American Christians See A Rapid Decline In Numbers Over Past Decade: Study

They're still the majority, but the Pew Research Center report shows the U.S. is becoming a less explicitly Christian country.

Christians continue to be a swiftly dwindling demographic within America’s religious landscape, a new study from the Pew Research Center shows.

About two-thirds of U.S. adults (65%) identify as Christian, a share that has plummeted by 12 percentage points over the last decade, according to Pew’s analysis of aggregated telephone surveys. On the other hand, the religiously unaffiliated now constitute over a quarter of the adult population (26%), up from 17% in 2009.

Pew’s report on the state of American religion, published Thursday, confirms trends that researchers have been observing about the country’s shifting faith landscape and the growing number of religious “nones” ― folks who identify as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular.”

Atheists now make up 4% of American adults and agnostics make up 5%, compared to 2% and 3% respectively in 2009, Pew reports. About 17% of Americans say they are “nothing in particular,” up from 12% in 2009.

The “nones” are growing across multiple demographic groups and in all regions of the country, the researchers say. More white, Hispanic and Black Americans, more men and women, more college grads and those without college degrees are now religiously unaffiliated.

The number of “nones” is even inching up among Republicans, although the group is growing at a faster pace among Democrats. One-third of Democrats now identify as religiously unaffiliated.

Pew Research Center

Protestants no longer make up a solid majority of the U.S. About 43% of American adults currently say they are Protestant, compared to 51% in 2009. White Protestants who describe themselves as evangelical or “born again” ― a group that has considerable access to power under President Donald Trump’s administration ― are now 16% of the adult population, down from 19% a decade ago.

But among white Protestants, it doesn’t appear that the labels “evangelical” or “born again” have become less popular. The percentage of white Protestants who describe themselves in these terms is at least as high as it was a decade ago, Pew reports.

About 20% of American adults identify as Catholic, compared to 23% in 2009. Notably, Hispanic Americans are no longer a majority Catholic population. Only 47% of this group consider themselves part of the Catholic Church, compared to 57% in 2009.

Politicians in both main political parties still see a benefit in presenting themselves as a Christian, said Stephen Prothero, a religious studies professor at Boston University. But if the current trends toward disaffiliation continue, he said, “there will likely be less of a prize to be won here.”

Looking to the future, Prothero said, “You might lose as much as you gain by appearing to be a ‘Christian candidate.’”

About 17% of American adults say they "never" go to church or other religious services, compared to 11% in 2009.
About 17% of American adults say they "never" go to church or other religious services, compared to 11% in 2009.
Zbynek Pospisil via Getty Images

The frequency at which American adults say they attend religious services continues to decline. They are now more likely (54%) to say they attend services only a few times a year or less. There has been a notable uptick in the percentage who say they “never” attend worship services (17% today vs. 11% in 2009). And a significant majority of white Democrats (70%) now say they attend services only a few times a year or less.

On the other hand, those who identify as Christian appear to attend worship services at about the same rate today as they did a decade ago.

“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,” Pew wrote.

Prothero thinks that people like President Ronald Reagan and Moral Majority founder Jerry Falwell helped spur this demographic decline in American Christianity by their efforts in the 1980s. Falwell’s activism back then helped cement white evangelicals’ ties to the Republican Party and expand the political influence of the religious right.

“In their attempt to ‘christianize’ American culture, they ended up dechristianizing it ― by turning a whole generation of Americans (and perhaps more to come) away from Christianity,” Prothero said.

Pew reports that today only about half of millennials (49%) identify as Christian, while 4 in 10 are religious “nones.”

Many of Prothero’s students at Boston University now equate Christianity not only with conservative Republicans but also with anti-immigration and anti-LGBTQ bigotry, the professor said.

“They will not be easily won back,” he said of his students.

Pew’s analysis is based on aggregated data from 88 telephone surveys with 168,890 U.S. adults on various political issues between 2009 and 2019. The research organization also conducted two large-scale surveys of the U.S. religious landscape in 2007 and 2014, each with more than 35,000 respondents who answered detailed questions about their religious beliefs and practices.

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