Conventional wisdom claims that religion is declining in America today. We're often told that atheists and agnostics are taking over the spiritual marketplace, that millennials are shunning the church in ominous numbers, and that Christianity as we know it has more of a past than a future in our culture.
No one who reads Frank Newport's book on the subject would agree.
Newport is editor-in-chief of Gallup and the son of my intellectual mentor, Dr. John Newport. I first encountered Dr. Newport when I was a doctoral student and was immensely impressed with his genius and his humility. He held two earned doctorates and studied with many of the greatest minds of the twentieth century. Nonetheless, he was a man of deep and sincere faith, a humble servant of God's Kingdom.
His son has clearly followed in his father's footsteps.
Frank Newport earned his PhD in sociology at the University of Michigan and has become one of the most perceptive interpreters of contemporary culture today. In God is Alive and Well: The Future of Religion in America (New York: Gallup Press, 2012), he applies his remarkable expertise to the question of America's religious health.
His insights are based on hundreds of thousands of Gallup interviews—the organization conducts 1,000 a night, more than 350,000 interviews in a year. Here's the bottom line: Newport believes that religious commitment in America is increasing and will continue to do so.
What does the future hold?
Why would Newport claim that "God is alive and well" in America? Four of his arguments are especially relevant for Christian leaders today. (We will return to some of these below.)
One: People typically become more religious as they grow older. The baby boomer generation, as it ages, will likely reflect such increasing religiosity.
Two: More people are moving to states that are more highly religious. It is likely that many will be influenced by their new culture.
Three: Hispanics are more traditionally religious. As their numbers increase, so will their influence on culture.
Four: Religion plays a significantly positive role in good health outcomes. As more Americans realize this fact, they will be attracted to religious commitment.
The rise of the "nones"
If Americans are becoming more religious, what about the much-publicized rise of the
"nones"? Those who tell interviewers they have no religious commitment have risen from virtually zero percent in the 1950s to around sixteen percent today. This escalation represents the fastest-growing religious demographic in America and has prompted many to conclude that our culture is quickly becoming irreligious.
While Newport admits that some of this growth reflects actual increases in adherence to atheism and agnosticism, he offers an interesting caveat. In his view, it would have been extremely unlikely for a person in the 1950s to admit that he or she had no religious adherence. This person would therefore respond to an interviewer by citing the religious commitment of his or her parents or upbringing. Today, being irreligious is more accepted. Thus the interviewee would be transparent in citing a lack of religious adherence.
In other words, many of the "nones" are likely no more irreligious than they were decades ago. But as society has changed, they have become more forthright in describing their religious views.
Before leaving the subject, Newport notes a related factor. Social scientists have been working to understand religiosity in generations that lived prior to polling. They do so by calculating church membership as a percentage of population, a factor they call "adherence rates."
The results are remarkable. According to sociologist Rodney Stark, "Church membership today is far higher than it was in colonial times, and . . . the membership rate has been rising for more than two hundred years" (p. 19). Newport's bottom line: "Americans have potential religious energy locked up, ready to be converted to activated energy if and when the time is right" (p. 19).
Is America a "Christian nation"?
Nearly eighty percent of Americans say they are Christians. But there's more. Remember that sixteen percent of us have no religious identity. As a result, ninety-five percent of Americans who have a religion are Christian.
This percentage is virtually identical to statistics from the 1950s, when more than ninety percent of Americans who had a religion were Christian. Americans who identify with a non-Christian religion comprise about five percent: Jews have decreased from four percent to two percent while other non-Christian religious have risen somewhat.
But there's an important distinction within this overall trend. Catholics have held steady as a subset of the American population, comprising between twenty and twenty-five percent. Meanwhile, Protestants have fallen from seventy percent to fifty-five percent. Why?
Newport cites three factors:
- Internal reproduction (birth rates), which strongly favor Catholics
- Conversion and missionary efforts, which have declined among Protestants
- Hispanic immigration, which strongly favors Catholics as well.
On the positive side for Protestants, the growth of thousands of microbrands and non-denominational megachurches has helped stem the tide of numerical losses. Nonetheless, denominational declines are clear and significant. Between 1967 and 2010:
- Methodists declined from fourteen to seven percent of the American population.
- Presbyterians declined from six to three percent.
- Episcopalians declined from three to two percent.
- Lutherans declined from eight to five percent.
- Baptists declined from twenty-one to seventeen percent.
What will help grow the American church?
Three factors are especially relevant to church growth today.
One: High member participation.
According to Newport, "religious groups that demand more from their members are more successful in retaining them" (p. 39). He cites the Marines, fraternities, Navy SEALs, and other groups with difficult entrance requirements, all of which retain enormous participant loyalty.
And he notes that groups with highest member participation—Mormons, evangelicals, Pentecostals, nondenominational Christians—are growing the fastest.
Two: Publicizing health benefits of religious adherence.
According to Newport, "religious Americans are healthier and happier than those who are not religion" (p. 47). He bases this conclusion on more than 676,000 Gallup-Healthways Well-Being interviews conducted in 2010 and 2011. His research focuses on those who are "very religious" (VR, forty-one percent of the population), "moderately religious" (MR, thirty-one percent of the population), and "nonreligious" (NR, twenty-eight percent of the population).
Consider these examples:
- Worry: VR 28.6% / MR: 37.1% / NR: 33.0%.
- Stress: VR 35.8% / MR 44.0% / NR 43.8%.
- Anger: VR 11.3% / MR 16.2% / NR 16.1%.
- Smoking: VR 12.5% / NR: 26.4%.
Is this correlation or causation? In other words, does religious adherence cause better health, or are healthier people coincidentally more religious? Newport cites researchers who conclude: "Our findings suggest that religious people are more satisfied with their lives because they regularly attend religious services and build social networks in their congregations" (p. 60).
Three: Focusing on older and more educated adults.
Research indicates that people become more religious as they age. The percentage of "very religious" grows from forty percent at age eighteen to nearly sixty percent at age seventy-eight. Meanwhile, the percentage of "nonreligious" declines from twenty-eight percent at age eighteen to eighteen percent at age seventy-eight.
As a result, we should not be surprised by the current rejection of church adherence among millennials. According to Newport's data, this is a common generational trend, not a new phenomenon.
However, education is a factor in religious adherence. Belief in a God who answers prayer drops from ninety-two percent among those with a high school education or less down to seventy-one percent among those with postgraduate degrees. Ninety percent of those with low incomes say there is a God who answers prayers, compared with seventy-eight percent of those making $90,000 a year or more.
As a result, those who seek to advance religious adherence should focus on those who are older, since they are demographically more open to religion. But we should also focus on those who are more educated, since they are typically less religious.
Newport's research and conclusions counter much of the gloom felt by Christian cultural observers today. He believes that the future of religion in America is more positive than negative. In his view, we will see "an America that will become a more religious nation in the years ahead, albeit one that may look a lot different, religiously speaking, than it does today" (p. 248).