Tuesday Briefing: Leaders debate what Pew research means for Christianity

Meredith Flynn —  May 19, 2015

The_BriefingTHE 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:

Jeb Bush on religious liberty
“A big country, a tolerant country, ought to be able to figure out the difference between discriminating [against] someone because of their sexual orientation and not forcing someone to participate in a wedding that they find goes against their moral beliefs,” possible presidential candidate Jeb Bush told CBN’s David Brody. Read the full story at ChristianPost.com.

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.

International Mission Board adopts new missionary qualifications
Trustees for the Southern Baptist International Mission Board have approved a new, unified set of qualifications for missionaries applying for its various pathways of service. The new policy replaces old qualifications on the topics of divorce, baptism, families with teenage children, and speaking in tongues.
IMB President David Platt said, “[T]his policy does not mean we are lowering the standards for missionaries. Indeed, quite the opposite is true….The ultimate aim of this policy revision is to enable limitless God-exalting, Christ-following, Spirit-led, biblically-faithful, people-loving, high-quality Southern Baptist missionaries to serve with IMB through a multiplicity of pathways in the days ahead.”

Oscar idolatry?
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.

Meredith Flynn


Meredith is managing editor of the Illinois Baptist newspaper.