The opening paragraph of a new Pew Research Center report on American religiosity, titled “In U.S., Decline of Christianity Continues at Rapid Pace,” should give both Republicans and Christians shivers.
“The religious landscape of the United States continues to change at a rapid clip. In Pew Research Center telephone surveys conducted in 2018 and 2019, 65% of American adults describe themselves as Christians when asked about their religion, down 12 percentage points over the past decade,” Pew reported in an article published October 17. “Meanwhile, the religiously unaffiliated share of the population, consisting of people who describe their religious identity as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular,” now stands at 26%, up from 17% in 2009.”
Since the GOP is vastly dominated by Christians, whose numbers are declining, this demographic trend is worrisome for the political party’s future electoral hopes. Christian leaders, likewise, should be apprehensive about the robustness of membership in their denominations as Americans leave organized religion with increasing urgency. But it won’t be instantaneous:
“Although churches and faith movements continue to exert strong political influence on the Trump administration and at the state level, the proportion of American adults attending religious services has declined,” a news article in The Guardian newspaper reported.
Pew reported that both main Christian sects — Catholicism and Protestantism — are losing significant population share. Only 20 percent of U.S. adults now identify as Catholic, down from 23 percent in 2009; 43 percent identify as Protestant, down sharply from 51 percent in 2009.
Meanwhile, a demographic known as “nones” — people who answer “none” regarding their religious affililation in surveys — is surging, including atheists, agnostics and the religiously apathetic. Self-described atheists now comprise 4 percent of U.S. adults, up from 2 percent in 2009; agnostics make up 5 percent, up from 3 percent; and those who claim to be “nothing in particular” religion-wise are at 17 percent now, an increase from 12 percent a decade ago, according to the report.
Burgeoning numbers of “nones” spells political trouble for the GOP, because nonreligious Americans now represent a larger share of the population — and of potential voters — of any single Christian denomination, including President Trump’s die-hard evangelical supporters.
“Religious ‘nones’ now make up fully one-third of Democrats,” Pew reported.
Pew also explained that its data shows that adult membership in non-Christian religions has grown “modestly” in the past ten years, with Islam leading the way.
These demographic canaries in the coal mine are among key findings in a new Pew analysis of “trends in the religious composition and churchgoing habits of the American public,” based on what it terms random-digit-dial (RDD) political telephone polling. The current trend away from religion has been ongoing, previously documented in the Center’s major 2007 and 2014 Religious Landscape Studies (each had 35,000 respondents), and in other early national studies like the General Social Survey (GSS).
Church attendance is also slumping, unsurprisingly. Pew reports that its data shows that Americans who say they attend religious services at least one or twice monthly has fallen 7 percent since 2009, while citizens who admit attending services less often (“if at all,” Pew says) has increased by the same percentage. A decade ago, regular church attenders outnumbered slackers by a 52 percent to 47 percent margin, but today those numbers are roughly flipped.
The writing seems on the wall for a continuing relentless decline in American faith and church attendance, Pew data indicate, a process that is already much further along in Western Europe.
It may be worse than it seems for the GOP politically. Not only is membership of “nones” growing much faster in the Democratic rather than Republican party, the lack of religion focus is most pronounced among young adults, which bodes ill for future GOP dreams of political dominance.
This continuing slide in American religiosity has been broadly experienced. Pew reports that as the Christian share of populations has decline in all four major U.S. regions, it has grown for “nones” in the same regions. Catholic numbers have dropped most precipitously in the Northeast (roughly 10 points since 2009), while similarly sharp Protestant declines have been most pronounced in the South.
Interestingly, the Pew report indicates that Millennials, Americans born roughly between 1981 and 1996, appear to be the first U.S. generation to be majority non-Christian, as noted in a comment to an article in The American Conservative e-zine.
The bottom line is that these irreligious trends in American society spell trouble for the Republican party and not only its evangelical base but perpetual Christian dominance in the U.S.
It’s a momentous trend that secular Americans welcome.