The Religious Landscape in America - And What It Means

What is the actual state of religion in America? People tell all kinds of stories, but they're often not based on anything more than a gut feeling. What is the religious landscape really like, and what should we expect for the future?

For a very long time, I've been interested in questions of statistics and Christianity. Pastors regularly trot out stats, especially alarmist stats, that make the world seem as if it is falling apart. They aren't unique here - everyone loves scary statistics. The problem is, almost all of those stats are at best misleading, if not utter garbage. I've talked about that in different places before; what I want to do is spend some time taking the actual statistics and trying to articulate the story they tell about religion in America. After that I'll offer a few thoughts from my own position within Christianity, but I'm going to keep those separate because they are obviously much more subjective.

To do this, I'm going to use stats from Pew Research Center, Gallup, and the Census Bureau. I'll provide a couple links at the end, but I'm not going to cite every stat for the simple reason that I don't have time. However, I'm doing my best to accurately reflect what they show.

To trace this story, I'm going to focus on five groups. Let's define them, to start, and note how each group is doing.

Catholicism - While most people are aware in a broad sense of the Catholic/Protestant divide, Catholicism is a very large part of the American religious landscape. 20% of Americans currently identify as Catholic; that's down from almost 24% in 2007. Historically, retention has long been a struggle for the Catholic church - it is often noted that one in ten Americans are ex-Catholic. This has been made up for by immigration patterns, which have heavily favored Catholics in recent decades, but is still significant and may be changing. They also struggle on metrics of religious involvement - only 41% of Catholics report attending weekly services, and only 58% say religion is "very" important to them.

Mainline Protestants - Let me note up front that the division of Protestants into mainline and evangelical is really important to making sense of the stats - some polls roll them into one group, but the two represent polar opposites in terms of many trends. By "mainline" protestants, we mean those historic denominations that represent the Protestant establishment. They have largely moved away from historic Christian beliefs like the authority of Scripture, miracles, the resurrection, the necessity of conversion, etc. Denominations in this strain include the United Methodist Church, Evangelical Lutheran Church, Presbyterian Church (USA), and United Church of Christ.
Within America, they aren't doing well at all. Just from 2007 to 2014 they have gone from 18% to 14% of the American population (let me stress, that is staggering - an 18% drop in identification in 7 years), and they are the Christian group that skews the hardest toward the elderly. They also do very poorly on involvement stats - 53% say their religion is "very" important, and only 33% attend weekly services.

Evangelical Protestants - This includes the various off-shoots of mainline protestant churches which hold to more historic forms of Christian belief, as well as denominations like the Southern Baptist church and most non-denominational evangelical churches. Evangelicalism makes up 25% of the U.S. population as of 2014, down just under one percentage point from 2007. Meanwhile, religious involvement numbers have remained relatively consistent and are relatively high - 58% attend weekly services, and a whopping 79% rate their religion as "very" important.

Unaffiliated - This is the group that gets a lot of discussion because of its rapid growth in the last decade. In 2007, 16% of Americans identified as religiously unaffiliated. In 2014, that number had grown to almost 23%. This is the growth of the "nones" that got a lot of press a few years ago. It is not, despite how most people reported the statistic, primarily a group of atheists. Instead, just under a third of the unaffiliated are atheists and agnostics. The other two-thirds (15.8% of the population) are "nothing in particular" - often still holding certain spiritual beliefs but not identifying with a specific religion. This explains why half of that "nothing in particular" group still rate religion as somewhat or very important, and why a majority of them still report things like believing in a God or praying regularly.

Non-Christian Faiths - This is the catch-all for other established religions - Judaism, Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism (ranked in order of size in U.S.) and others. In 2014, they make up 5.9% of the population, up from 4.7% in 2007. This growth is largely the result of migration and birth patterns, but is significant - while still small, that is a 25% increase in the last seven years.

So those are the stats. Note that, for the sake of ease of study, I'm leaving out some significant groups. Most notable are the "historically black" denominations. For those interested, they make up 6-7% of the population and their stats and conclusions would be similar to those of evangelical protestants. I'm also leaving out groups like the Orthodox churches (0.5% of the population and shrinking) and Mormonism (under 2% and shrinking slightly) for the sake of simplicity.

What do we make of that?

First, there is unquestionably a cultural change happening in America. The growth of the unaffiliated represents something significant, and I fully expect it to continue. For much of its history, Americans have defaulted to identifying as "Christians," even if practicing Christianity was not a significant part of their lives. That cultural pressure to self-identify that way is changing, and that is a big deal. It also means that churches should not presume upon cultural goodwill or influence in ways they did in the past.

