Is American Christianity in Decline?

In his column in last week’s Times, the always interesting Ross Douthat sifts through recent data on the decline of Christianity in the United States. It’s true, he writes, that the percentage of people declaring themselves Christian is declining, and that the percentage of Americans who tell pollsters they have “no religion” is increasing. But that doesn’t indicate an across-the board decline in Christian belief and practice. Seriously committed Christians remain so. It’s the nominal, weakly committed Christians who are leaving the churches:

The relative stability of the Gallup data fits with analysis offered by the sociologists Landon Schnabel and Sean Bock in a 2017 paper, “The Persistent and Exceptional Intensity of American Religion.” Drawing on the General Social Survey, they argued that the recent decline of institutional religion is entirely a function of the formerly weakly affiliated ceasing to identify with religious bodies entirely; for the strongly affiliated (just over a third of the American population), the trend between 1990 and the present is a flat line, their numbers neither growing nor collapsing but holding steady across an era of supposedly dramatic religious change.

That resilience should not be entirely comforting for Christian churches, since both their everyday work and their cultural influence depends on reaching beyond their core adherents, and inspiring a mix of sympathy and interest among people who aren’t at worship every week. Indeed, combining an enduring core of belief with a general falling-away could make the Christian position permanently embattled, tempting the pious to paranoia and misguided alliances while the wider culture becomes more anticlerical, more like 19th-century secular liberalism in its desire to batter down the redoubts of traditional belief.

But for now that resilience also puts some limits on how successfully anti-Christian policies can be pursued, how easily religious conservatism can be marginalized within the conservative coalition (not easily) and how completely the liberal coalition can be secularized — not completely at all, so long as its base remains heavily African-American and Hispanic. (The tragic racial polarization of American Christianity, in this sense, may have one positive effect: preventing a complete polarization of our politics between Christian and post-Christian coalitions.)

Douthat is right about this. As I’ve written elsewhere, the real story in American religion is its increasing polarization. The middle is dropping out in favor of extremes on either end: the Nones and the Traditionally Religious. Whether the departure of the Laodecians from America’s churches will be on the whole a good thing, for the churches and the society at large, remains to be seen.