Americans are mostly a Christian people. That might not always be the case.
A new report from the Pew Research Center says that Christians could someday soon no longer be a majority in this country. Instead, projections show that their numbers could decline to "between a little more than half (54 percent) and just above one-third (35 percent) of all Americans by 2070."
The study's authors are careful to say that this decline isn't inevitable — but the trend lines are fairly apparent. "With each generation, progressively fewer adults retain the Christian identity they were raised with," they write, "which in turn means fewer parents are raising their children in Christian households." Why is Christianity in decline? And what will it mean for America's future? Here's everything you need to know:
Is this report a surprise?
Not really. Report after report over the years has shown a decline in America's Christian population. Last year, Pew reported that 63 percent of Americans identify as Christians — down from 75 percent a decade earlier — and that the "religiously unaffiliated" had risen to become roughly 30 percent of the population. "In addition, the share of U.S. adults who say they pray on a daily basis has been trending downward, as has the share who say religion is 'very important' in their lives," Pew reported at the time.
What is going to happen going forward?
The new study's authors take those declining numbers and look ahead. They ask what would happen if Americans keep leaving their churches, and balance it against other trends in migration, births, and deaths to come up with four possible results. All four scenarios painted a picture of continued decline: Even under the most optimistic (and also unlikely) scenario — in which Americans stopped switching away from the religion — Christianity's share of the population would decline.
That's not entirely because Americans are becoming more secular, though. The numbers of people in non-Christian religions are expected to double their current representation, to roughly 12 or 13 percent of the population. That growth "is likely to hinge on the future of migration (rather than religious switching)," the authors write. When American Christians leave their churches, in other words, they don't often become Buddhists — instead, they join the growing ranks of the "nones."
Why are the numbers going down?
"The main reason is switching — Christians deciding they are not Christians anymore," Daniel Silliman writes for Christianity Today. Young people are the biggest switchers, with just 7 percent "disaffiliating" from the faith after they turn 30. Switching is both a big deal and a relatively recent phenomenon, Pew researcher Stephanie Kramer told the magazine. "It used to be that if you met someone on the street, and their father and mother were Christian, then they were Christian too," she said. "That's not always true anymore."
There may not be any single reason for the switching. One theory: America is a prosperous nation and as Americans "live longer lives with fewer worries about meeting basic needs, they have less need for religion to cope with insecurity," Pew reports. There's also the possibility that "an association of Christianity with conservative politics" has chased some people out of the church. Scandals, religious intermarriage, and other factors have also played a role.
How will this change our politics and culture?
The Pew report doesn't get into that. But it seems obvious that "such shifts would fuel political and social change, disrupting everything from family life to foreign policy," Kelsey Dallas writes for The Deseret News. Indeed, after the Jan. 6 insurrection, The Atlantic's Ronald Brownstein suggested the impacts were already showing up. There is a "deep fear" among Republicans that "they will be eclipsed by the demographic and cultural changes that have made white people — especially white Christians — a steadily shrinking share of the population," he wrote.
But there might be other, less-obvious changes to consider. "If Pew is right … then many of the faith-based institutions that play a central part in community life may be weakened or disappear," Bob Smietana, a writer for Religion News Service, said on Twitter. If faith-based food pantries, shelters, and disaster aid dry up, he said, "someone else is going to have to take their place — and that will not be easy."
So can American Christianity be, er, resurrected?
Pew's authors say that all their modeling could be blown up. New patterns "could emerge at any time," they write. But the list of events that they say could trigger a religious revival is frankly scary: "Armed conflicts, social movements, rising authoritarianism, natural disasters" could all prompt Americans to turn to religion — Christianity included — as consolation.
All that means it's fair to say that the new report has left some American Christians gloomy. "Revival could happen," Silliman writes for Christianity Today. "There's just nothing in the current data that indicates it will.