Why is Christianity declining in America?

The latest polling shows a continued decline in Christianity in the United States.

These two quotes grabbed my attention:

In the latest Gallup Poll, belief in God dipped to 81%, down 6 percentage points from 2017, and the lowest since Gallup first asked the question in 1944.

In recent years there has been a rise in the number of Americans who acknowledge being Christian nationalists — those who believe Christian and American identities should be fused.

“It could be that the increase in the number of atheists is a direct result of Christian nationalism,” said Ryan Cragun, a sociologist at the University of Tampa who studies the nonreligious. “They seem to be dominating the rhetoric. I wouldn’t be surprised if there is legitimately backlash against it and people saying, ‘You know what? I’m an atheist.’”

Let’s think about this together. If Christianity IS Christian nationalism, then I’m an atheist too.

But maybe I’m getting ahead of myself. :slight_smile: For the sake of clarity, let’s try to define our terms. Paul Miller, a professor at Georgetown University, says, “Christian nationalism is the belief that the American nation is defined by Christianity, and that the government should take active steps to keep it that way.”

He further explains why this message is dangerous to the church:

Christian nationalism takes the name of Christ for a worldly political agenda, proclaiming that its program is the political program for every true believer. That is wrong in principle, no matter what the agenda is, because only the church is authorized to proclaim the name of Jesus and carry his standard into the world. It is even worse with a political movement that champions some causes that are unjust, which is the case with Christian nationalism and its attendant illiberalism. In that case, Christian nationalism is calling evil good and good evil; it is taking the name of Christ as a fig leaf to cover its political program, treating the message of Jesus as a tool of political propaganda and the church as the handmaiden and cheerleader of the state.

It’s totally understandable why people would reject such a toxic message. In fact, I do too.

Yet I think the gospel of the crucified Messiah is the best response to Christian nationalism.

First, it’s true. :slight_smile:

Second, it sets up the value system that honors sacrificial love as the supreme fulfillment of human life.

Third, it assures that even being subjected to state violence can be a pathway to eternal joy and glory.

For these reasons (and many others), I think that if more people decide to follow Jesus as Lord, then they will be less swayed by the allure of Christian nationalism.

But how do you evaluate the data?

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Oh, surveyyyyyys… Always interesting. I was reading over this yesterday, and there were a couple of things that I was curious to evaluate:

  1. How was the question worded. In particular, what is meant by God?
  2. How is RNS interpreting the data?

First off, it seems the Gallup Poll asked Americans a very vague question: Do you believe in God? Interesting question, but vague enough not to be able to tie the decline specifically to Christianity…or even a form of Christianity (liberal, Reformed, evangelical, Catholic, etc.) There could be Muslims or Jews in that number…along with other religious people (Hindu, Sikhs, Buddhists), depending upon how they interpreted the question.

The Pew poll that RNS linked to, however, asked non-Muslim Western Europeans specifically about God “as described in the Bible”. Though, in 2018 Pew did conduct a similar poll in the USA and found a similar number to Gallup believed in ‘God’ (80%). The follow-up Pew question, though, did concern “the God as described in the Bible” and only 56% of Americans said yes. So, really, I’d be interested to know if that number has declined!

As for RNS, I felt the mention of Christian nationalism was a bit out of left field. However, I could imagine them reasoning something like this: “Belief is declining, following the trend of attendance and affiliation. Why would that be happening in Christian circles? Because people are frustrated by what they hear and see. What are we frustrated by? Christian nationalism. That could be one of the reasons.”

I don’t necessarily disagree with that, but it’s by no means a full picture. I mean, “liberal” church attendance may be down because there is not much substance being proclaimed from the pulpit. So perhaps people may be attending the School of Life instead? Religion for Atheists and what not.

Yet, if we want to point fingers at Christian nationalism, we also have to look at the larger political polarization that saturates American life…of which, CN is but a part, not the whole. Polarization points to hard-line distinctions from two sides that often overpower grace. “Compromise” becomes a four-letter word. We’ve lived though an incredibly explosive last 6 years, including 2-ish years of navigating a pandemic. That takes it toll socially, the divisions of which inevitably end up manifesting in church life. So if people withdraw from church or mosque or synagogue for a reason such as this, then, inevitably, belief may fade away too.


