Pew survey overestimates decline in Christianity, observers say

by Gregory Tomlin |

WASHINGTON (Christian Examiner) – When it comes to Christianity in America, the sky is not falling, several religion observers have said after reviewing the Pew Research Center's 2015 study on religion.

In fact, they say, Christianity is alive and well and will remain so for the foreseeable future.

Christian Examiner reported May 12 the findings of the survey on the decline of Christianity in the United States.

According to Pew, those claiming affiliation with a Christian denomination fell by nearly 8 percent from 2007 to 2014. The number of people claiming no religious affiliation increased by nearly as much, leading Pew to conclude a large scale defection from with Christianity.

Mainline Protestant denominations and Roman Catholics saw the largest losses in affiliation.

Only evangelicals fared well, dropping about 0.9 percent as a share of the overall U.S. population—which grew by 17.5 million residents from 2007 to 2014—but in actual numbers gaining nearly 2 million members flushed from mainline Protestant denominations overrun by the gay rights movement and other liberal causes.

CENSUS CHRISTIANS

The real story in the survey is behind the numbers, according to Ed Stetzer, who writes about religious trends for Lifeway Christian Resources, the publishing arm of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Stetzer noted at Christianity Today that "nominal" Christians—or those who were raised with Christianity as part of their cultural identity—are rejecting the value of being identified as a Christian.

"This makes sense, as the cultural currency (in other words, the value a society places on identifying as a Christian) is decreasing. And thus, we see a movement away from Christian identity as a cultural value," Stetzer writes.

Stetzer calls these people "census Christians," meaning they will pick "Christian" when completing a government form, rather than choosing "Hindu," "Jewish" or "Muslim."

"I believe that this move is primarily the result of people who are 'census' and churchgoing Christians'"—people who go to church occasionally—"shifting to the category of those who don't have any identification at all—the 'Nones,'" Stetzer wrote.

Stetzer's point echoed that by Ross Douthat, a religion blogger and New York Times columnist. Douthat, also the author of "Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics," wrote in the New York Times that Americans are likely no less religious than they were. They are simply less institutionally religious.

"What we're clearly seeing happen, in Bible Belt environs as well as on the liberal coasts, is people who once would have identified as Christians socially (as Christmas-and-Easter Methodists, cultural Catholics, etc.) are now dropping the label altogether," Douthat said.

Church attendance, however, is relatively steady, Douthat observed. Using Pew's own numbers, Douthat illustrated that church attendance dropped only 2 percent from 2003 to 2013 (from 39 to 37 percent). If those numbers can be trusted, he argued, they confirm that cultural Christianity has weakened, and the "'social desirability bias' driving people to tell pollsters they're churchgoers" is weakening at the same pace.

According to Douthat, Catholicism may not be laboring for its final gasps, either. While he said the sharp decline in Catholics' church attendance is surprising, given the influx of immigrants from predominantly Catholic nations, he pointed to recent statistical data offered by Mark Gray, who writes for Georgetown's Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate.

Gray reported the number of Catholics in the U.S. still continues almost at a constant – around 23 percent of the population—in spite of some losses. That may mean Catholic losses are in the middle of the pack (those who leave for different reasons) rather than at the front (in terms of adding new members) Douthat writes.

MORE 'HONEST' ATHEISTS

According to Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, more people have chosen to identify as "nothing in particular" or "none" because they are being more truthful about their actual beliefs.

"We don't have more atheists in America," Moore writes. "We have more honest atheists in America."

If Moore is correct, that would mean the church in America is not experiencing any kind of large-scale contraction, but a refining. More people are increasingly open about non-affiliation, and even non-belief, but authentic Christians will remain loyal to a church seen as abnormal by the culture.

"The future of Christianity is bright. I don't know that from surveys and polls, but from a word Someone spoke one day back at Caesarea Philippi. The gates of hell haven't gotten any stronger, and the Light that drives out the darkness is enough to counter every rival gospel, even those gospels that describe themselves as 'none.'"

STILL A POLITICAL FORCE

The equating of non-affiliation with non-belief may, in fact, be the weakest point of the survey, according to Dave Carney, former White House political director for George H.W. Bush and the CEO of the political consulting firm Norway Hill Associates.

Carney, a New Hampshire Baptist, writes at Time magazine that the cultural imbuements of Christianity will long persist—and that has profound practical implications for politicians who shape their messages to fit the palate of "Christian America."

"As our nation grows, and the younger generations are fed a constant stream of culture that debases religion and Christian values, folks have become less likely to identify with organized religion. The theory is that with fewer people identifying as Christians, their power at the ballot box will be diminished. There is only one problem—Christians still make up the vast majority of American adults and still have the potential to effect change at the ballot box," Carney wrote.

Meanwhile, the gain of nearly 2 million evangelicals took place in the face of a constant, bitter stream of anti-Christian rhetoric targeted at Christianity, and Carney warned political pundits from reading too much "into the story line that Americans have become anti- or non-Christian."

"The power of those who can engage faith-based voters will be unleashed during this election cycle. Too much is at stake for it to be ignored," he said.

"Just a small increase in the turnout of the evangelical vote could change the political landscape dramatically. It is just these type of studies and reports on the demise of the religion that will drive even more public debate about the need for Christian values. The logical result will be a clearing of the pews on Election Day," Carney argued.

"Americans still have a strong sense of right and wrong, an innate sense of fairness, and a belief in the enduring truths that are taught in the Bible" he insisted. "These ideals are the rock of our society. There are millions of evangelicals looking for a leader willing to fight to put them back into our culture and government."

WHEN THEY COME HOME

Even if that evangelical bump doesn't occur at the polls, Douthat writes that decline is also not a foregone conclusion because a great deal depends "on how and when and whether the Millennials grow up."

"Historically in American life it's been normal for people to drift away from church or organized religion in their twenties and then circle back once they get married and (especially) have kids," Douthat writes.

Now, however, the drifting has extended into the early 30s for most people. Because the drifting is pushed back even further, Douthat notes, people are less likely to identify with their parents denominational preferences. They are "more likely to see themselves as actually lapsed, ex-Christians, what-have-you, instead of just as people taking a long young-adult break from churchgoing."

In the meantime, Douthat hopes the heralds will hold off announcing the fall of Christian America—at least until his question on the future of the Millennials is decided. Will they return to traditional unions, namely marriage and family? Douthat does not know the answer, and he even admits that Millennials may return to family and not religion.

"But for now, given how closely they're still bound for many people," Douthat argued, "America's churches can still reasonably hope that in faith as well as family, what's postponed may not be permanently foregone."