How bad is the decline of American Christianity?

Have you followed the recent revelations and discussions concerning the decline of Christianity in America? It began with a report from the Pew Research Center showing a decline in the share of American adults claiming to be Christians compared to seven years earlier. Many commenters see it as pretty disastrous.

[Gustave Dore, The Deluge]


Rod Dreher in The American Conservative wrote a spate of alarmed columns crying havoc. Many others have weighed in including Baptist pastor and blogger Russell Moore, and  Michael Brendan Dougherty at The Week. Mike Bell at Internet Monk provided a good explainer post.

Now certainly the report is concerning. If you believe the Christian message, it means fewer people being saved by grace. If you look at it self-interestedly, it means fewer people at your church writing checks to pay the pastor’s salary. If you take a social perspective, it means fewer Christian voters and less power in the polls. It also means fewer Christian volunteers staffing Christian social programs. And fewer Christian merchants providing good service at a fair price to all customers. And fewer Christian artists producing music, literature and visual art of the outstanding aesthetic quality the world expects of the tradition that produced John Donne, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Johann Sebastian Bach and Thomas Kincaid. (Sorry.)

I guess time will tell how many fewer masterpieces will be forthcoming. In the meantime, it is worth pondering the change itself rather than jumping immediately to the consequences.

We need to avoid wrong inferences based on wrong statements. The following absurdity appears in an otherwise thoughtful blog: “the number of Americans who identify as Christians has reached an all-time low.”

Well, no it hasn’t. The number of Americans who identify as Christian is still much higher than it was in, say, 1622. All the Pew report says is that a smaller share of American adults claimed to be Christians in 2014 than did in 2007. There are still tens of millions of Christians in America.

[The Pew report presents its number in percentages, and that causes some uncertainty. Is the reported 18% drop a change from the 2007 base or is it measured against the 2014 total? The population grew by nearly 18 million people in those seven years so the before and afters are not directly comparable. I think Pew will release the raw data sometime soon and then analysts will be able to describe the changes more accurately.]

Another, more subtle error would be to sum up all the losses to the several Christian denominations and equate that sum to the total loss to Christianity. That doesn’t work because most of the losses of each particular denomination is a gain by another Christian denomination. Look again at Mike Bell’s chart (Click the link for a full size display and read the narrative):


Source: Internet Monk, by Mike Bell


The Pew report states correctly that, “Christianity as a whole loses more adherents than it gains via religious switching. Overall, there are more than four former Christians for every convert to Christianity.” Catholicism has clearly lost its former share. But most of the people who left that church moved to another Christian denomination. And the same thing can be said of Evangelicals and Mainline denominations. Most of the people who left a Christian denomination moved to another Christian denomination. Of all the people who left their former church, a minority shifted to non-belief. Meanwhile, half of the people who were raised without faith have become religious in adulthood.

The Pew data show that 18% of American adults have shifted away from Christianity since childhood. But 48.8% of US adults have left the religion of their childhood. The 18% that has shifted to non belief is about one in three. Two out of three have stayed within Christianity.

I’m not offering that as good news. I’m trying to suggest that the problems of contemporary Christianity are larger. The short-term trend is away from religion in general and Christianity in particular. The bigger rule, though, is a rejection of what one knew as a child — or even a frew years ago.

I sat in a meeting a few nights ago where forms of worship were being discussed. A 67-year-old man spoke gravely of the “dark time” his generation lived through and their determination to preserve the “gains” he feels they achieved. A 20-something woman later said, “My generation – the millennials – prefers the more tradition forms, which feel more genuine to us than what the church is doing now.”

They are moving in opposite directions. But they both reject (more or less fervently) aspects of the church they know. And I think the Pew report needs to be considered in terms of this massive discontent within each denomination, as well as the more obvious net shift away from the faith.

