Skip to main content
Listen to Acton content on the go by downloading the Radio Free Acton podcast! Listen Now

Earlier this year, the Pew Forum for Religion and Public Life released the first installment of a truly impressive study based upon a massive survey of more than 35,000 Americans. Its portrait of "the American religious landscape" attracted a great deal of media attention, typically focusing on three or four principal themes. If you were to read only the press accounts, here's what you would know:

  • While Americans are still overwhelmingly -- at least nominally -- Christian (78.4 percent of the respondents identified themselves that way), only a bare majority (51.3 percent) call themselves Protestant. Our once dominant majority religion is headed toward being a minority religion -- still the largest single bloc of adherents, to be sure, but home only to a plurality of our country, rather than to a majority.


  • The most rapidly growing precinct in our religious landscape is the "unaffiliated," who now comprise roughly 16 percent of the population.


  • There's a great deal of fluidity in our religious life; more than one quarter of the respondents have left behind the tradition in which they were raised, and if you count movement within Protestantism, that proportion rises over 40 percent.


  • While the proportion of Americans calling themselves Roman Catholic has remained roughly constant over the past three decades, that constancy masks a decline in native born Catholics and a substantial rise among immigrants. Roman Catholic losses from childhood to adulthood rival or exceed those of the most "troubled" mainline Protestant denominations, but the parish rolls are replenished by immigrants, mostly from south of the border.


The picture, in other words, is one of general denominational fluidity and gradual decline. If America were ever a "Christian nation" (culturally, if not necessarily politically), that day is rapidly passing, with no group of denominations possessing the institutional self-confidence and resources to be the arbiters of a broad national cultural consensus. We can perhaps look wistfully back toward a time when there was such a consensus, but that time is gone and it's not coming back. The secularization associated with modernity has arrived late on our shores, but its irresistible tendency is now in place. Our great-grandchildren will only lament that America's erstwhile religious energy wasn't accompanied with the grand architectural taste of our European forebears.

Well, perhaps, but it's possible to read the evidence contained in the report a little differently. Allow me to explain.

In the first place, the portions of the survey that have been released don't tell us much about the devoutness or religious practices of those who identify with a particular denomination. Most surveys find that 40 percent or less of the respondents attend religious services weekly, so it's inevitable that a substantial proportion of the religious identifiers in this survey are relatively casual about their faith. Someone may call himself or herself a Methodist, Episcopalian, or Catholic because that's the church the family attended (or attends) on Christmas Eve.

Before I drew any grand conclusions about, or proffered any responses to, the decline of religion, Christianity, or Protestantism in America, I'd want to know something more about the churches from which or toward which people were moving. Are frequent church attenders more or less likely to move than their nodding acquaintances who show up only on Christmas and Easter, or for funerals and weddings? Are children who grow up in these families more or less likely to leave the churches of their childhood behind than kids whose parents don't know the words to the hymns or when to stand, sit, or kneel? Do doctrinally or spiritually demanding congregations and denominations do a better or worse job of holding onto adherents?

Beyond reaffirming the now commonplace observation that mainline Protestant denominations aren't doing particularly well, the study doesn't (yet) offer us much help in answering these questions. There are, however, a few hints worth pursuing. For example, the study provides some interesting data regarding the persistence of denominational adherence from childhood to adulthood. Looking at the "big picture," Hindus offer a kind of gold standard of religious persistence: 84 percent of those raised Hindu remain so into adulthood. By contrast, 76 percent of those raised Jewish, 73 percent of those raised Orthodox, 68 percent of those raised Catholic, and 37 percent of those raised as Jehovah's Witnesses persist into adulthood. At first glance, the Protestant performance looks unimpressive: only 52 percent didn't change denominations from childhood to adulthood, ranging from a high of 60 percent for Baptists to lows of 32 percent for Holiness adherents and 37 percent for Congregationalists. But if you also consider those who remained Protestant, albeit in a different denomination, the picture changes in a seemingly more impressive direction: overall, 80 percent of Protestants continued to identify as such in adulthood, ranging from 91 percent among Anabaptists to 68 percent of those raised as Episcopalians. In all but a few cases, the largest proportion of movers switched from their childhood denomination to an evangelical church. While it's tempting to say that these new churches were more spiritually satisfying and morally demanding than those they left behind, the data doesn't permit me to draw that conclusion. For all I know, it could be the excellent preschools, good sports programs, convenient location and parking, or the "charismatic" (yet therapeutic) preaching.

