Amid changing US religious landscape, Christians ‘decline sharply’ as unaffiliated rise. But born-again believers aren’t to blame.
The main methods for measuring American faith are flawed.
So thinks the Pew Research Center, which today released the second wave of a massive study designed to “fill the gap” left by the United States census (no questions on religion), the self-reporting of denominations (“widely differing criteria”), and smaller surveys (too few questions or people).
Scrutinizing the past seven years, Pew finds that, amid the rise of the “nones” and other popular talking points, the fate of evangelicals is proving much brighter than Christianity at large.
Here are highlights from the US Religious Landscape Study, conducted among more than 35,000 adults in English and Spanish, of how American religion has changed from 2007 to 2014:
1) Evangelicals have remained remarkably stable
Over the past seven years, evangelicals have lost less than 1 percent of their share of the population, holding steady at about 1 in 4 American adults (25.4% in 2014, vs. 26.3% in 2007) and preserving their status as the nation’s largest religious group.
In contrast, mainline Protestants have lost almost 3.5 percent of their population share and are currently less than 15 percent of American adults, while Catholics lost about 3 percent of their population share and are currently about 21 percent of adults.
The declines have allowed the religiously unaffiliated, who gained nearly 7 percent in population share, to surge past Catholics and mainline Protestants to become America’s second-largest religious group (22.8% of adults). (Historically black Protestant denominations, tracked separately though nearly three-quarters of their members identify as evangelicals, were statistically unchanged.)
Evangelical churches also added more than 2 million people to their ranks, up from 59.8 million in 2007 to 62.2 million in 2014. Meanwhile, mainline churches lost 5 million people. “As a result, evangelicals now constitute a clear majority (55%) of all US Protestants,” noted Pew.
The population share of evangelicals rises even higher when identified differently.
For the above findings, Pew categorized Americans by denominational affiliation. (Evangelical denominations include the Southern Baptist Convention, the Assemblies of God, Churches of Christ, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, the Presbyterian Church in America, and nondenominational churches.) But Pew also asked: “Would you describe yourself as a born-again or evangelical Christian, or not?”
In response, about one-third of American adults (35%) self-identified as evangelicals in 2014, nearly the same as in 2007 (34%). Meanwhile, Americans who self-identified as Christians dropped from 78 percent in 2007 to 71 percent in 2014.