Is religion dying? Here’s what data on faith in America shows


Giulia Neri for the Deseret News

I knew what I was doing was a mistake. I got into an argument with someone on social media. They were making a point using statistical evidence that I knew to be false. So I did what I always do in situations like this: I made a graph. I sent that graph to him with a note that simply said, “I think that data you are relying on is faulty, and I have more confidence in these results that I’m illustrating here.” The reply I got a few minutes later was direct and demoralizing: “I don’t believe your data.”

Trying to be data-driven, neutral and objective is my entire career, my life’s purpose, something I’d like to think that I am pretty good at. But no matter how much data, how many graphs, how much evidence I muster, this guy will never believe me. And he’s not alone.

A growing segment of the population is completely unwilling to even entertain facts that may contradict the way that they think about politics, culture and society. Huge swaths of the public seem to express no desire to rethink their worldview. I like to believe that American discourse used to be focused on high-minded ideas like freedom, morality and the role of government in the lives of its citizens. Debates about the purpose of life, what is true and what constitutes a good life are worth having, because they focus on what we value, how our life experiences shape our worldview, and what we hope and fear for the future.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that when verifiable facts are in dispute, we are at a moment of crisis. If we think about the structure of political discourse, facts are the foundation. If we cannot agree on the foundation, there can be no meaningful debate.

Observing the devolution of American debate over the past two decades has been especially jarring for me. I grew up in a conservative evangelical Southern Baptist church that was led by pastors who emphasized to me over and over again that there are objective truths in this world. I can’t tell you how many sermons I heard about the boogeyman of moral relativism. The phrase “All truth is God’s truth” has been deeply embedded into my subconscious.

The same men and women who taught me those lessons in Sunday school and on church camping trips now try to tell anyone who follows them on social media to ignore the evidence from the scientific community, or courts of law, and instead to believe in random videos they find on YouTube or an article that was copied and pasted on social media with zero attribution or fact-checking.

While high-profile conspiracy theories take up a lot of bandwidth on social media and cable news networks, right below those are a menagerie of less outlandish but no less insidious lies about the way American society actually works. These haven’t been pushed by hucksters trying to get more views on their videos or more shares for their content. Instead, these are suppositions about the world that people just naturally assume are true because they have never seen any real evidence to the contrary.

These nuggets are considered by pastors, denominational leaders and even people in the pews as true unless proven false. These myths, I’ll call them, are worth really considering, because they form the foundation of our worldviews. Imagine a builder was tasked with constructing a new bridge made entirely of bricks. If he got lazy and decided not to carefully inspect all the bricks that would form the base of the bridge, eventually those faulty materials would lead to a catastrophic collapse. Similarly, we can expect collapse when our worldviews are too often built on a series of small, untested assumptions about the way things work.

You might ask, “How can having an inaccurate view of things like religion and politics have any real impact on society?” Let me give you an example. Some of my favorite types of survey questions ask respondents to describe how they view members of the other political party. These surveys provide an important window into just how unmoored perception can be from reality.

In a poll conducted in March 2015, two political scientists asked Republicans to estimate what share of the Democratic Party is atheist or agnostic. The average guess was 36%, but the reality is that only 9% of Democrats say they are atheist or agnostic. Republican respondents also believe that 38% of Democrats are lesbian, gay or bisexual. In reality, just 6% say they are.

But this misperception cuts both ways. In the same poll, Democrats said they believed that 44% of Republicans were 65 or older. In reality, just 21% are. Additionally, Democrats believed that nearly half of Republicans made $250,000 a year or more. In reality just 2% of GOP members do.

While poll results like these are great for clickbait articles with titles like “Look how wrong Democrats are about Republicans,” there is something much more dangerous going on just below that headline. The takeaway for me is this: Americans don’t have a firm grasp of what the opposition actually looks like, and in the absence of actual data, they usually assume the worst about those on the other side of the aisle.

