The religious landscape of the United States continues to change rapidly.

The General Social Survey (GSS), by the Nonpartisan and Objective Research Organization (NORC) at the University of Chicago, has been asking US Americans, since 1988, what they believe about God. For decades, the answer did not change very much. Around 70 % of the Silent Generation, people born from 1928 to 1945, said they “know God really exists” and “have no doubts.” That same sentiment was shared by about 63 % of the baby boomers and the generation after them, Generation X.

In 2018, however, the millennials, people born from 1981 to 1996, expressed much less certainty about belief in God. Only 44 % had no doubts about the existence of God. More doubtful were members of Generation Z, people born from the mid-to-late 1990s to the early 2010s. Only 30% claimed certain belief in God.

No segment of US society, in fact, has been immune to the rise of religious disaffiliation. While it can be easy to say religious belief changes are driven by young people, is also strong evidence that older Americans are moving away from faith communities, as they enter their “twilight years.” A big factor is lost credibility in institutional religion. This is a strong factor in US Catholic church-departures but it is hardly just a Catholic issue.

Religious voters, especially white evangelical Protestants and conservative Catholics have been the bedrock of the modern Republican Party. It’s well known that Donald Trump enjoyed overwhelming support from white evangelicals in 2020. Religious “nones” (people whose religion is “none”) backed Biden. 

It now appears, however, that the US conservative Christian tide is changing. The big change factors are that (1) the United States has become more multiracial; and (2) that larger shares of US Americans are simply leaving Christianity. Former Christians are either joining other religions or leaving entirely and joining the ranks of the religious “nones.” 

These trends in US religious belief create a consequential socio-political situation. In 2021, when about 26 % of US Americans have no religious affiliation, just 0.2 % of members of the US Congress identify as “nones.” Given the rapid religious change in the United States, it’s clear that the US political establishment does not represent what is truly a seismic shift in US society. Even more significant, however, is the fact that the declining far-right US Americans are becoming more angry, volatile, and violent. There is a real danger that US democracy will be  immobilized by hostile polarization.

But why are more US Americans becoming “nones”?

Some observers think the churches need more “evangelization.” I think that response is analogous to saying “take an aspirin if you have Covid-19.” The issue is more complex. The Christian share of the population is down and religious “nones” have grown across multiple demographic groups: white people, black people, and Latinx; men and women; in all regions of the country; among college graduates; and among those with lower levels of educational attainment. Religious “nones”are growing faster among Democrats but their ranks are actually swelling in both parties.

David Campbell, chair of the University of Notre Dame’s political science department, says a key reason for the Christian decline is an “allergic reaction to the religious right.” Many US Americans he stresses “see religion as bound up with political conservatism, and the Republican party specifically.” Christian nationalists, who believe the United States was established as, and should remain, a Christian country, have gone overboard with a broad range of measures to thrust their version of religion into US life.

I think another key reason for Christianity’s US decline is the way Christians have been behaving: individually and institutionally. In Matthew 22:36-40, Jesus was asked about which commandment was the greatest. He replied: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.” Christians are called to walk alongside struggling people: an expectant mother facing an unintended pregnancy; a young man recovering from substance use; impoverished parents hoping to keep their family together; immigrants seeking a safe asylum; gay, lesbian, and trans people seeking acceptance. The human needs are great. How do Christians respond to them? How does institutional Christianity respond to them?  Last week I read about a young woman, a greatly liked and effective teacher in a Catholic high school, who announced that she is pregnant and the soon-to be-father is her boyfriend. The local diocesan head of education ordered the school principal to fire her immediately. 

A great Christian revival could break out if Christians focused more on loving God and caring for the most vulnerable.

I am not a pessimist. I suspect many people today are not necessarily rejecting God. They just  feel that many religious organizations have lost touch with reality and are too concerned with their own money, power, self-preservation, and official doctrines. Those religious organizations  are spiritually bankrupt. They are no longer able to speak to and address some of the big questions of our time. I really do think many people today, of all ages, want to be a part of something larger. They seek a new life-giving perspective. Many may not even know how to express it but are looking for a renewed spiritual belief, what I call a taste of the Divine. A meaningful church must listen and journey with them. 

A good friend joked, rather mockingly, about people who say they are “spiritual but not religious.” I don’t joke about it. I understand what is happening. Many of these people have a desire to live with integrity. They want to work for transformation and a more just, compassionate, and responsible world. Religions are good at giving answers. The spiritual quest begins with the opposite. It begins with the questions. Sometimes I fear that organized religion is not really listening to the questions of today’s searchers.  