The Pew report shows that Catholicism and the Mainline Protestant denominations had the largest losses. We read that and infer they are somehow worse than the others. But what if their losses were simply proportional to their size at the beginning of the change? If that were the case, then a plot of the losses in various denominations would appear as an inverse (downward–sloping) correlation. Those that were small at the start would lose small amounts and those that were large at the beginning would have greater losses. And that is what the data show:



The purple dot is Catholicism. It was the largest denomination and it lost the most adherents. The blue and red dots are Evangelicals and Mainline Protestant denominations. They were a bit smaller, and they lost somewhat fewer people. The grey dot? That is atheists and agnostics. The fact that the grey dot lies close to the black diagonal line means the outflow from the non-believers camp was just about proportional to the outflow from the Christian groups.

So the general principle is perhaps that contemporary Americans move from one religious stance to another. The Pew study of change between 2007 and 2014 catches the population at a time when Christian affiliation was pretty high, so inevitably the shift away from Christian affiliation was proportionately great.

The above chart shows only the outflow from each group. But a big part of the story is where people went after they left one denomination. This chart shows the net change — the combination of leavers and new arrivals to each of the religious stances depicted. And the gray dot representing non-belief rises way above the line.


The conclusion I draw from this is that the best way for individual Christian churches, and for large Christian denominations, to stem the rise of atheism is to treat the people they’ve got better. They ought to listen to people more; ask for money less; speak out against the most brazen, self-aggrandizing purveyors of faith / prosperity; serve the poor to their own detriment.

The one distinct claim that is most commonly expressed, but is least sustainable for long, is that only this church gets doctrine right. The truth is that most churches are about as right as most others. There certainly are false doctrines, but salvation is by the doctrines that nearly all churches share — what CS Lewis called Mere Christianity.  If churches and denominations would stop driving people away, whether by meanness or stupidity, Christianity would do fine.

I’ll give the last affirming word to writer David Foster Wallace, who spoke the following words at a college graduation ceremony in 2005, assuring students that worship and belief are the natural, and almost inevitable, human norms:.

In the day-to day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship—be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles—is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly.





“It’s You I Hate to Lose”

I’ve been watching the news the last few weeks, knowing that BB King didn’t have long to live. And this morning we read that he died in his sleep at 89.

(Source: Chicago Tribune)


Encomiums will come from every news source, so I don’t need to recite the number of albums he released, the number of Grammy awards he won, or where he sits on the Rolling Stone list of all-time great guitarists (6th, behind Hendrix, Clapton, Page, Richards and Beck).

What I think is worth remembering, and may not get mentioned by others, is that he was a genuinely nice guy. This was evident in interviews, when he  was always cheerful, patient, and above all laudatory of other musicians. I remember a particular interview  in 2005 when he was talking about his BB King & Friends album. It was, obviously, a collaboration with other musicians. His emphasis was on his admiration for the others. He even said (at the age of 79) that he had “so much to learn about music” and that he appreciated the chance to work with Cheryl Crow and to pick up some ideas from her.

Can you imagine? Cheryl Crow is a good pop singer, but BB King was a legendary several times over by that time. The same goes for his collaborations with Eric Clapton and U2. Both of them attained a legitimacy on stage with him that they’d never had before (in my judgment).



But you know what? Apart from the good example of his own life, BB King has something to tell us about the world today. There’s recently been a major report from the Pew Research Center documenting a rapid decline in the number of Americans who identify with any formal religion. Why, Mr. King, would you suppose that might be the case?

And he replies, by way of the New York Times obituary:

“Growing up on the plantation there in Mississippi, I would work Monday through Saturday noon,” he said. “I’d go to town on Saturday afternoons, sit on the street corner, and I’d sing and play.
“I’d have me a hat or box or something in front of me. People that would request a gospel song would always be very polite to me, and they’d say: ‘Son, you’re mighty good. Keep it up. You’re going to be great one day.’ But they never put anything in the hat.
“But people that would ask me to sing a blues song would always tip me and maybe give me a beer. They always would do something of that kind. Sometimes I’d make 50 or 60 dollars one Saturday afternoon. Now you know why I’m a blues singer.”


I’ll have more to say about the Pew findings and what it says about religion in America. But let BB King’s words stew in your mind a while (as you let his music fill your ears).



