America is undergoing a religious polarization.
With more adults shedding their religious affiliations, as evidenced in the latest from the Pew Research Center, the country is becoming more secular. In the past seven years, using the new Pew data, Americans who identify with a religion declined six percentage points. Overall, belief in God, praying daily and religious service attendance have all dropped since 2007.
Today’s America is losing much of the general religious ethos that dominated the U.S. for hundreds of years.
However, the religious, in some ways, are becoming more religious. While fewer people said religion was somewhat important to their lives, there was a jump in those who said religion was very important. Of those who identify with a religion, Pew found an increase in reading Scripture at least weekly, participating in a small group and sharing their faith at least weekly. Church attendance numbers were relatively steady.
There are big and important shifts here. In navigating the new religious environment, Christians must recognize three trends that may change the way they see the culture.
Christians no longer have home-field advantage.
In many ways, nominal believers who identified as Christians but were generally unengaged in church provided a “cultural cushion” for Christians. Nominals worked as a restraint on the advance of secularism. Even though they did not order their lives around Christian beliefs, nominals saw themselves on the same “team” as convictional Christians, who did order their lives around their religious faith, so nominal Christians tended to join with the more religious Christians in broader cultural decisions.
As many nominals have become the religiously unaffiliated, they identify less with convictional believers.
Of course, those who don’t identify with a faith are still remarkably spiritual. According to Pew, more than 6 in 10 religiously unaffiliated Americans still believe in God and 1 in 5 say they pray daily. Yet such percentages are on the decline.
As the religiously unaffiliated grow and their influence widens, a secular worldview has become the dominant influence in academia, the arts and popular media. Some Christians feel marginalized and mocked when they turn on their televisions and send their children to school.
For years, Christians could assume a person with whom they struck up a conversation was probably a fellow believer. If not, the other person would at least share their cultural values. But that is no longer the case.
Increasingly, Americans are just as likely to have no faith background, be of another religion or even hold a hostile view of faith. That’s new territory for most Christians, not the home-field advantage of the past century.
Christians have lost cultural privilege.
Decades ago, many stores were closed on Sunday, and the few that were open usually didn’t sell alcohol. In some places, local sports teams didn’t play or practice on Wednesday night because that would interfere with church prayer meetings. Family, business and community calendars were constructed in deference to Christian tradition. As that influence has declined, many Christians struggle with how to respond to their loss of privilege.
Privilege refers to a built-in advantage one has due to some inherent quality. Christians had this privilege; others were expected to adjust to it. Christians still have a privileged position in our society, but it is lessening while Christians simply have less influence.
And Christians have not always used influence well. The 1950s may have been a time when Christian religiosity peaked in 20th-century America, but it is not a golden era to be recaptured. Ask any African American who lived through that time. Many Christians, to our shame, used religion as a justification for racism, not a mandate to advocate for justice.
In some ways, less influence is not all bad news. Historically, Christians have survived — and thrived — as a passionate and convictional minority.
But it’s important to remember that in the first century, Christians didn’t gain influence by protesting the Roman government’s “War on Christmas.” They faithfully followed Christ, at times in the face of persecution, while rescuing discarded infants, comforting the sick left to die alone and sharing the gospel to a not-always-receptive world.
In this way, our new religious environment presents encouraging opportunities we have rarely known.
Christians will become more distinct.
In decades past, everyone, it seemed, was a Christian as measured by identity, not practice. No matter how often they attended church and regardless of how they lived, they would say they or their families were members of some church. Christianity was the culturally accepted religious identification. While that is still true in some portions of the country, it has already changed for many regions and is changing even in the Bible Belt.
As Christians and non-Christians become more distinct in their beliefs and practices, new opportunities exist for genuine expressions of the Christian faith. I’m not one who sees declines like this as good news — the nominal Christian cushion had real and important value in society.
However, the polarization, and even the marginalization, can remind Christians of our mission: not to moralize the unconverted, but to reach the broken and hurting with a gospel message of hope that changes everything.
Ed Stetzer, PhD, is executive director of LifeWay Research.