Perhaps for the first time since the United States was established, a majority of young adults here do not identify as Christian.
Only 49% of millennials consider themselves Christian, compared with 84% of Americans in their mid-70s or older, according to a new report from the Pew Research Center.
We don’t have good historical data, and the historians I consulted are wary of definitive historical comparisons. But something significant seems to be happening. The share of American adults who regard themselves as Christian has fallen by 12 percentage points in just the last decade.
“The U.S. is steadily becoming less Christian and less religiously observant,” the Pew study concluded.
Some on the religious right will thunder that this as a result of a secular “war on Christianity.”
“Christians and Christianity are mocked, belittled, smeared and attacked,” declared an essay on Fox News’ website, plaintively titled, “How Long Will I Be Allowed to Remain a Christian?”
This mockery of Christians is, as I’ve written many times, both real and wrong. But a far bigger threat to the “brand” of Christianity comes, I think, from religious blowhards who have entangled faith with bigotry, sexism, homophobia and xenophobia. For some young people, Christianity is associated less with love than with hate.
“Pompous right-wing political chest-thumping, and an unwillingness to listen on matters like climate change or racism, has contributed to a perception by millions that Christianity is irrelevant, or worse yet, a threat to progress,” the Rev. Richard Cizik, the leader of a group of self-described “new evangelicals” with moderate views, told me. “That’s a real burden to carry going into the 21st century.”
Cizik, who was fired from the National Association of Evangelicals in 2008 after he expressed support for civil unions for gay people, added that Christianity’s reputation suffers from backward views on women’s issues and from the unwavering support among evangelical hard-liners for President Donald Trump.
“Trump has played them like a fiddle,” he said.
It would be difficult to imagine a president more at odds with Jesus’ message than Trump, a serial philanderer and liar who has persecuted refugees, divided families, exploited the poor and allegedly committed sexual assaults. When Trump in 2016 was asked to name a favorite part of the Bible, he muttered “an eye for an eye” — a reference to an Old Testament passage that Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, specifically renounced.
That is the opposite of the Christianity whose heroic side I’ve often praised: a Catholic doctor in Sudan’s Nuba mountains … a missionary doctor in Angola … nuns everywhere. If they were the face of Christianity, its reputation would be golden.
Likewise, Christian organizations such as International Justice Mission, Mercy Ships, Catholic Relief Services and World Vision labor to make the world a better place. Across America, a crucial safety net comes from churches organizing food pantries and emergency shelters.
Surveys find that religious Americans donate more to charity than secular Americans and are substantially more likely to volunteer. In a Pew survey in 2016, almost two-thirds of highly religious Americans said that they had donated time, money or goods to help the poor in the last week.
There’s nothing about faith that necessarily makes it a bastion of conservatives. Martin Luther King Jr. and many other liberal civil rights leaders were shaped by their Christian beliefs, Jim Wallis is a liberal evangelical writer with a large following, and Jimmy Carter is truly the un-Trump, at age 95 still building houses for the needy. But today’s prominent evangelical leaders are mostly conservatives.
Pew’s latest report found that nonbelievers are gaining ground fast. “Nones” — those with no particular religion — now account for more than one-quarter of the American population. There are substantially more nones than Catholics.
The decline in religion is particularly evident among young people. Those born between 1928 and 1945 are only 2 percentage points less likely to identify as Christian than they were a decade ago, while millennials are 16 percentage points less likely to call themselves Christians.
“Adults coming of age today are far less religious than their parents and grandparents before them,” said Gregory Smith of the Pew Research Center.
Smith noted that the data seem consistent with the argument made by leading scholars that young adults have turned away from organized religion because they are repulsed by its entanglements with conservative politics. “Nones,” for example, are solidly Democratic.
The upshot is that a majority of white adults now attend church just a few times a year at most. Blacks and Hispanics are more likely to attend, although their attendance is dropping, too.
The central issue is that faith is supposed to provide moral guidance — and many moralizing figures on the evangelical right don’t impress young people as moral at all. Sen. Jesse Helms said in 1995 that AIDS funding should be cut because gay men get the disease. Televangelists Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson initially suggested that God organized the 9/11 terror attacks to punish feminists, gays and lesbians.
God should have sued Falwell and Robertson for defamation. But, in some sign of karma, a survey found that gays and lesbians have higher public approval than evangelicals do.