I often think about the questions of the young husband and wife on the road to Emmaus, as reported in Luke. Jan Lambrecht (1926), my friend and Professor Emeritus of New Testament at our Catholic University of Leuven, calls it “one of Luke’s most exquisite literary achievements.” 

The two disciples are returning from Jerusalem after Jesus’ death. On the way they meet Jesus raised from the dead but don’t recognize him. They discuss with him their great sadness about recent Jesus events. They also invite the stranger to eat with them. Only later in their spiritual quest do they discern who their traveling companion is. They  say: “Did not our hearts burn within us, while he talked with us on the way, and while he opened to us the scriptures?” (Luke 24:32) 

On their life journeys, I am convinced many “nones” are indeed continuing their spiritual quests. We can help by traveling with them. I know, because I was once there.

  • Jack

16 thoughts on “The Changing US Religious Belief Landscape

  1. A very good overview of the current status of American Christianity and defense of the genuine spiritual searching of the younger generations. Thank you for sharing your scholarship and compassionate with us. Much appreciated.

  2. Jack, I read your current piece on changing US beliefs just after reading the NCR article on the Southern Bishops Conference and USCCB failure to address the recent spate of voter restriction legislation, and Dan Horan’s essay taking on bishops over their statements on “gender ideology”. How much further does one have to look before understanding why folks are leaving. We’ve been hanging on, hoping Francis would have some effect, but since the US bishops are ignoring him or openly opposing him, what hope is there.

    I have been thinking about moving over to our local Episcopal parish (live in a small, rural community) as our parish is disintegrating due to episcopal and pastoral disinterest. After praying about it and discussing it with my wife and a few Protestant ministers who are close associates, I’ve decided that the relationships that remain in the parish are more important than the self-serving attitudes and activities of the large number of US bishops. I keep repeating “we are the church” and find hope and determination that they will not drive me out.

    So as the bishops continue to drive the faithful away, we pray for the church and remain thankful to you for your work.

  3. Dear Jack,
    I have been mulling your words carefully and confess to having feelings of sadness, but not hopelessness, over the situation you have described so clearly. You and your bevy of thoughtful, intelligent readers may have some answers and/or comments about a question that has been nagging at me as I have watched the church I have grown up in and loved become less relevant in today’s chaotic world. Is our church structure capable of offering us avenues to find solace and strength today and make a difference?

    In the early sixties, when you and I were seminarians, the world was bright and hopeful for us young people. John F. Kennedy was our Catholic president who inspired us to join the Peace Corp and VISTA . Dear Pope John XXIII opened the doors to the church and we believed we could change the world. I remember us seminarians walking in peace marches and cleaning homes for poor folk and teaching in summer schools for migrant families. There was a hopeful mission and our priests were Dick Cross, Leo Lynch, William Fitzgerald, Larry Delaney, and the Berrigans…..all role models who spoke with their actions and not just their words. We youngsters could proudly testify to our faith because it was noble and a meaningful sacrifice to work for the betterment of our society.

    Of course, history changed all that but I wonder how it is that the church has lagged in the mission to change the world. I always think of the biblical quote, ““By this shall all men know that you are my disciples,” Jesus tells the Apostles, “if you have love one for another.” (John 13:35) My favorite quote attributed to St. Francis is, “Preach the Gospel always. If necessary, use words.” In our local parishes in SW Michigan, we seem to have more priests who prefer compliance over participation. Despite these politically charged times, I have never heard a priest invoke the Corporal Works of Mercy from the pulpit. Abolishing abortion, a truly noble cause, gets “air-time” but only in the elimination of the deed and not to rectify the situations and circumstances that drive poor unfortunate women to make that choice. In short, it seems that the church is on cruise control and using the same old tried and true top down management techniques to keep the folks in the pews quiet. Too many of our pastors are comfortable with a conservative, “Pray, pay, and obey” mentality.

    Of course, I can easily target others with what “should” be done. But I am also one who started on the path to priesthood and stopped. I so admire so many of my wonderful Catholic women friends who live their faith in spite of being left out of the decision making process. They started Connecting With Mercy in our parish to collect items for those in need in our community. Other are involved in St. Vincent DePaul and jail ministry. Still others participate in small Christian communities. Other examples abound.

