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ANALYSIS: God is not dead and neither is Christianity in America

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is the first of four articles which address research that has been published within the last year or so about people of faith in the U.S. The series examines Christianity in America, what the numbers mean for the Southern Baptist Convention and the imprint of evangelical voters in the public square.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–The Bible cautions that “The first to state his case seems right until another comes and cross-examines him.”

Unfortunately, this proverb has become increasingly actionable in recent years as Christians and their beliefs are being presented unfavorably — alternately as a monolithic bloc and then as fragmented and waning in numbers — by a media that at times is not too sophisticated and at other times apparently is just malicious. Even some evangelicals have shown a disappointing lack of discernment in claiming to know evangelicals (the “I am one of them” credential), but then advocating views that seem at odds with what is obvious or established about evangelicals.

Probably the most egregious example of late was the media’s representation of the American Religious Identity Survey 2008 (pertaining to adults) released in March 2009 by Trinity College of Hartford, Conn.

The cover of Newsweek proclaimed “The decline and fall of Christian America” and the magazine reported that according to the survey, “the percentage of self-identified [adult] Christians has fallen 10 percent since 1990, from 86 to 76 percent.”

Editor Jon Meacham opined, “This is not to say that the Christian God is dead,” he said, “but that [H]e is less of a force in American politics and culture than at any other time in recent memory.”

He conceded that the U.S. is “decisively shaped by religious faith,” but offered that “our politics and our culture are, in the main, less influenced by movements and arguments of an explicitly Christian character than they were even five years ago,” adding that he thought this was a “good thing” for both the political culture and Christianity. In his view “the decline and fall of the religious right’s notion of a Christian America creates a calmer political environment” and in his estimation this perceived shift “may help open the way for a more theologically serious religious life.”

In examining the A.R.I.S. data, the Washington Post simply stated “15 Percent of Americans Have No Religion” but offered the same data as Newsweek that “the percentage of [adult] Americans identifying as Christians has dropped to 76 percent of the population, down from 86 percent in 1990.”

“The increase in people labeling themselves in more generic Christian terms corresponds strongly with the decline in people identifying themselves as Protestant, the survey found,” Michele Boorstein wrote.

She offered one insight to help explain the shift, but stopped short of any meaningful analysis.

“People calling themselves mainline Protestants, including Methodists and Lutherans, have dropped to 13 percent of the [adult] population, down from 19 percent in 1990. The number of people who describe themselves as generically ‘Protestant’ went from approximately 17 million in 1990 to 5 million.”

The headline in USA Today read, “Most religious groups in USA have lost ground, survey finds” adding to the chorus about the “percentage of people who call themselves in some way Christian has dropped more than 11% [of adults] in a generation.

“These dramatic shifts in just 18 years are detailed in the new American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS)…. It finds that, despite growth and immigration that has added nearly 50 million adults to the U.S. population, almost all religious denominations have lost ground since the first ARIS survey in 1990.”

The writer, Cathy Grossman, offered some contextualization by recognizing the shift in our population from immigration, but she fell short in pursuing what this shift means to the changes reported by the A.R.I.S. 2008 study. Later she also observed that sexual abuse by Catholic clergy might have contributed to some changes in the numbers of those who identified themselves as Catholics, but said nothing about other similar influences that might have shaped respondents’ answers to the poll.

Even the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ed Stetzer, director of LifeWay Research, weighed in.

He applauded the USA Today account of the A.R.I.S. 2008 findings and lauded the A.R.I.S. methodology. He also tagged on his observation that “denominations and denominationalism are in decline, the cultural influence of Christianity continues to slip, more people are describing themselves as non-religious (now at 15%) and minority religions are increasing in popularity (like Islam and Wicca).

“Baptists are shown to be an aging group that continues to lose the younger generations and leaders,” he added.

What each of these assessments misses is what the research actually said, and even what the study’s principal investigators concluded about their findings.

On the first page of the report, researchers Barry Kosmin and Ariela Keysar offered this conclusion in the highlights section of their study:

“Overall the 1990-2008 ARIS time series shows that changes in religious self-identification in the first decade of the 21st century have been moderate in comparison to the 1990s, which was a period of significant shifts in the religious composition of the United States.”


The researchers might have been too passive in their assessment that the changes from 2001 to 2008 were “moderate” compared to the “significant shifts” from 1990 to 2000.

Look, for instance, at the common data highlighted by the mainstream media that “the percentage of [adult] Americans identifying as Christians has dropped to 76 percent of the population, down from 86 percent in 1990.”

The data points are factual, but the way the data are presented is not.

The reality is that the percentage of adult Americans who claimed to be Christians dropped from 86 percent in 1990 to 77.7 percent in 2001 and THEN to 76 percent in 2008. In other words, almost none of the change happened in the last 8 years of the study. Even Kosmin and Keysar stated that “the most dramatic changes in the balance of religious sentiments seem to have occurred during the 1990s.”

