You may have heard about the “decline of American Christianity.” If you heard about it from the pulpit, chances are it came with some invective about how God is being kicked out of America or some such apocalyptic paranoia. Other corners of the cultural milieu have cheered the trend, heralding Christianity’s loss as an enlightened people’s gain. But neither view is totally accurate since this so-called decline is a bit more complicated than it might seem at first blush, according to a PRRI study.
First thing’s first: yes, there are a lot fewer self-proclaimed Christians among younger generations than there are in older generations. Check out this chart from the data nerds over at FiveThirtyEight:
A few things stand out here. The first is, of course, the huge plunge in numbers among those who self identify as white Protestants. The drop is most significant among white evangelical Protestants who, for all the noise they’ve made in political news over the last couple of years, are fading fastest. White mainline Protestants are disappearing at a slightly slower rate.
But it’s not all bad news for Protestants. The number of black Protestants has held more or less steady and the number of Hispanic Protestants has actually grown. In addition, there is some research to suggest that while fewer people may identify as Christian, those who do are more committed to practicing their faith than previous generations were.
And while the number of white Catholics in the U.S. is going down, the number of Hispanic Catholics is trending upwards.
But the largest gains by far are among those who claim no religion at all — the famous “nones.” These people may be atheist or just may not identify with any organized religion at all.
These numbers will almost undoubtedly change over time. Historically, Americans have shown an inclination to turn to religion later in life. But these numbers are still striking and show that a massive shift in America’s cultural identity is taking place before our eyes. Nevertheless, beware easy headlines that ignore nuanced context. The decline of Christianity has not been exaggerated, per se, but it has been grossly oversimplified.