Not a disaster movie

Dozens of post-apocalyptic dramas begin with an occurrence that has just happened in reality where I work. No, I’m not talking about the accidental release of a toxic virus or a diseased animal. There hasn’t been a sudden declaration of war nor an alien invasion, and no comet is speeding toward the Earth.

But, yes, the streets are suddenly empty and still where just last week they teemed with life.



Last week was finals week at Purdue University (and many other institutions across the country). Most students went home over the weekend. Now there are just a few grad students with research projects to tend and the year-round staff like me. The sudden loss of 40,000 people makes a difference.

I’ve worked in a lot of different work environments, from a hog farm to K Street in Washington DC. And compared to all the others, working at a university has a lot of benefits. Being around college students is genuinely uplifting. Most of them are smart, driven to succeed, and conscientious. Pass through a door on Purdue’s campus and the chances are good that someone will hold the door open for you — or thank you if you hold it for them. Not many people wear sagging jeans on campus. Overheard conversations around the campus tend to be more substantive than what you hear in the adult world.

Most of the students abuse the word “like.” But that is a small thing, at least until they apply for a job.

Speaking of which, Purdue’s Center for Career Opportunities does a nice job of cataloging where graduates go for their first job. Here’s a link to their latest data for starting salaries.  You’ll find depressingly low salaries for starting elementary school teachers and pilots, but some really good starting salaries in other areas.

Of course, not all graduates respond to CCOs’ query, and we aren’t sure that those who don’t respond are getting the same caliber of job as what is shown.

But I wish them all the best!





Maximum Profit

I am a believer in free markets and in capitalism. I am an investor myself in a small way, and I spend more time each week thinking about my little portfolio than I do about sports. I argue regularly with by radical daughter that the free flow of capital is a good thing, and the privilege of buying into a successful company is a treasured right.

So when I express contempt for the way capitalism actually works in America today, it is because so the good principles have been distorted and perverted. For example, there’s all the difference in the world between “profit” and “maximum profit.” The first is (or at least it can be) a fair compensation to an entrepreneur or manager for a job well done. The second is a vicious concept that is inevitable ruinous. We shouldn’t confuse the two.


In Slate this morning is an article about the WholeFoods grocery chain and its recent financial performance. The cogent paragraph reads:

The organic struggle is real and ongoing for Whole Foods, which has failed to woo customers to Wall Street’s satisfaction despite cutting its grocery prices. Whole Foods said Wednesday that sales at stores open roughly a year grew 3.6 percent in the second quarter, falling short of analyst expectations for 5.3 percent growth. Shares are down about 10 percent in extended trading, after closing basically unchanged, at $47.72, during the normal session.


Whole Foods is profitable and growing. People in growing numbers are deciding they want food that is really healthy. The company’s “struggle” is only a matter of “falling short of analyst expectations.” The growth of 3.6 percent in same stores is better than the CPI rate of inflation, so Whole Foods is evidently growing in real terms. Forbes described Whole Foods stock as “plummeting” while the company remains profitable and growing.

You can read almost identical details about IBM in analyses from a few months ago. Here’s one from The Fiscal Times:

Many on Wall Street are considerably less optimistic about Big Blue’s prospects, or the timetable for its turnaround, and the quarterly results the company announced last week didn’t help convince those skeptics. Though its profit excluding one-time items was $5.81 per share, exceeding Wall Street expectations, IBM reported its 11th straight quarter of flat or declining growth. Its revenue was a disappointing $24.1 billion.


The article states clearly that IBM continues to make a profit, yet the headline of the article asks “How to Save an Iconic American Company.”

We know that a majority of new start-up companies fail. And that is unfortunate for a couple of reasons. Assuming the company has a good idea, failure deprives people of a good or services that they want and need. Second, whether the company’s raison d’etre is good or bad, people’s lives are disrupted when an employer closes. But that isn’t what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about companies that are profitable, but are perceived as “struggling” or as needing to be “saved.”

This seems like a conundrum until you recognize that making a profit is not enough to keep a company in business any more. Investors insist on maximum profits. Some claim that the law compels companies to do everything they can to maximize profits.  I’ve read arguments to the contrary, too. So it isn’t clear to me whether maximizing profits is really mandatory. But regardless of the legal mandate, most companies operate as if it were mandatory.

