Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Christianity dying out in America?

A recent survey by Trinity College, Connecticut suggests that America is becoming less Christian. The CNN article that evaluates the American Religious Identification Survey states that there are four principle reasons why the percentage of Americans who identify themselves as Christians has dropped from 86% to 75% in 20 years:

1) The radical shift towards individualism
2) The rise of evangelical Christianity, and its connection to the Republican Party
3) The child sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church
4) The fact that it is becoming more socially acceptable to be a non-believer

So, is this study the first sign that American Christianity is failing? Are these figures causing alarm bells to be rung in churches across the nation?

I think that this article is interesting for two reasons. First, it suggests that America is not, and perhaps has not been for some time, the last great bastion of Christianity in the developed world that it appears at first glance. As a foreigner myself, it has always baffled me why America is so religious in comparison to secular Europe. One thing I have noticed is that in America there is a much greater taboo around the idea of declaring yourself a non-believer. For this reason I think many people identify themselves as Christian even though they do not believe in any of the core Christian doctrines. In a sense they are 'cultural Christians', in which their Christianity acts as an identity rather than a supernatural belief system. The survey suggests that over the last few years it has become more and more socially acceptable to declare yourself a secularist - and this does of course account for the decrease in numbers of Christians - but I suspect there are still a huge number of 'cultural Christian' Americans who are still not comfortable in making this identity step. Even if the taboo around atheism is decreasing, and Presidents are now publicly acknowledging "non-believers", it has not been completely broken yet.

Secondly, the article suggests that it is the more liberal, mainline churches that are losing members. People who once associated themselves with these churches are either moving towards the more orthodox strands of Protestantism and Catholicism or are declaring themselves secular. For example, "born again" or "evangelical" Christianity is on the rise, with around 8 million Americans now associated with mega-churches.This does not surprise me. A similar thing has happened with the Church of England: those who did not actually believe started to feel comfortable admitting this publicly, while those who did hold faith found the CofE theology too liberal and vague. So what will the future hold in store for the American,liberal, mainline Protestant churches? Will their numbers continue to drop?

If so, in 20 years time will America have changed from a country that is 75% 'Christian' (including all the 'cultural' Christians) to a country that is only 50% Christian (but with all the Christians actually believing in the core tenants of the faith)?

Tony Perkins, the president of the Family Research Council, remains optimistic that people will indeed return to the Christian faith. He suggests that as the economy continues to deteriorate, people will "be driven to religion". Perhaps Perkins is right. As the secular Enlightenment thinkers argued: when resources are in abundance, the need for religion will decrease, but when times get hard and resources get scarce people return to religion for security.

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