So what’s the antidote to this morass in which we find ourselves? It begins when people from all political persuasions start to embrace a worldview that is less partisan and more empirical.

To perceive the world in an empirical way is, in my estimation, a superpower. It means that emotion plays no role in how I receive and incorporate facts into my understanding of how society works. To be empirical is to rid myself of ideological, theological and cultural bias, and instead ruthlessly to seek out what is verifiably true in this world. If anything can unite a country that seems to be becoming more politically, economically and religiously polarized every day, it’s the embracing of an empirical worldview. It may be the only thing we can ever agree on in the future.

Being empirical is uncomfortable, because it may challenge our suppositions of how the world works. It requires accepting evidence that challenges our worldview. But just because something is difficult doesn’t mean it’s not worthwhile. An empirical worldview gets us closer to what is true in the world than any other approach that we have at our disposal. And maybe my own bias as a pastor is showing, but seeking truth is supposed to be the ultimate goal of any follower of Jesus Christ. 

How do we begin to do that? Where do we start? We start with the facts.

And if you want information about religion and politics in the United States, I can help you, because I’m an expert in that field. The reason I can state that, by any objective measure, is that it is the truth. How did I acquire this expertise? In the same way that a plumber becomes a master at the craft or a violinist becomes the first chair in their symphony — through a dogged pursuit of becoming more knowledgeable in my field of study.

I earned a doctoral degree in political science after six years of study and writing a dissertation that was focused on religion and political behavior in the United States. Since then I have published two dozen peer-reviewed articles on religion and politics in academic journals. I have written a book on the religiously unaffiliated in the United States and have contributed analysis about American religion and politics to some of the largest media outlets in the nation.

I have cut every dataset a thousand different ways, looking for a new angle or a new story about American religion. It’s the thing that I think about when I lie in bed at night or when I’m taking a shower. I have a running note on my phone where I gather ideas that hit me that I just have to explore.

There’s something that happens when you work with data every day that I didn’t fully understand until just a few years ago. Insights begin to materialize that lead to further analysis — and in my case, to an even deeper understanding of the religious and political landscape of the United States. After doing all that work, I’ve come to realize that the way that most people think about religion and politics is only loosely linked to any empirical reality. Instead, it’s based on anecdotes, a quick scan of news headlines or worse — just flat-out lies told by bad actors trying to push a religious or political agenda on a distracted public. That’s incredibly caustic for the future of American politics and religion, because facts are the building blocks of not just debate but all aspects of a civilized society.

So I want to help you see what I see in the data. Some of it will surprise you, and hopefully some of it will change you. Altering our understanding of the world based on new information is not a sign of weakness but great intellectual strength. Can you imagine if we all had the same viewpoints that we held when we were 18? One of the most powerful images I’ve seen in the last few years was a man standing at a protest holding a small sign that said, “I’m sorry I’m late. I had a lot to learn.” What a tremendous display of humility and openness.

I am reminded of the famous quote by James Baldwin: “Not everything that is faced can be changed; but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

Here are three myths I’ve found about the state of faith in America today. 

Myth No. 1: American religion is in decline

Every few years, a national media outlet publishes a story about the inevitable decline of American religion.

It all began with that famous Time magazine cover from April 1966. Three words in a bolded red font stood against a solid black background, “Is God Dead?” Of course, the editors were borrowing this idea from the famous German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who wrote, “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.”

Nietzsche was making a point that the era of the Enlightenment and its push for scientific reasoning had eliminated a need for God, but most Americans did not know the full context of the quote. They just saw the magazine cover at the supermarket checkout stand, and many of them got angry. A retrospective on the piece noted that Time magazine received 3,421 letters from readers upon its publication. One of those letters stated, “Your ugly cover is a blasphemous outrage.”

Significant portions of the United States were devoutly religious in the 1960s, and to say that God was dead was an affront to their entire worldview.

