Though new numbers from Pew Research released this month point to a decline in American Protestants, no serious scholar believes Christianity in America is on a trajectory of extinction. And, as a Ph.D. researcher and practicing evangelical Christian, I say to those who’ve read recent reports and come to that conclusion, “Not so fast.”
You see, many in the U.S. who identify as Christian do so only superficially. These cultural Christians use the term but do not practice the faith. Now it seems many of them are giving up the Christian label, and those cultural or nominal Christians are becoming “nones,” people with no religious label.
Christian nominalism is nothing new. As soon as any belief system is broadly held, people are motivated to adopt it, even with a low level of connection. Yet, much of the change in our religious identification is in nominal Christians no longer using the term and, instead, not identifying with any religion.
In other words, the nominals are becoming the nones.
I’ve seen this in my own family. Growing up in an Irish Catholic community outside New York City, the Catholic Church was the church we didn’t go to. Today, I am an evangelical Christian, and I attend church like one, but most of my extended family do not attend church, and don’t bother to call themselves Catholics any longer. The nominals became the nones.
Furthermore, the cultural value of identifying as a Christian is decreasing. When that happens, those whose connection to Christianity was more an identifying mark than a deeply held belief find they don’t need that identity anymore. The label does not matter.
When considering why someone does or does not label themselves a Christian, we see three broad ways people identify as Christian.
On a survey, cultural Christians mark “Christian” rather than another world religion, because they know they are not Hindu, Jewish, etc., or because their family always has.
Churchgoing Christians identify as such, because they occasionally attend worship services.
On the other hand, conversion Christians claim to have had a faith experience in which they were transformed, resulting in a deeply held belief.
The recent growth in nones, I believe, comes primarily from cultural and churchgoing Christians no longer using a religious identification.
The obvious question is why the decline at all and what does the future hold? Some may say this sounds exactly like what has happened in Europe. Well, yes and no.
Europe’s religious decline happened for different reasons than what we are seeing here — bloody religious wars and a church/state alliance led to mandated religions which led to distaste and rejection of religion. That’s not the case in the U.S., and I don’t think we will go that path.
Yet, there is movement in religious identification that should cause us to consider three ramifications.