The New Pew Survey on Religion & Lament for Nominal Christianity

Mark D. Tooley
Mark Tooley is the president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD).

A new Pew survey shows the number of Americans identifying as Christians declining from 78% to 70% since 2007. The religiously unaffiliated have increased from 15 to almost 23%. Non-Christian religionists have increased from about 5 to 6%.

Secularists and their fellow travelers are ecstatic. The secular utopia about which John Lennon crooned is impending. Christianity is finally dying! Some Christians who relish doom are bracing for collapse and the End Times. Other Christians more thoughtfully point out the survey reflects self-identification, not practice.

Some surveys show church attendance steady across decades, as are rates of core Christian beliefs. Evangelicals are the one Christian group to have grown numerically and almost retained their population percentage, now at 25%. A growing majority of Protestants are now Evangelical, and half of all Christians now identify as Evangelical or born-again. Liberal Mainline Protestantism unsurprisingly continues its fast decline, dropping from 18 to under 15%. Catholics dropped from about 24% to 21%.

The ongoing trend seems to be that nominal, mostly non-practicing Mainline Protestants and Catholics increasingly identify as unaffiliated. Most of this group still professes belief in God, many pray and some attend church. But they no longer claim ties to a specific tradition. Less than a third, about 7%, are atheist or agnostic.

Some Evangelicals have celebrated this trend as the implosion of nominal Christianity that is creating bracingly clearer boundaries between authentic faith and secular culture, enhancing opportunities for witness and evangelism. This attitude is upbeat and rightly embraces our current times as providentially challenging. But it may yield too much to the survey, which is probably overhyped.

Overreaction should be avoided. Active Christianity remains robust in America. Orthodox Christian expressions are displacing declining liberal forms. But there is cause for concern and sadness, as Mainline Protestantism, once central to American life, and a unifying spiritual and civil force, recedes ever more dramatically. An America more and more torn between secularists and the spiritually ambiguous on one side, against Evangelicals and believing Catholics on the other, will be even more polarized, missing the common language that Mainline Protestants offered so effectively for centuries.

There should also be some lament even for the fading nominal Christians. These persons frustrated traditional Christian expectations of robust spiritual commitment and church involvement. But at least they recognized partly, if only in theory, the church's moral and spiritual merits. They retained a frame of reference that tied them at least tangentially to the church and a specific tradition.

Their new found unaffiliated stance likely still involves for many occasional and peripheral church connections. But they in their new self-identity are also more atomized and distant from Christian tradition and community. Non affiliation may more truthfully reflect their reality, but it also creates one more layer of separation from the Body of Christ or any organized faith group. Nominal Christians may also be more susceptible to the appeals of rabid secularists, who remain numerically few but culturally privileged and disproportionately influential.

As to the non-Christian religions, their numbers remain much smaller than outspoken pluralists typically assume or claim. Muslims stand, although growing, at less than one percent, despite longstanding claims by some Muslim groups to number two or three times this size. Hindus also are under one percent. Jews increased slightly to almost 2 percent, seemingly reversing previous declines.

The Pew survey is certainly notable but it does not conclusively prove a seismic shift in America's national character nor can its trends be mechanistically projected onto the future. That future and its religious trends remain contingent upon yet to be made choices and actions by over 315 million Americans, who remain overwhelmingly religious, and whose destiny of course is fully known only to Providence, not surveyists and commentators.

Prior to joining the IRD in 1994, Mark worked eight years for the Central Intelligence Agency. He is a graduate of Georgetown University and is a native of Arlington, Virginia. A lifelong United Methodist, he has been active in United Methodist renewal since 1988, when he wrote a study about denominational funding of pro-Marxist groups for his local congregation. He attends a United Methodist church in Alexandria, Virginia. Follow Mark on Twitter @markdtooley.

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