Discussion surrounding the supposed death of religion, including evangelical Christianity in the United States, has only picked up steam since then. There seems to be a never-ending drumbeat of stories declaring the end of American religion.

The Atlantic ran a piece titled “Three Decades Ago, America Lost Its Religion. Why?” and just a few months later the Week published an article with the headline “The Coming End of Christian America.” That the country is becoming less religious as each day passes seems to be the highest profile story in American religious demography. The American church is on a death spiral and will look like Western Europe’s in the next few decades.

True, the story is not entirely manufactured or without some empirical merit. Ample evidence from a variety of data sources points to a continuing rise of the so-called nones in American society. Pew Research Center noted that the nones were 16% of the U.S. population in 2007, 23% in 2014 and 28% in 2019. I wrote a book about the topic myself, noting that the share of Americans with no religious affiliation may be as high as 30%, a finding I reached using a survey methodology different from Pew’s.

No matter how the numbers are crunched, though, we can say that those without a religious affiliation are a larger share of America than ever before. Still, we need to keep in mind that the nones increasing doesn’t necessarily mean all religious traditions are on the decline.

I do not blame the American public for believing that religion is in its twilight in our society. However, I think most people arrive at that conclusion by extrapolating a bit too much from the headlines they glance at as they scroll through the titles of books on Amazon, a news app or their social media feed. Or they notice Pew headlining its most recent report “In U.S., Decline of Christianity Continues at Rapid Pace.” No matter the source, they conclude that Christianity, writ large, is on its deathbed.

What they miss is that Pew and others lay out a very nuanced and careful story that highlights how certain types of American religion, not all of Christianity, are in decline. The story of what is happening to American Christianity is much more complicated than any headline could ever really capture and, in my opinion, is even more interesting. The real story of American Christianity is that those who are intensely religious have not changed in any meaningful way in the past 50 years.

Let’s look at evangelicals in particular. The General Social Survey has been asking questions about religious affiliation since 1972 and is considered the only authoritative source for tracking the composition of American religion over a long time horizon. Thus, it makes sense to start there when trying to understand what has happened to evangelicals over the past 40 years.

When the trend line for evangelicals is illustrated in the survey, the trend for American evangelicals in the United States is a slightly upward one over 46 years. They were just under 24% of the population in the early 1970s and rose to just over 25% in 2018.

Despite this slightly upward trend, many people focus on what has happened to evangelicals since their peak around 1993. If we begin our analysis in 1987, the trend is downward. In statistical terms, nearly 28% of Americans were evangelical in 1987 and that has dropped about 5 percentage points in the past 30 years.

But that second narrative ignores two key pieces of relevant evidence. The first is that evangelicals today are the same percentage of the U.S. population in 2018 that they were in 1982 — a fact that does not support the “evangelicals are dying” hypothesis. The other is that the decline of evangelicalism has basically stopped since 2000. Instead of claiming a decline in evangelicalism, the more objective perspective is that the period from the late 1980s through the late 1990s was an aberration in the history of American religion.

Because of a confluence of a number of religious, cultural and political shifts, evangelicalism saw a significant but relatively short-lived burst in popularity. The more honest reading of the data is that evangelicals constitute just slightly less than a quarter of Americans in an average year, and there is little reason to think that this will substantially shift in the next decade.

However, there’s another way to measure the size of evangelicalism over time — self-identification. The prior analysis did not rely on a survey respondent saying they were an evangelical. Instead, they told the survey administrator what denomination the church they attended belongs to, and social scientists sorted them into the evangelical camp based on just that information.

However, many surveys have begun to include an additional question about religious identification: “Do you consider yourself to be a born-again or evangelical Christian, or not?” The person hearing the question determines their religious attachment. To that end, since 1988 the General Social Survey has been asking this question, “Would you say you have been ‘born again’ or have had a ‘born-again’ experience — that is, a turning point in your life when you committed yourself to Christ?”