@kathleen I really appreciate your thoughts which help in interpretation of the data. I can’t add much more to that really.

This struck me. I imagine the UK can’t be that different from the US, although I haven’t looked at any polls for this. Culturally, there are a lot of crossovers in Christianity, although we may differ regarding some stereotypes of American Evangelicalism, perhaps. I speak fairly generally though. What I can say is that over the last two years, I’ve witnessed Christians become very polarised about how Christians should approach the pandemic, to the point that it most certainly has overpowered grace. It’s been an issue that I’ve witnessed divide members of the body of Christ to the extent that they cannot meet together any more. This breaks my heart. It’s taught me a very big lesson though, that the Gospel is central to everything, and that very likely, God will need Christians who hold to both sides of the argument, for the sake of sharing the Good News with people in different communities. Nevertheless, it can be easy to lose sight of the centrality of the Gospel when such hurts creep into church. I imagine the last couple of years have a lot to answer for regarding this issue of declining Christianity.

I’m reading a book about the Reformation, which I don’t think I’ve mentioned in any of my posts yet :wink: :grin: and it highlighted to me something really important regarding what Paul Miller wrote. The author, Michael Reeves says,

What is perhaps most telling about the reformations in England and Scotland is how very different they were, both from each other, and from the reformations in Wittenberg, Zurich and Geneva. Simply put, a reformation driven more by theology looks quite unlike a reformation driven more by politics. For the kings and queens of England, politics was central to their thinking in a way that just was not the case for Luther, Zwingli and Calvin.

(highlighted words, mine)

Looking at British history through this period shows us that because the church-state relationship was driven first by politics before theology, the division in the country, and death tolls were huge (for those days). I see the same problem today in the West. As long as the church and the state are partnering, and the state drives the culture of Christianity (and the manipulation of it, perhaps), it is opening the door for division, loss of grace, and consequently, a lack of belief because the foundations are not of God, they are of man. I don’t think we can see a clearer depiction of the parable of building on rock or sand than this. Yet, don’t we also see in these sorts of events through history, God break through with a move of His Spirit? Perhaps we can pray for this.


Some comments that I think are worth considering.

  1. Ms. Shimrod’s conclusion is one-sided and is a strawman argument. From the report:

And while belief in God has declined in recent years, Gallup has documented steeper drops in church attendance, church membership, and confidence in organized religion, suggesting that the practice of religious faith may be changing more than basic faith in God.

  1. Christian nationalism, if there is such a thing; please read the Paul Miller definition; (not sure if I have ever met anyone that fits his description); it is a pretty lame excuse to move someone to take an atheistic worldview. The report states as its bottom line:

The groups with the largest declines are also the groups that are currently least likely to believe in God, including liberals (62%), young adults (68%) and Democrats (72%). Belief in God is highest among political conservatives (94%) and Republicans (92%), reflecting that religiosity is a major determinant of political divisions in the U.S.

The graph was a straight line for 70 years. Were the respondents for those 70 years nationalist or old-fashioned patriots? What happened between 2011 and 2022? Why did we dip in 2014 only to rise in 2016 to fall in 2022?

  1. I believe that nationalism, Christian or otherwise, is not a new thing. I would suggest that God implemented the idea of territorial sovereignty in the second millennium B.C., laying the groundwork for nationalism; granted, this nationalism was defined in the Torah with a complete set of laws that included provision for the possibility of a pluralist culture (think what a “stranger” or a “sojourner” was). Numbers 20:14-21 illustrates that sovereignty was respected early in the story of Israel. Nationalism in America is expressed in the current parlance as “America First” or, if you prefer, “Build Back Better.” Pick your poison.

  2. Last, I disagree with your conclusion that “Christian Nationalism” is the cause of the decline in the belief in God when there are so many other possible reasons. Forty years of liberal education, church failings, socialism as a cure for all that ails us, a reliance on technology to save us in every sector of life, a failure to take responsibility for one’s life, the narrative that groups everyone as either a victim or an abuser, the idea that there is only one side to any story,

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I wonder if Judas Iscariot, as a zealot that saw the Messiah as a political means to an end, can be characterized as a “Christian Nationalist”.

If Christian nationalism is a cause for decline in Christianity, then it is only one flavor of the mud tainting the baptismal waters.