    The church is still alive and well. But what seems to be lacking is a vibrant glowing image that we Catholics are, indeed, something different and special…..that to be a Catholic means the world will be better because we are here. As one of our old 60’s guitar mass hymns proclaimed: “And they’ll know we are Christians by our love!” I may be an old Catholic but the good old days weren’t so bad!! I would wish that our young people could have the same inspirational examples that we had.

    Frank Skeltis

    1. Sorry for the interruption…old fingers this morning. And I need another cup of coffee.

      First of all I am still very much anchored in our Catholic tradition. It has shaped my life in many wonderful ways. (And given me employment in schools and universities.) As my old friend the Belgian Cardinal Danneels, often said I am “a very loyal and very critical Catholic.”

      We are in a major time of socio-religious transition. I remain optimistic but it is quite a shake-up. As another friend remarked in an email this morning: “Thank
      you for your insights and your optimism. I find it fascinating that religion is becoming more and more significant in the political arena, but less and less important in personal life. I also find it fascinating that nations in “secular Europe” seem far more wedded to care of the poor than supposedly “Christian America.” I recall when religion was used primarily to straighten one’s own self out; now it seems to be used mainly to poke your neighbor in the eye.”

      We are in strange but creative times. I am optimistic. I have a lot of young friends studying theology at our university. Much smarter than I and wonderful young women and men with faith, energy, and enthusiasm.

      Once when I was feeling very down about the church, my old friend Archbishop Jadot smiled and then stared at me and said “yes it seems like winter now. But spring will return.”

      Warmest regards- Jack

  4. Jack, very good and insightful as usual. Regarding your last sentence, a number of “nones” that I know, including some I taught long ago, are doing what we would know as “living the Gospel”, but are not using accepted religious terminology. There is hope, but it might be of a place and kind that we would not recognize from where we are now.

  5. Jack, some of my friends express chagrin about he “condition” of the Church– of any church– as if a chronic affliction ails her. Other friends carry on faithfully doing good within, though they feel the church hasnot kept up with them. I agree with my friends.

    Of course, the chronic affliction is classic, symbolized by Kronos, the natural projection of humanity’s musing upon Time itself. Ancient institutions, like “ripened” and “seasoned” adults, are not immune from (the shipwreck of) Time. In our lifetimes, however, current afflictions are instant everywhere due to the internet, so Time itself is acute and compressed unnaturally, often into a bitter pill, with no “time to heal.”

    She who raised us up in a certain tradition– “Holy Mother Church”– did her utmost for us for a very long time, but now we are the adults in the room. Her presence, her tempo, her key signatures are her own, at a different pace from ours. I suppose a certain pity or nostalgia is her due, but not at the expense of personal piety, in the old Roman sense of duty, especially to family members. Compassion is motivated by conscience fully formed for action. In former times this was a matter of “faith” as a practice, of training, of habits leading to virtue, such as my comrades from Saginaw’s St. Paul seminary exhibit (Skeltis and Nugent–Thank you, gentlemen) in their comments on your perceptive piece.

    Kronos is a sacrament, a law of nature: empires always crumble; Time exacts a toll that must be paid. The church long ago, as you always point out, invested itself deeply in the imperial model at hand, a mistaken opportunity that has led to aporia, immobility, unable to step through the portal. I suspect the mistake was clothed in a reasonably pragmatic eschatology, perhaps understandable in a crisis, but:

    The way and teaching of Jesus of Nazareth was more tricky, pore parabolic, than practical or legal. To me, the way that Jesus personally and privately sought out people in the gaps, in the midways, on the edges invisible to the extremists, often inverted the expected. He upset the usual, ordinary and customary codes of quotidian conduct in the business of living. You might say He was a quirky trickster, definitely odd.

    History, so dear to you, Dr. Jack, and honest hermeneutics may be devoid of definitives: so I am encouraged that our searching is not so far from the the way, the model, that the Master shows us, at least according to what we have of the record in scripture. If there is hope, it is right here: it is Jesus who has faith in us to ask the questions, to challenge the empire in doing His work.

    I love your work, you build strength.

    1. Many thanks Dan. I greatly appreciate your perceptive observations. Yrs there us hope, and for the very reason you suggest: “is right here: it is Jesus who has faith in us to ask the questions, to challenge the empire in doing His work.$
      Pax tecum! – Jack

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