The results of those responses show a slow upward trajectory in the past three decades. About 37% of Americans said in 1988 that they had had a born-again experience, but by 2004 that had dropped by about 3 percentage points. From that point forward there has been a slow and steady climb in the share of Americans who say they have had a born- again experience. The born-again portion of the sample jumped by 4 percentage points between 2004 and 2010 and then has increased just about 4 percentage points again from 2010 to 2018. In the most recent data available, the share of Americans who say they have had a born-again experience is 41%. There’s definitely no sign of evangelical decline from that angle. 

Myth No. 2: The personal faith of a presidential candidate can activate part of the electorate

The Fall 2020 school term was already shaping up to be an incredibly busy semester, but something else was going on that diverted my attention from advising students, planning courses and organizing a small conference: the 2020 presidential election.

Every news outlet in the United States and across the world was trying to find a new way to spin the same old horse race-style coverage of presidential elections. No one wants to read the same basic story from five or six different media outlets that all cover the same details in a similar fashion. So editors tell reporters, “Find a new angle on this” and they begin to scour the internet and talk to sources in hopes of finding another way to frame the November contest.

Apparently, some of them managed to zero in on the impact religion would have on the presidential vote, because my inbox began pinging in early October and continued through Thanksgiving with requests for interviews, data points and musings about how the matchup between Joe Biden and Donald Trump played out among the faithful going to the polls.

Many of the questions I received from reporters were focused on the personal faith of the Democratic nominee, Joe Biden. Biden had never shied away from speaking about his Catholic upbringing, both as a member of the United States Senate and as the vice president However, pictures of Biden coming or going from Mass while on the campaign trail became a steady part of the media coverage of his candidacy in 2020. Having seen those images and heard the chatter on social media, lots of political analysts thought this would give Biden the ability to win over larger shares of the Catholic vote than Hillary Clinton received in 2016.

However, when I was asked by reporters if I thought Biden would be well positioned to take a larger share of the Catholic vote, I couldn’t provide the full-throated support for the theory that they wanted. There’s very little evidence that any candidate in the past several decades has been especially adept at winning over certain religious groups.

But data availability and quality issues aside, there’s another more existential problem with the media coverage around election season: In most cases, the vote choice among faith groups does not shift in any meaningful way from one presidential election to the next. Journalists are always hunting for the big headline, like “White evangelicals vote share for Donald Trump dropped by 10 points in his reelection bid” or “Why did atheists support Biden in much larger numbers than they did Clinton four years earlier?” Unfortunately, the data indicates almost no sweeping changes happen at the intersection of religion and politics every four years. Instead, most of the movement in the electorate is much more incremental. A one- or two-point shift between two elections can become an eight-point swing across four election cycles.

Looking across data from presidential elections from 2008 through 2020 makes it clear how these trends develop with some groups over time. For instance, only 3% of Black Protestants voted for John McCain in 2008. Mitt Romney did two points better, then Donald Trump got 7% in 2016 and 9% in 2020. That same gradual trend appears for Orthodox Christians, Buddhists and Hindus as well. But generally, most of the trend lines are relatively flat over four election cycles. Stability among religious groups at the voting booth is very much the expected outcome.

The results from the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections illustrate this point very well. What makes the 2020 election a bit different from the 2016 contest is that there was an incumbent — Trump was vying for a second term in office. When only one of the two candidates changes in an election, the likelihood of dramatic shifts in the way that electorate votes is fairly low. The other notable aspect of the 2020 election was that Trump had seen no significant shifts in his approval rating across his four years in the White House. Thus, there was not a lot of reason to believe that the 45th president had either turned off a big portion of his base or that he had won over independents or conservative Democrats between 2016 and 2020. 

