THE BRIEFING | A new study from Pew Research stopped short of breaking the internet after it was released last week, but it did spark debate between leaders about what the report actually says about Christianity in America. The gist: Pew reported the percentage of American adults who describe themselves as Christians has dropped almost eight percentage points in the last seven years–from 78.4% to 70.6%. And the number of Americans who are religiously unaffiliated has risen from 16.1% to 22.8%.
Religion News Service writer Jonathan Merritt said the research shows political and theological ideology isn’t as important a factor in predicting decline: “Yes, mainline denominations remain in sharp decline, and yes, evangelicals have fared slightly better overall,” Merritt wrote. “Yet many evangelical bodies have begun shrinking as a share of the population as well. Roman Catholics—also theologically and politically conservative—are also declining significantly. This, despite these groups’ evangelistic zeal, orthodox theology, and conservative political stances.”
Joe Carter of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) countered Merritt’s piece with one of his own, pointing out that the Pew research also shows the share of evangelicals in America has stayed relatively steady: from 26.3% in 2007 to 25.4% in the new study.
“Merritt is correct that a key concern is the ‘growing number of people who are apathetic or antagonistic to the claims of Christianity,'” Carter wrote. “But that should not lead us to conclude that is evangelicalism that must change.” (Merritt responded here.)
Other observers explained why evangelicals shouldn’t necessarily view the report as a crisis:
- Russell Moore of the ERLC: “Christianity isn’t normal anymore, and that’s good news.“
- The New York Times’ Ross Douthat is careful not to say the report is good news for Christians, but, “What’s in steepest decline is affiliation, not religious practice.” (Read further analysis from Douthat here.)
- And Ed Stetzer of LifeWay Christian Resources writes for The Washington Post that “The church in the United States is becoming more evangelical.”
2016: Who gets your vote?
Both evangelicals and the overall American population say they place little importance on a presidential candidate’s age, physical appearance, endorsements, or education. But unsurprisingly, the two groups differ on a candidate’s religious faith, according to Barna’s 2016 election preview: 45% of evangelicals count faith among the most important factors in choosing a candidate to support, compared to 9% of all Americans.
Academy Award-winning actress Natalie Portman told The Hollywood Reporter recently she doesn’t keep her Oscar in plain view because “it’s a false idol.” Writing at Relevant.com, Josh Hayes (an editor for LifeWay’s The Gospel Project) explores her argument, and what the Bible says about idolatry.