Caricatures and Realities: Duane W.H. Arnold, PhD
The headline is sobering… or should be. According to the latest PEW research survey , the number of Americans who self-identify as Christians has fallen by 12 percentage points over the last decade. Meanwhile, those who identify as having no religious affiliation has grown by 17% in the last ten years and now constitute over a quarter (26%) of the adult population. If we were looking at merely one segment of the population such as Millennials, this trend might be worrying, but not necessarily alarming. This, however, is not the case. It is taking place in all regions of the United States, among all age groups and, interestingly enough, in both major political parties. There are some interesting data points. Among Hispanic in the United States, less than half (47%) identify themselves as Roman Catholics. Among white Protestants, those who self-identify as “Evangelical” or “born-again” has remained constant as a percentage among Protestants while at the same time that percentage has declined in terms of the general public (16% in 2019 as opposed to 19% in 2009).
The survey also found that attendance at religious services has declined, although with this comment, “The nation’s overall rate of religious attendance is declining not because Christians are attending church less often, but rather because there are now fewer Christians as a share of the population…” Some observers believe that as the Silent Generation (born 1928-45) slips from the scene, soon to be followed by Baby Boomers (1946-64) the decline will escalate and will grow increasingly larger in terms of the percentage of the population who will simply “opt out” of any specific faith or faith community.
Now, I hesitated to even write about this report, simply because I know what I will hear…
“My church is doing great!”
“They’re only talking about denominations.”
“Christendom is over.”
“People don’t attend group functions like they used to do.”
And, of course, “The gates of hell will not prevail against the Church!” and, “there will be a faithful remnant…”
Certainly, all these statements may contain elements of truth, but they are also often used to blind ourselves to present realities. One of those realities, I believe, is the lack of religious literacy. This was well documented in the 2007 book, ‘Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know – and Doesn’t’ by Stephen Prothero. A recent survey, again by Pew, found that in a multiple choice religious knowledge questionnaire, agnostics and atheists actually seemed to do best, scoring slightly above Evangelicals, Roman Catholics and Jews. Clearly, in many places, the work of catechesis has yet to be embraced and this omission may have consequences.
We may also be at the “tipping point” with regard to the culture wars that began in the 1980s with Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority. The broader Evangelical agenda to ‘christianize’ American culture has been weighed in the court of public opinion for almost four decades with very mixed results. While a core group of Evangelicals have embraced the current version of the culture wars, American Christianity as a whole has become a caricature. Most reading this article have the ability to delineate varied forms and expressions of American Christianity and the scale that ranges from liberal, to moderate, to conservative. Such is not the case with many in the street who, as pointed out above, lack the religious literacy to make such distinctions. Instead, they listen to the loudest voices with the largest number of followers. Thus, when Robert Jeffress makes a comment, it is considered representative of the “Christian point of view”, even as many of us shake our heads in disbelief. Among a substantial number of younger people, American Christianity is linked to not merely conservative Republican politics but, more importantly, to nationalist, anti-immigration and anti-LGBTQ rhetoric. Clearly, this is, as pointed out above, a caricature. Yet, as we have seen in our current political environment, caricatures, repeated enough, can become reality in the minds of observers and, consequently, inform their actions and reactions.
What concerns me the most, however, is that there is no easy solution to what we are witnessing. Moreover, I believe that we are only mid-way through what looks to be a multi-generational change. The shift from the Silent Generation and Baby Boomers to Generation X and Millennials is looming on the horizon. As that definitive change takes place in the course of the next two decades American Christianity will, I believe, face its greatest challenge, not only numerically, but in terms of perception by increasingly skeptical rising generations.