Second, that growth in the unaffiliated is coming overwhelmingly from two streams. First, it draws primarily from those who are least involved in their religions. It is those who rarely or never attended worship, who rated their religious beliefs as "not too" important, who are becoming unaffiliated. Second, it is largely being fed by Catholic struggles with retention and the collapse of the mainline.

A note on those questions of retention - the religiously unaffiliated are a group largely made up of the young. What is interesting is that this has always historically been true - it is common for people to lose religious identification in their 20s and not re-invest in it until their 30s or 40s, and has been true for at least the last century. However, part of the reason evangelic protestants have largely held steady is that the majority of those who reinvest end up in that tradition; Catholicism does this to a lesser extent, and it is the least true for mainline protestant denominations, although still a factor. It is important to stress that this doesn't deny the growth in the unaffiliated as a whole - they are a much larger percentage of the population than they used to be. However, it does mean that their loss disproportionately affects some groups more than others.

In addition to all that, it is increasingly the case that other religions are becoming more common in the United States. For a long time, Christians have viewed the country in terms of a Christian/secular binary split, but things aren't that simple anymore - there are many Jews, Muslims and others who will increasingly be our friends and neighbors. Indeed, it is worth noting that even without the growth of the unaffiliated, Christianity would have a smaller percentage of the American population as a whole simply because of this growth in other religions.

So, to summarize - the religiously unaffiliated are growing, largely as pressure to identify as a "Christian" has eased. The mainline Protestant denominations are shrinking very quickly - while extrapolation is fraught and not statistically useful, if their rate of decline continued they would not exist in 50 years. Catholicism has somewhat similar retention struggles, although to a lesser extent, and evangelicalism is essentially holding steady or shrinking slightly at right around a quarter of the population. Other religions are growing.

What I Think of All That

Alright, that's the geeky stats part and my best attempt at summarizing it. Let me offer a few comments about what that means to me. This is where I'm taking off the trying-to-be-objective hat - I am an evangelical protestant pastor, and I'm obviously reading these stats in terms of what it means for my people.

First, as an evangelical, I feel like it's worth pointing out that evangelicalism is doing fine. Not great, but not poorly either. There is this alarmism that many evangelicals gravitate towards - "Our religion is collapsing, our children are all leaving, everything is falling apart." Alarmism breeds despair and folly. We do need to be thoughtful about how to grow more welcoming and loving and faithful, but this is often undercut by those who tell us that our churches are collapsing and we have to do everything completely differently. We don't.

Second, those stats and that story do mean that Christians will increasingly have to discuss their faith with those who don't agree with their basic assumptions. For a long time in America there has been a general sense that the Bible is special and Jesus is God and other things that most people accepted as true, even if it didn't mean much to them. This is changing, and Christians who are invested in their faiths need to acknowledge this fact.

Third, this story also means that we cannot presume upon the cultural privilege we have historically enjoyed as Christians. One's faith was a marker of respect and power in America in the past, and this is not as true and will probably become less true over time. This could create real hardships for certain churches and religious institutions down the road.

That said, I'm not really crying over either of those facts. As an evangelical who believes that repentance and conversion are necessary markers of true faith, who believes that Christianity calls us to a substantial change in priorities and lifestyle, and who seeks a supernatural work of the Spirit to transform people into new creations, I'm not mourning the disappearance of nominal Christianity in America. In fact, I mostly welcome it.

America's cherished civil religion has been, on the whole, a toxic half-faith that was actually a barrier to true Christian faith. It made us comfortable in our greed and self-worship and gave God's stamp of approval to such behaviors. It dressed the wolf of the world up as one of Jesus's lambs and turned it loose in the sheep pens. I would rather our culture have a sense that Christianity meant something, both theologically and practically, and be 10% or 25% or whatever of the population than have Christianity be meaningless and in the majority. I think that would actually be much healthier for the church.

That doesn't mean there aren't challenges with these changes. There are. But here's what it also means: it means that, on the whole, the religious trends I see in America make me hopeful. Hopeful that God is clearing away the weeds and helping the true church to grow. A growth in those who don't self-identify as Christians is actually an opportunity to have a conversation about what Christianity really means. To explain why the compromised, insipid thing that sometimes bears its name isn't the powerful and exciting reality Jesus calls us to. That is the kind of challenge that leaves me excited, not discouraged.

Some sources to spend time with, if you're interested in more:


  1. Thank you for this post!!! I can tell that you put a lot of work into it! Thank you for also sharing your sources I find that very helpful.

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