of the Church in America: Hint: It’s not Dying.” Christianity Today, Oct 1, 2013. http://www.christianitytoday.com/edstetzer/2013/october/state-of-american-church.html?paging=off
10. Pew Research Center, “How Americans Feel about Religious Groups.” July 16, 2014. http://www.pewforum.org/2014/07/16/how-americans-feel-about-religious-groups/
Photo: “The Cadet Chapel” at the US Military Academy, West Point, NY. By John St John at Flickr Creative Commons. Used under (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).