The data bears that out pretty clearly. Most religious groups shifted just a few percentage points between the two races. For instance, the overall shift in vote share for Trump among evangelicals was only 2 percentage points in his favor. Among mainline Protestants, there was absolutely no change. For Catholics, the shift was slightly larger than it was for evangelicals at just about 3 percentage points overall. Among the smaller religious groups such as Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and Jews, the movement was 2 or 3 percentage points in Trump’s direction as well. Among the religiously unaffiliated, Trump lost about 4 percentage points of support in his reelection bid. But read those numbers again: The overall shift among any religious group never exceeds 4 percentage points. That’s not what I would describe as a large swing.

Really, the only religious group that shifted significantly between the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections was the Latter-day Saint vote. In 2016, Trump got a very slim majority of the Latter-day Saint vote, but that’s not because Hillary Clinton was seen as a particularly attractive candidate to the Latter-day Saint community. Rather, they didn’t particularly like either of the two major party candidates. Instead, nearly a quarter of the Latter-day Saint vote went to third-party candidates, with many casting a ballot for Evan McMullin (a moderate Republican who is a member of the church). Because neither McMullin nor any other viable third-party candidates ran in 2020, the Latter-day Saint voters had to decide between Trump and Biden; thus, both parties did better with Latter-day Saint voters in 2020. Or, in short, the Latter-day Saint vote was truly an outlier.

But what happens if we pull back the time frame and compare the election results from the 2020 presidential election to the match-up of Barack Obama and John McCain back in November 2008? Remember, that election was by any objective viewpoint a blowout for Barack Obama. Obama beat John McCain by over seven percentage points in the popular vote but also won states that seemed far out of reach for any Democratic candidate running in 2020. So if we were looking for big shifts in vote share, it should be through comparing 2008 to any subsequent election.

But the results from 2008 and 2020 in terms of changes in vote for all the religious traditions are not nearly as dramatic as many would anticipate (or the media would hope for).

“Really, the only religious group that shifted significantly between the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections was the Latter-day Saint vote.”

For most of the largest religious traditions in the United States, the actual shift in the overall vote was relatively minor over those 12 years. Take many of the largest Christian traditions, for instance. Despite all the think pieces written about how Trump would turn off white evangelicals in both 2016 and 2020, he actually did better than McCain did — but by only three percentage points. The same three-point shift to the Republican side is evident among white Catholics as well. Among mainline, the movement is just two percentage points, also the case among nonwhite Catholics and Protestants.

In fact, if you are looking for big swings, there are only four religious groups whose vote share for Trump was at least 10 points different from what it was for McCain. Those four groups were: Orthodox Christians, Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims. But in total those four groups constitute about 2.5% of the adult population of the United States. So while there were significant swings in the vote share of some religious groups, they represent a very small fraction of the total votes cast. 

Among these four groups, their vote-share switching resulted in the changing of one in 400 votes cast on Election Day — clearly, not enough to make the difference in who wins the White House. For comparison, getting 1% of the white evangelical vote to switch to the Democrat would net more overall votes than getting 10% of Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists and Orthodox Christians to change their votes.

I think the reason the media anticipate tectonic shifts in the vote of religious groups is that observers focus in general on each presidential candidate’s unique strengths and weaknesses, assuming these particular characteristics will help them win over new voters — while acknowledging, if they’re honest, that these same traits could hurt their chances with other demographic segments of the electorate.

In the same way, candidates themselves (and their campaign advisers, of course) focus on their religious background, believing this aspect of their biography will have significant influence on voters’ choices. George W. Bush had a very strong following among evangelical Protestants, because he saw himself as an evangelical and was conversant in the terminology and culture of that strain of American Christianity. Bush made it a point to talk about how his born-again experience helped him end his alcohol addiction and become a better husband and father.

In much the same way, Biden did not shy away from talking about his strong commitment to the Roman Catholic Church while on the campaign trail. That was a sharp contrast to the prior Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, who was a lifelong United Methodist but did not emphasize that during her run for the White House. Given these differing strategies, one might assume Biden was well positioned to win over a bigger share of the white Catholic vote in 2020 than Clinton received just four years earlier.

