The percentage of American Christians dropped from 78% to 70%. As the overall population of the United States grew, the population of Christians shrank.
Before you rejoice or lament over such a dramatic shift, perhaps you should ask: is this actually true?
Some of the data can be validated in part: for example, we know through denominational statistics that the mainline Protestant denominations are shrinking. This should not surprise us because these denominations have generally exchanged the historic “other-worldly” message of Christianity for a more palatable “this-worldly” message. A church becomes irrelevant when it has lost touch with the transcendent.
But a larger point must be made here: the decline here is not necessarily in the number of actual Christians, but in the number of people who identify as Christians. This is the true flaw in the study. How can you ask people if they are something if you don’t define what that something is? It is totally subjective. If you ask me if I am fast, you are asking me to also define “fast.” I could define it by a certain pace over a certain distance or in comparison with other runners. My answer, however, will not tell you how fast I am, but how fast I think I am.
Words have meaning, not just interpretations. In order to conduct an effective study of Christianity in America, you must first come up with some sort of standard definition of Christian–perhaps “one who believes in the person and work of Jesus Christ alone for his or her salvation.” Of course, all of that language is broad and could be unpacked. You could also further drill down and try to get past “nominal” (name-only) Christianity and ask questions about prayer, Bible reading, and church attendance. But these things are echoes, not the essence, of Christianity.
According to historian Thomas Kidd in his book God of Liberty, the number of actual Christians throughout American history is much smaller than we often suppose. One frequently-used measurement is that of church attendance (which is still an echo, not the essence) and while church attendance has been in decline the last couple of decades, it is higher than it was at America’s founding. For many professed Christians, the echo of church attendance is made into the essence, so that their attendance or departure from the church is not really tantamount to adherence or rejection of the faith.
Of course, this rebuttal of the findings doesn’t change the fact that fewer people consider themselves to be Christians. Might we speculate on alternative interpretations of why this is the case?
If we concede that there is a difference between adherence to the essence of Christianity and simply self-identifying with Christianity, and that the former group is likely quite a bit smaller than the latter group, why would so many non-adherents still identify with Christianity? Well, Christianity used to be much more popular in American society than it is now. Politicians had to assert their (nominal) Christian credentials and “good Christians” (as if such a thing exists) were considered staples of their communities. Christianity was also closely intertwined with Americanism–to the extent that the untrained eye would barely be able to tell them apart.
In past generations, the Christian label brought with it certain social benefits. The same cannot be claimed today in most areas of the country. Either you claim to be a tolerant Christian and not one of those evangelical Christians or you face a certain degree of stigma and scorn. Christianity in its true form is no longer fashionable and, more and more, faith in Christ comes with a cost.
I would argue that the decline in self-identified Christians is not a reflection of the number of actual Christians, but a reflection of the increasing cost of being a Christian. And with the increase of soft persecution–suppression of speech, economic retaliation, etc., I would expect the number of self-identified Christians to continue to decline dramatically.
On the bright side, as Christian “morals” are no longer considered by many to be indispensable to American society and as they are treated more as a hindrance to society, people will be forced to look at Christianity in terms of truthfulness rather than usefulness. It doesn’t matter what sort of effect Christianity has on society–Is it true? A useful belief does not sustain people when it is no longer deemed useful. A true belief will sustain people regardless of whether it is deemed useful–for it is the truth that sets people free (John 8:32).