What will result from the increase of non-religious Americans?

What will result from the increase of non-religious Americans? May 16, 2015


Ed Stetzer suggests the rise of the “nones” — the religiously unaffiliated — is a dual trend. On the one hand, the more nominal “cultural Christians” are no longer self-identifying as Christians, and on the other hand the more theologically conservative Christians are becoming more robust. What are the political consequences?


Following Joshua’s posting, the Pew Research Center issued an attention-getting “Religious Landscape Study” of the U.S. that appears to support such a scenario. Introductory notes: “Nones” is shorthand for folks who say “none” when pollsters ask about their religious self-identity. The Pew study calls them “unaffiliated,” whether agnostic, atheist, or the largest subgroup,  those whose religious identity is “nothing in particular.” Stetzer is a church planter turned researcher and seminary teacher on mission analysis.

Pew has produced a mass of data that will be chewed on for years. A huge sample size of 35,071 U.S. adults made possible accurate and detailed breakdowns for religious groups. The respondents were interviewed in mid-2014 by phone in either English or Spanish. Unlike most polling with its crude categories, scholars helped Pew frame careful questions to separate out “mainline” Protestants (in 65 sub-categories) from the more conservative “evangelicals.” Keep in mind that there are also significant numbers of self-identified “evangelicals” in “mainline” groups, and in the third Protestant category of “historically black” churches. Since Pew posed these same questions to another large sample in 2007, it can offer timeline comparisons.

The two surveys show that, yes, the “unaffiliated” are increasing. They constituted 16.1 percent of the population in 2007 and jumped to 22.8 percent as of 2014 to become the nation’s second-largest religious category. Evangelical Protestants maintain first place with 25.4 percent of Americans versus the previous 26.3 percent. Catholics now rank third at 20.8 percent, substantial shrinkage from the prior 23.9 percent. Mainline Protestants did a bit worse, sliding from 18.1 percent to 14.7 percent, partly because too many raised in these churches turn irreligious. The “historically black” Protestants slipped a bit, from 6.9 percent to 6.5 percent of the population.

So the evangelicals’ market share dropped less than a percent relative to a growing population, and they continued to grow in absolute numbers, from a projected 59.8 million to 62.2 million. If the stereotype is correct that they’re especially devoted to their faith, Stetzer’s theory holds up, and likewise with Pew’s finding that the “unaffiliated” are becoming less religious in outlook.

Pew further tells us that American adults identifying as “Christian” of whatever sort have declined from 78.4 percent in 2007 to 70.6 percent. That reflects growing religious diversity and cultural secularism, and the declining rate of marriage among younger Americans. (On one disputed matter, Pew data indicate a U.S. Muslim population of 2.2 million adults.)  Churches  should avoid doom-saying, considering that the U.S. remains one of the world’s most devoutly and actively Christian nations. Further perspective: A Pew footnote reminds us that Roger Finke and Rodney Stark reported in “The Churching of America, 1776 – 1990” that formal church membership — as opposed to polls like Pew’s that ask people how they identify themselves — “has increased dramatically over the nation’s history.” They estimated that only 17 percent of Americans belonged to a religious congregation in 1776, compared with 62 percent in 1980.

Jonathan Merritt of Religion News Service twits the evangelicals as wrong-headed for “peddling” the claim that the Pew study shows religious conservatism causes growth and liberalism causes decline. He notes, accurately, that there’s been some decrease for the conservative Southern Baptist Convention and much more for Roman Catholicism with its traditional doctrines and morals. On the other hand, smaller evangelical denominations and independent congregations have been stable. The Catholic numbers may reflect such factors as alienation due to divorce, evangelistic inroads by Latino Protestants, or the accumulating impact of priestly scandals.

The Religion Guy does sense a Stetzerian nation that may have roughly as many devoted Christians as ever, while nominal Christians no longer involved or interested feel freer to say they’re not religious. To Southern  Baptist executive Russell Moore that’s “perhaps bad news for America, but it is good news for the church” because their are fewer “almost-Christians” and more “honest atheists.”

Joshua’s interest in political impact has been the subject of much Pew polling.  New York University sociologist Mike Hout, a Pew consultant, tells Merritt that evangelicals have been weakened by embracing a conservative politics that drives some out of church. However, other researchers tell us in general evangelical congregations are much less involved in political activism than “mainline” Protestant and Catholic parishes, so does that help explain their falling fortunes?

Through much of American history, Catholics leaned strongly Democratic while Protestants leaned Republican except for the white South. Black Protestants shifted to the Democrats from the New Deal through the civil rights era. Today, it’s different. If we leave aside those lopsidedly Democratic black Protestants, Protestants and Catholics who regularly attend worship collectively lean Republican. Meanwhile, the non-religious and anti-religious have turned into a key component of the Democratic coalition, though one that’s hard to mobilize.

In the current polarization, it seems likely Pew’s 62 million “evangelicals” of voting age will remain central to the Republican coalition, and that the estimated 51 million identifying as Catholic will remain a swing vote between the parties. The new leverage of the estimated 55.8 million “nones” over the Democrats is seen in the abortion and gay-marriage debates, and will shape thinking on future religious-liberty issues as it has already with the Obama Administration’s maneuvers.

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