However, if we dig into the data about presidential vote choice among white Catholics in 2016 and 2020, we find no evidence that Biden won any more of this voting bloc than Clinton did. If the white Catholic vote is subdivided into levels of church attendance, Biden did not do significantly better than Clinton in a single attendance category. In fact, in five of the six categories there were no statistically significant differences between the two election cycles. Among monthly attending white Catholics, Hillary Clinton earned 45% of the vote in 2016, but Joe Biden actually did eight points worse four years later.

If you had hand-picked a candidate primarily to gain back the white Catholic voting bloc in the 2020 presidential election, it would have been hard to find a more ideal person than Biden. But Biden’s share of the white Catholic vote in 2020 was not statistically distinct from Clinton’s share four years earlier. 

The last thing I want to do is write myself out of my job, but in the phrase “religion and politics,” it seems that politics is more important than ever before. The idea that large swaths of Americans are willing to listen honestly and openly to the arguments from both sides of the political spectrum is more a product of wishful thinking than statistical reality. And, it’s also idealistic to think that voters place their religious affiliation at the center of the political decision-making process. Instead, the vast majority of political scientists contend that partisanship is the most important factor in the lives of most Americans, with faith a distant second. If that’s how most voters make their decision on Election Day, then it’s inevitable that religious voting blocs won’t shift significantly from one election to the next — no matter how compelling the candidate. 

Myth No. 3: America is much less religious today than a few decades ago

On one side of the religious spectrum, increasing numbers of Americans are indicating they have no belief in God, they never attend religious services, and they see themselves as atheists or agnostics.

But among those who still affiliate with a religious tradition, there’s fairly compelling evidence that their religiosity is at least as high as it was 40 years ago. And, in some cases, they are more devout than Christians from the 1970s.

One of the most important developments in American political science literature over the past few decades is mounting evidence of political polarization. The empirical reality is that the Democratic Party has moved further toward the left side of the political spectrum, while the Republicans have shifted significantly toward the right. In the 1960s and 1970s, it was not at all uncommon for members of Congress to vote for bills supported by members of the other party. Today, bipartisanship is verboten. There is no place for moderates in American politics. 

But the same phenomenon seems to be occurring in American religion as well. On one side, a growing number of Americans identify as secular and eschew many of the trappings of American religion. But on the other side, a significant portion of the American population is devoutly religious. They attend church at high rates, and they have a strong belief in God. In essence, American religion has boiled down to either being very religious or being completely secular, with little in between.

An interesting narrative emerges when analyzing church attendance rates of the various traditions in American Christianity. There’s strong evidence that Protestant Christians are just as devout today as they were four decades ago, and in some cases church attendance in 2018 may be higher than it was in the early 1970s.

Among those identifying as evangelical in the 1970s, about 36% reported weekly church attendance. By 2018, the share of evangelicals who attended church weekly or more had risen to just over 46% — an increase of 10 percentage points.

That same upward trend appears for both Black Protestants and mainline Protestants as well, but the rise is a bit more muted. About 29% of Black Protestants were weekly attenders in the 1970s. In 2018, that group was up to 33%. Among mainline Protestants during the same time period, the share of weekly attenders rose from 21% to 23%.

There is a marked decline in attendance among Roman Catholic respondents, however. In 1972, about 45% of Catholics said they attended Mass weekly or more. By 2018, that share was only 20%. That trend line is in stark contrast to those from the three Protestant groups and is hard to comprehend. It may be partially related to the fact that a growing number of people embrace a type of “cultural Catholicism.” According to data from Pew Research Center, 62% of cultural Catholics see their attachment as more about family heritage than religious devotion. The closest parallel may be the significant number of people who identify as Jewish because of the ethnic lineage of their family but never attend synagogue.