My preliminary bottom line is this: in terms at least of nominal adherents, American Protestantism is doing well, better than any other faith tradition except Hinduism, which has the "advantage" of being a culturally distinctive religion closely identified with a particular community of relatively new immigrants. What's more, Protestants who leave their childhood denominations are much more likely to move to another Protestant denomination than they are to leave religion behind altogether. Indeed, they are for the most part more likely to move to an evangelical denomination or church than they are to leave religion behind. For our hitherto dominant American religious tradition, the flow toward evangelicalism is stronger than the flow out of religion altogether. I haven't seen that headline yet.

Another interesting feature of the data about religious change has to do with those who were raised in a religiously unaffiliated home. (Recall that this is the most rapidly growing proportion of the American religious landscape.) It turns out that more than half of those who grew up in such a household defect from the secularism of their parents, finding at least a nominal home in some faith somewhere. Considering that those who are unaffiliated tend to marry less and to have fewer children, I'm tempted to conclude that the religiously unaffiliated are at a substantial disadvantage when it comes to social reproduction. They don't have many children and they don't do a good job of holding onto those they do have. In effect, they rely on "converts" from other traditions for their numbers. Right now, they're growing because of the relatively large size of the affiliated pool from which their "converts" are disaffiliating. But their continued growth depends upon a continuing decline of traditional (and untraditional) American religion, a decline that looks foreordained only if America is essentially like Europe. But the resiliency of American religion and its openness to immigrants should at least give us cause for pause in assuming that the trajectory of religion is downward and of secularism is upward.



Stated another way, there are two--shall I say "human"--causes for being hopeful about America's religious future. First, it's not as if smart, thoughtful, and pious human beings can't take stock of their circumstances and figure out new and better ways of transmitting the faith from one generation to the next, not to mention of reaching out to the unchurched. The secularization argument presupposes the triumph of impersonal social and historical forces. Our Christian--or, if you will, Judeo-Christian--faith insists that individuals matter. It's at least as reasonable to raise doubts about the former as about the latter.

Second, to the degree that there's a migration from less vital and vibrant denominations to those that seem to be more so, there's reason to expect that the trend toward greater disaffiliation will slow down, if not stop. After all, the denominations that are better at holding onto their members are also those whose adherents tend to have larger families. Simply stated, the less mainline and more evangelical American Protestantism becomes, the relatively more resistant to secularization it becomes.

But, someone might respond, look at the age, income, and education distributions of people inside and outside the sanctuaries. The young are least likely to be churched (68 percent Christian, 6 percent other, and 25 percent unaffiliated). And Protestants look comparatively old, with, for example, more than 50 percent (and, in some cases, upwards of 60 percent) of the folks in the pews above the age of fifty. If the young are our future, isn't our future decisively less religious than our present, let alone our past? (My answer: it depends, but more on that later.)

What's more, the religiously unaffiliated tend to be better educated than Protestants or Catholics, with roughly 30 percent holding college or even post-graduate degrees, compared with 24 percent among Protestants and 26 percent among Catholics. (To be sure, these aggregate numbers mask some important differences, with, for example, mainline Protestant educational achievement pulling up the Protestant proportion and the "religious unaffiliated"--often recent immigrants--pulling down the unaffiliated proportion.) If our "best and brightest," as measured by educational attainment, are least likely to be religiously affiliated, isn't our leadership likely to lead us away from religion? If our future is better educated than our present or past, isn't our future more secular? (My answer, once again, is that it depends.)

