Christian America Is in Decline—Here’s Why it Impacts Everyone

Forget the “War on Christmas.” The real problem is that fewer and fewer Americans are finding answers in God.

Christmas is nearly here and, with it, the fulfillment of Christians’ expectant wait for the arrival of the savior.

Decades ago, this religious experience of the Christmas season would captivate nearly all Americans. Not so today. Even if Donald Trump can work a miracle and induce all citizens to say “Merry Christmas” in the coming years as promised, the demographic data will remain as they are—and they are striking. Nonreligious America has grown to the point where it comprises a quarter of the population and roughly 40 percent of younger adults.

Who will be observing a religiously inflected Christmas in another 20 years? In another 50 years?

We raise these questions neither in celebration nor lament; America’s growing pluralism and secularity are what they are. On the other hand, how American Christianity will cope with and adapt to the new secular moment—whether it will regain its hold on the popular imagination or fade into a footnote—are open questions.

It’s hard to imagine an America without its ubiquitous churches and church-goers. It’s in these spaces that Americans have generally pursued the existential questions. Who are we? What are we? Why are we? The fact that we ask these questions—and hazard answers—is in part what makes us human. These questions shape our thinking about ourselves, our relationship to others, and our relationship to the world. Churches and other religious institutions have been, for the most part, where we have gone for answers.

Now, however, a large and growing swath of the population does not find religion’s answers compelling, believable, or worth pursuing. They are seeking answers elsewhere, if they seek them at all.

The moment challenges churches to divine answers to their own existential questions. Chief among them: How can they adjust to a context different from any that American Christianity has faced in recent history, one in which the cultural headwinds work against the kind of faith to which Americans traditionally have been predisposed?

It’s not just that churches’ answers are coming up short in more people’s minds. One reason so many are opting out of religion, or never opting in to begin with, is that churches—especially those in Christianity’s more theologically conservative precincts—are addressing the wrong questions. How can I be saved from the tortures of hell and delivered to a sweet afterlife with God and Jesus? For a long time, being on the right side of this line was all the motivation many people needed to get right with God and go to church. Not so today. This is not a question most people are asking themselves. Many younger Christians—even evangelicals—will tell you this is not what drives them to faith and not a credible reason to engage in religion.

On issues of sexuality—and here, too, our commentary concentrates on more conservative religious communities—the word from the pulpit also answers the wrong question. Churches are telling people how to be righteous by loving the “right” people, when the question being asked is: How do we work to appreciate the diversity of ways in which people love? It isn’t simply a matter of churches preaching a conservative theology supporting strict social codes; it’s also that some church leaders preaching these ideas with the greatest passion might be guilty of some of the very things they condemn. And so, the question: Why maintain beliefs that even the “called of God” can’t embrace? Such hypocrisies drag down churches and membership rolls.

Then, there’s the misdirected question that many churches ask themselves: How can they be relevant to the lives of their wavering, former, and prospective followers? We suspect a different “re” word gets closer to the heart of the challenge. It’s not that God is not relevant to the unconvinced; it’s that God is not real to them. Convincing them otherwise is a tall order in what Charles Taylor aptly calls our “secular age,” one in which the benefit of doubt and burden of proof are shifting, making traditional belief in the supernatural increasingly difficult to muster.

This is not the first time the viability of organized religion has been challenged. Church attendance rates were surprisingly low in the Revolutionary War period, for instance. Membership in predominantly black churches also declined after the civil rights movement, as new legislation and policy opened secular alternatives to the services that religious institutions had traditionally provided, such as networking and political access, without any of the theological guilt.

American churches have recovered from ebb periods before, and it would be unwise to count them out now. Even today, some churches are thriving as they discover creative new ways to meet people’s spiritual and communal needs. There are persistent social ills that churches, at their best, might be well positioned to address, such as our gaping social inequality and our increasingly conspicuous racism. We wish them well, outsiders though we are. The values of Jesus and the wisdom in the Bible (if read with care) have much to offer to a society with deep unmet needs.

Will the arrival of Christmas in, say, 2036 find a robust Christian church, teeming with believers and setting the tone for American culture as it once did? Or will the country’s traditional faith be little but a remnant? How the church responds to this increasingly secular moment—how it proves its value and its realness in an ever more skeptical age—will be one of the more important and fascinating unfolding storylines in the years and decades ahead.

Anthony B. Pinn and Tom Krattenmaker

Anthony B. Pinn is a Rice University professor of humanities and religion and a member of the American Humanist Association Board of the Directors. Tom Krattenmaker is writer specializing in religion in public life and author of the new book Confessions of a Secular Jesus Follower.