Yet religiosity is about more than just church attendance. Alongside religious behavior, there is also religious belief. The General Social Survey has been asking respondents to indicate their belief in God since 1988. The share of the sample who responded “I know God really exists and I have no doubts about it” was calculated for both the entire sample, as well as for those who still reported an affiliation with a religious tradition.

In 1988, about two-thirds of Americans said they had no doubt God existed. But if the nones are excluded, the share is a bit higher at around 69%. The share of Americans who expressed a sure belief in God declined over the next three decades to about 56% in 2018. However, if the nones are removed from the analysis, the share of Americans who express a certain belief in God drops only about 2 percentage points in 30 years. For those who still claim a religious affiliation in 2018, their beliefs look almost identical to the same group 30 years earlier.

If the sample is separated into the various traditions in Christianity, there’s little evidence of a significant decline. In 1988, just over 80% of evangelicals and Black Protestants indicated that they believed in God without any doubts. Thirty years later, that share was 83% for Black Protestants and 82% for evangelicals.

Among mainline Protestants, there may be a 1-percentage point decline (from 59% to 58% in three decades). And while the share of Catholics who attend Mass weekly has dropped dramatically in the past several decades, that same pattern is much more modest when it comes to religious belief. In 1988, about two-thirds of Catholics claimed a belief in God without doubt. That dropped to about 60% 30 years later. Looking holistically, there’s little reason to believe that Christians believe in God with any less certainty in 2018 than they did three decades earlier. 

Concentration, not decline

When I think about American religion, I am drawn to the analogy of a chef making a reduction on the stove. They typically put some type of liquid with lots of seasonings in a saucepan. They let those seasonings steep in the liquid over heat for a long period of time. As that reduction simmers over several hours, some of the liquid evaporates. In many cases, a reduction recipe calls for the sauce to reduce by half before it’s ready. The chef is left with less liquid, but what remains has a much more concentrated flavor than when all the ingredients were combined at the beginning of the cooking process.

The same thing seems to be happening to American religion. Over the last several decades the heat has continually been turned up as politics has become more polarized, as people take on more commitments that make them less available to attend church services, and as rapid advances in technology make it easier than ever to entertain ourselves without leaving the comfort of home.

All those factors have led significant numbers of Americans to no longer indicate a religious affiliation. But for those who have not chosen to become a none, what is left is an even more concentrated version of American religion. People who are truly committed to their faith and who honestly believe in the doctrines and dogmas of their church are not going to leave those behind very easily. In essence, what American society has seen is that while smaller shares of Americans claim a religious affiliation, those who still choose to attach themselves to religion are the true believers. Put succinctly, American religion has become smaller but much more potent.

There is something troubling about this trend for me as a pastor who believes deeply in the role of faith in the public square. I worry we’re creating a self-reinforcing loop among young people coming of age in 2020. While there used to be a wide variety of religious options for people, the number of viable church traditions has declined significantly. While conservative evangelicalism is still robust in the United States, this reduction process has driven out a lot of moderate Christians.

Mainline Christianity (which is typified by moderate churches such as the United Methodist and the United Church of Christ) used to make up 30% of Americans. Today, it’s just 10%.

Thus, many people who would like to find a church home are left with a landscape that is either theologically conservative and incredibly devout on one side or completely irreligious on the other. Left with those choices, many Americans seem to be choosing to become a none rather than an evangelical or conservative Catholic. Thus, as the middle disappears it becomes even more difficult to reverse this trend. So while those who still maintain a religious identity are more devout than ever, there are many who feel left out and spiritually homeless in the 21st century.

As a pastor, I want to end with a call to action that we, as believers, find ways to not leave these types of believers behind. 

Excerpted from “20 Myths about Religion and Politics in America.” Copyright 2022 Fortress Press, an imprint of 1517 Media. All Rights Reserved.

This story appears in the April issue of Deseret MagazineLearn more about how to subscribe.