Christianity’s role in US society eroding quickly
The US remains one of the most religious countries in the Western world — much more so than most European countries, according to surveys — but religious affiliation among Americans has been in decline for years. Recent data suggests that this decline in religious identity is accelerating, with potentially long-term social and political consequences.
An October report from the Pew Research Center found that 65 percent of Americans affiliate as Christian; while that is still a strong majority of the population, it is a decline of 12 percentage points over the previous 10 years. The same period saw an increase in the number of people who do not affiliate with a religion — this group, called religious “nones,” increased to 26 percent of the population from 17 percent. While there are some demographic variations, the decline in Christian identity and increase in “nones” was evident across society, including among Protestants and Catholics, different races, men and women, different education levels, and across geographic regions. This trend also occurs across generations, but is much stronger among younger Americans.
Other religions remain a small minority of the US population, at about 7 percent. However, the “non-Christian faith” category has shown growth, up from 5 percent a decade ago. Younger people are also more likely to belong to a non-Christian faith, as 9 percent of millennials (the generation defined by Pew as born between 1981 and 1996) identify with another religion — well above the percentages for older generations.
One of the most important findings is that young Americans are much less likely to affiliate as Christian than previous generations. Among the oldest generation, born before 1945, 84 percent see themselves as Christian, while only 49 percent of millennials do, according to Pew.
Critically, evidence from several sources suggests that millennials are not returning to Christian religious practice as they get older. With previous generations, it was not unusual for young adults to reduce their church attendance and involvement, but then to return to church when they married and started families. It appears that millennials are not following that path, with long-term implications for society.
A majority of young Americans see conservative Christian political activism as a problem for the country
Kerry Boyd Anderson
There are many reasons why more Americans in general — and young people in particular — have been exchanging Christianity for no religion at all. Some of the reasons relate to demographic changes. For example, a December report from the American Enterprise Institute noted that children whose parents are divorced are less likely to be active in a religious community during their childhood. The report also noted that children from interfaith families or where one parent is a religious “none” are less likely to participate in regular religious activities. This is important, because regular involvement in a religious community and with parents who are religiously active is a key factor that shapes whether a child is likely to grow into an adult who affiliates with a faith.
Another factor is negative perceptions of Christians among many Americans, especially younger Americans. These are not new, with polling evidence of such perceptions among millennials going back to at least 2007, but social and political events in the last decade have reinforced them. Many younger Americans are more likely than their elders to see Christians as hypocritical, judgmental, intolerant and overly focused on issues of sexual morality.
There is also an increasing alignment between Christians — especially evangelical Christians — and right-wing politics, which many young Americans view negatively. A 2007 study found that a majority of young Americans saw conservative Christian political activism as a problem for the country. This trend is decades old, but the strong support of a large majority of evangelical Christians for President Donald Trump has reinforced perceptions of conservative Christians’ political interests and exacerbated religious and political divides.
For these and multiple other reasons, an increasing number of millennials are choosing not to affiliate with any religion. As they raise children who are not exposed to regular religious teachings and activities, American society is likely to become less religious in the future.
This will have significant consequences for society. Multiple studies have demonstrated some of the social goods that religion helps to provide. Religious institutions offer intergenerational community, which can provide multiple forms of support and bring a sense of belonging, foster relationships, and reduce loneliness. Studies have found connections between religious activity and improved mental health.
There will also be political consequences. Polling data suggests that, while there are growing numbers of religious “nones” in both the Republican and Democratic parties, this trend is stronger among Democrats. If Christian identity increasingly becomes tied to Republican or politically conservative identity, and a lack of religion becomes tied to Democratic or liberal identity, it will further deepen the growing sociopolitical divides in the US — with consequences for American democracy.
It is important to note that there are exceptions to this trend. Both parties still include many religious and non-religious people, and the links between religion and political identity are different for African-Americans than for white Americans. While Republican politicians tend to refer to religion more frequently than Democratic politicians, there are significant exceptions, such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg. Nonetheless, Christian affiliation is becoming more closely associated with one party than in the past.
Christianity has long shaped US society and politics. It will continue to be a significant factor in the future, but its role as a social glue that provided a sense of shared identity and perspective is eroding quickly.
• Kerry Boyd Anderson is a writer and political risk consultant with more than 14 years’ experience as a professional analyst of international security issues and Middle East political and business risk. Twitter: @KBAresearch