Moreover, these percentages do not reflect an exodus from Christianity or an ineffectiveness of the faith.

The A.R.I.S. data show the absolute number of adult Christians actually increased from 151,225,000 in 1990 to 159,514,000 in 2001 (a gain of nearly 8.3 million) and grew to 173,402,000 in 2008 (increasing by nearly 14 million). During this same time the U.S. adult population as a whole grew by 32.5 million in the 1990s and by 20 million from 2001 to 2008.

What a different perspective the numbers actually present.

In the time from 2001 to 2008, the U.S. adult population grew by 20 million and 14 million of these were Christians!

Taken in the whole, Newsweek got the story absolutely wrong. The proper interpretation is not a “fall and decline of Christian America” but that the fall or decline has substantially stopped (or at least dramatically slowed). To be frank, an objective interpretation shows we have not become a post-Christian America, but does suggest that perhaps that we are no longer moving toward becoming a secular America.

Such a conclusion is even more plausible from a true look at the growth of “nones” (those claiming no religious identity or connection). Most mainstream media proclaimed the numbers in this category had nearly doubled in 18 years, with the “nones” portion of the U.S. adult population leaping from 8.2 percent in 1990 to 15.0 percent in 2008.

But the truth is almost all of the gains occurred in the 1990s (8.2 percent to 14.1 percent) and less than one percent of the shift happened from 2001 to 2008 (0.9 percent to be exact).

There are other elements of the study that also received almost no mention.

In discussing some of these points, I do not mean to suggest that the study was poorly designed or that the methodology was lacking in any respect. However, every study has limits to what can be inferred from the information it presents because of limits in the design or other aspects of the study.

For instance, the three A.R.I.S. surveys that compose the whole work were self-reporting. In other words, respondents described themselves; the data were not obtained from formal observations by trained investigators using set criteria to categorize participants’ actual behavior.

Likewise, the A.R.I.S. project is not a longitudinal study of a single sample of people, but a series of three surveys that gathered information from different samples in different time periods, each contextualized by different circumstances that should be examined for how they informed respondents’ answers. At any other point during the two long time spans between surveys, given a different set of influences, the very same respondents could have responded remarkably different than they did at the actual moment in time they responded for the 2001 and 2008 surveys, respectively. Essentially, there are three data points out of an 18-year period and graphing a trend using just these three plotted coordinates is a guess at best.

Consider that the 2008 survey was conducted from February through November, during a highly contentious presidential campaign in which faith voters were a highly sought-after constituency. Ironically, during this same season, religion was highly negatively portrayed, and this could have been an interacting factor.

For example, look at the data reported about the absolute numbers and the percentages of the adult population for those who identified themselves with the United Churches of Christ. In 1990, 0.2 percent (or 438,000) claimed affiliation, climbing dramatically to 0.7 percent (or 1,378,000) in 2001, and dropping almost as dramatically to 0.3 percent (or 736,000) in 2008.

What might explain such a dramatic swing in the numbers for this denomination?

During the same time the 2008 survey was being conducted, then Sen. Obama’s pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, was the subject of almost nightly reports on television, daily articles in America’s newspapers and hourly commentary on radio. Although some defenses were offered on behalf of Obama for his relationship to the controversial figure, there was no positive press for Wright. In fact, after attacks by his Democrat rivals as well as GOP candidates citing Wright’s anti-white tirades and anti-America rhetoric, in May 2008, Obama dropped his 20-year membership with his home church, a United Church of Christ congregation in Chicago. Wright’s denominational affiliation was repeated in nearly every news report.

It can’t be stated definitively that this was a factor, but it certainly appears that it could have been a major influence in how participants in the study responded when contacted by phone.

But Wright was not the only person of faith who came under fire. During the two months just prior to the February start of the 2008 study, GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney, a Mormon, was a popular subject in the mainstream media and much of the coverage repeated the criticisms of him for the more controversial aspects of his faith tradition. Likewise, Southern Baptist Mike Huckabee was portrayed (sometimes favorably and sometimes not) more as a former Baptist minister with conservative views on marriage and the unborn and less as a governor with 10 years of executive experience. Then there was the mainstream media’s almost totally negative portrayal of vice presidential candidate and evangelical Sarah Palin.

Given these almost constant negative portrayals just before and also during the timeframe for the 2008 survey, the wonder is that the data didn’t show more than just a small negative change among those who identified themselves as Christians.

Numbers are important but only in context of the circumstances which shaped them.

This is true when assessing Christianity in America and also when looking at what research shows about the state of the Southern Baptist Convention.

NEXT: What do the numbers mean — is the SBC in decline?
Will Hall is executive director of Baptist Press.

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  • Will Hall