Dr. Ryan Burge has a dual career, teaching Political Science at a university and serving as a pastor in an American Baptist church. A self-confessed data nerd, he pores over polling data in search of trends in religion. Recently he posted a column on “Four of the Most Dramatic Shifts in American Religion Over the Last 50 Years.” Things typically change slowly in religion surveys, he says, but these four trends “still blow my mind.”
I’ll provide a brief overview of Burge’s findings, and you can find more detail on his website. [https://bit.ly/PYchurchdata]
Election year fever is heating up, and already we’re seeing internet headlines about the powerful voting bloc of evangelicals. When Jimmy Carter—a Democrat—catapulted into the presidency in 1976, and spoke openly about his born-again faith, a Newsweek cover story pronounced that bicentennial year “The Year of the Evangelical.” Yet, as Burge points out, the real surge in the movement took place in 1983. In a single decade, the percentage of evangelicals shot upward to encompass three in ten American adults.
During that growth spurt, evangelical megachurches were springing up across the country, and Christian music was gaining airtime. People like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell were regulars on television, talking as much about politics as theology. When the media wanted a soundbite from an evangelical, they turned to such prominent figures who already had sophisticated satellite uplinks and would offer a ready opinion on any subject.
By the year 2000, however, the percentage of evangelicals had declined to the same level as existed in 1983, and little has changed since then.
Burge’s second chart covers the next two of the four dramatic shifts. The year 1991 saw the beginning of a downward trend among 18- to 35-year-olds. The number in that age group who checked “Christian” when asked their religious affiliation began an abrupt decline, falling from 87 percent to 64 percent. Meanwhile the “Nones,” who had no religious affiliation, grew from 8 percent to around 30 percent. Noting the steep changes between 1991 and 1998, Burge says, “That’s an insane level of growth/decline in such a short period of time.”
Burge proposes several possible explanations. Politics became increasingly polarized, especially over culture war issues such as abortion, transgenderism, and same-sex marriage. The end of the Cold War lowered the barrier between God-fearing Americans and godless communists, even as a surge of immigrants gave exposure to other religions. In addition, the internet allowed young people to explore different faiths as well as listen to strident voices against all faith.
In a mirror image of the decline among Christians, the Nones experienced a fivefold increase in just three decades. Burge comments that “the rise of the ‘nones’ may be the most significant shift in American society over the last thirty years.” The trend inspired him to write a book about the phenomenon (The Nones: Where They Came From, Who They Are, and Where They Are Going).
Burge’s final chart depicts a dramatic decline within mainline Protestant churches, which include the United Methodist Church, PCUSA Presbyterian, Episcopalian, American Baptist, the United Church of Christ, and some Lutheran denominations. These tend to be more moderate theologically than evangelicals, and most allow women pastors and are open and affirming to same sex couples.
In the 1950s more than half of all Americans belonged to this group; now barely 10 percent do so. Tens of millions have left mainline denominations, many of them opting for an evangelical church not affiliated with a denomination.
Burge, an American Baptist pastor, has no sure explanation for the major shift. Nor does he dare to predict the future.
Will the non-affiliated Nones continue to increase or has their number peaked? Will the disaffected young return to church as they become parents? Will mainline denominations revive, or will evangelicals experience another surge (even as their largest denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, bleeds members)?
I’m neither a social scientist nor a prophet, so I leave these questions with you the reader. What do you think, and why does it matter?