Roughly the same argument can be made for income distributions, with the secular unaffiliated outperforming their religious peers (except for Jews, Hindus, and adherents of Orthodox faiths, though mainline Protestants aren't far behind). If our economically successful are among our least religious citizens, isn't this evidence of some connection between prosperity and "faithlessness," of a secularist work ethic, so to speak? And if a society rewards a complex of ("secular") characteristics and attitudes with money and recognition, won't that provide incentives for others to follow in their footsteps? (You know my answer already.)

Let me start with our youthful non-believers. One of the questions I would ask is whether the young, when they grow a little older, get married, and start thinking about raising a family, begin to consider the positive benefits of finding a church home, if they don't already have one. I have it on good authority that, fairly often, they do. Perhaps this is one of the things that explains the migration of young unaffiliated people toward churches as they grow older. Of course, churches and denominations have to be "family-friendly" to facilitate this movement, if and when it occurs. Most at least try to be, but when the folks in the pews are older than average and have already been there and done that, they may have to be asked to remember the assistance they received from their fellow congregants or parishioners when they were raising their own families.

I feel compelled, however, to offer this caveat. To the degree that both marriage and child-bearing are declining, this incentive for finding a church home is diminishing. Both these behaviors can be influenced by various government policies (which, needless to say, haven't been as friendly to child-bearing and rearing as they could have been and which could become very unfriendly, or at least coldly indifferent, to marriage, religious or otherwise). The future of religion in America unfortunately can't be separated from family policy, and, on that ground, I'm less hopeful than I would otherwise be.

With respect to education, I have to concede that it has been a great tool of secularization, both through our public schools, shorn of their erstwhile non-denominational Protestantism, and through the skepticism and relativism that all too often are the coin of the realm in higher education. But there are also reasons to hope: homeschooling is growing, religious schools are at least holding their own, and enrollment at religiously-affiliated colleges and universities is expanding. Books like Naomi Schaefer Riley's God on the Quad and Michael Lindsay's Faith in the Halls of Power document the growing intellectual success, sophistication, and self-confidence of those who have been religiously educated. Where once one could speak with some authority about "the scandal of the evangelical mind," and assume that denominational schools necessarily had to be second-rate, there is ample reason to believe that those truths are no longer self-evident.

It's also worth noting that the religiously unaffiliated don't have a monopoly on high educational achievement. Indeed, they rank lower than Hindus (74 percent of whom have undergraduate or graduate degrees), Jews (59 percent), Buddhists (48 percent) and Orthodox Christians (46 percent). The educational success of the religiously persistent Orthodox seems to suggest that strong faith can coexist quite nicely with high achievement.

And since educational success often begets economic and vocational success, there's reason also to be hopeful about the future economic profiles of religious adherents. There is "faith in the halls of power."

But I would hasten to add that one of the lessons people learn in church is that success shouldn't simply be measured according to worldly yardsticks. Churches can and ought to be countercultural, teaching that a happy family life and a healthy spiritual life are more important than bringing home the largest possible paycheck. There's also plenty of evidence that people hear that message. It's what's led some to wonder "what's the matter with Kansas" and others to observe that, in many churches, leadership roles don't simply follow from secular social and economic status. To the degree that churches esteem and reward piety, uprightness, and learning, they can, at least in part, immunize their members against a culture where wealth confers social status and incites emulation.

In the end, I'm led to conclude that the religious landscape sketched by the Pew survey is only bleak if we insist on making it so. There's some evidence in the survey and ample evidence elsewhere that more distinctive and demanding denominations and churches actually do better in the "religious marketplace" than do their more accommodating counterparts. That has long been an article of faith for some. This survey ought to boost their confidence at least a little.

Most Read

Joseph M. Knippenberg, Ph.D., is professor of politics at Oglethorpe University in Atlanta.