The weird spiral of declining Christianity in America

A cross.
A cross. Illustrated | iStock

The decline of American Christianity is continuing apace. The Pew Research Center reports today that the number of self-identified Christians has declined by 12 percentage points since 2012, while religious "nones" have grown by 10 points during that time. (Other surveys have shown similar drops.) Christians are still the dominant cultural group in America — at 63 percent of the population, they still have a two-to-one advantage over the non-religious — but they're not quite as dominant as they used to be.

The secularization of America is a long-term process and has many causes, and the percentage of Christians has been trending downward since Pew first surveyed the issue in 2007. Moreover, not everything in public life over the last decade has been about former President Donald Trump, even if it sometimes feels that way.

Still, Trumpism might be both the beneficiary and accelerant of Christianity's loosening grip on the culture.

On the one hand, a 2018 study suggested Trump's victory in 2016 was driven by a cohort — white Christian men — who feared they were losing their cultural dominance: Support for Trump was linked to a belief that "high status" groups actually faced more discrimination than "low status" groups like minorities and Muslims. "This sense of ownership of America just runs so deep in white evangelical circles," Robert P. Jones of the Public Religion Research Institute told columnist Michelle Goldberg earlier this year. As president, Trump cemented the loyalty of this group by fashioning his administration as a champion of "religious liberty," which was mainly a project to preserve the declining cultural power of conservative Christians. It worked: Some 85 percent of white evangelicals who attend services at least once a month voted for Trump in 2020.

Yet Pew's report suggests evangelicals are continuing to lose ground, albeit more slowly than Christianity at large, dropping from 30 percent of the population in 2007 to 24 percent in the new report. (Pew previously reported some conservatives have flocked to evangelical churches in recent years.) But many pastors report their churches have been riven by political conflict as never before, and there's anecdotal evidence that some young people are fleeing their churches rather than be seen as aligning with Trump's toxicity. Some researchers believe the decline in churchgoing is a repudiation of that brand of Republican politics.

White evangelicals are not all of American Christianity, of course. Catholics — who evenly split their votes in 2020 — have seen their numbers hold steady in recent years. But you can see where this is going: If Christianity's decline feeds Trumpism, and if Trumpism feeds Christianity's decline, then American churches might be locked in a nasty spiral, with the rest of the country along for the ride. God help us all.

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