Investments ebb and flow based on how a company performs in comparison to expectations, which are often based some expert’s guess. If the expert guesses wrong about a company’s quarterly performance and sets expectations too high, the company will disappoint its investors. If investors then withdraw their funds, the company’s abilities to continue growing from that point on is constrained. The market forecaster’s mistake can become inevitable.
Socialist writer Barbara Ehrenreich was alive to the absurdity some years ago when she wrote the following:

A free-enterprise economy depends only on markets, and according to the most advanced mathematical macroeconomic theory, markets depend only on moods: specifically, the mood of the men in the pinstripes, also known as the Boys on the Street. When the Boys are in a good mood, the market thrives; when they get scared or sullen, it is time for each one of us to look into the retail apple business.


We were brought up to believe that financiers were bold and audacious men who took risks the way polar explorers took risks. The financiers somehow made new things possible. But it is much more accurate to view the whole banking and stock market industry as just about the most tempermental, frail and pampered bunch of people on the planet. How long do we continue letting them have their way?

My hero

I like the biblical Book of Nehemiah. Not many people do. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a sermon preached on Nehemiah, nor even another person mention inspiration they drew from its 13 chapters. The liturgical churches include Nehemiah in their cycle of scripture readings, I suppose. But they must schedule them on weekdays because I’ve never heard Nehemiah on a Sunday.

Nehemiah depicts people cooperating and getting an important job done. Not superheroes, mind you, nor even ordinary people with the full use of their resources. The people in Nehemiah are exiles and refugees working in a desolate ruin. Yet they accomplish their goal through the awesome magical power of working hard and staying out of each other’s way.

The story begins around 445 BC. Israel and Judea have been conquered and, as they say in the history books, “laid waste.” Most of the people are living as captives in Persia. Nehemiah is one of these, and when he meets a group of travelers recently from Jerusalem he asks how things are going back home:

They said to me, “Those who survived the exile and are back in the province are in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been burned with fire.” When I heard these things, I sat down and wept. (Neh. 1:3-4)


Did I mention that, though a slave, Nehemiah is cupbearer to the king? He quickly convinces the king to allow him to return to Jerusalem, with a claim on royal forests for all the timber he’ll need. But of course, royal timber counts for nothing if there aren’t people to do the work. And the people living around Jerusalem were doing no work  at all until Nehemiah showed up:

Then I said to them, “You see the trouble we are in: Jerusalem lies in ruins, and its gates have been burned with fire. Come, let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem, and we will no longer be in disgrace.” I also told them about the gracious hand of my God on me and what the king had said to me. They replied, “Let us start rebuilding.” So they began this good work. (Neh. 2:17-18)


Just like that! Now, I assume the speeches went on longer than the two verses I quoted. But the point is that the people heard Nehemiah’s good idea, and they accepted it, and they went to work to make it happen. Each family of exiles went to work on a part of the wall. And apparently no one complained that his task was harder than someone else’s, or that so-and-so was taking all the best stone, or that he should be excused from duty.

But the trouble was just beginning. Even though the high king in Persia has approved the project, the provincial governor didn’t like it:

When Sanballat heard that we were rebuilding the wall, he became angry and was greatly incensed. He ridiculed the Jews, and in the presence of his associates and the army of Samaria, he said, “What are those feeble Jews doing? Will they restore their wall? Will they offer sacrifices? Will they finish in a day? Can they bring the stones back to life from those heaps of rubble—burned as they are?”
Tobiah the Ammonite, who was at his side, said, “What they are building—even a fox climbing up on it would break down their wall of stones!”
Hear us, our God, for we are despised. Turn their insults back on their own heads. Give them over as plunder in a land of captivity. Do not cover up their guilt or blot out their sins from your sight, for they have thrown insults in the face of the builders. So we rebuilt the wall till all of it reached half its height, for the people worked with all their heart. (Neh. 4:1-6)


The threat from the governor worsened. Eventually, the workmen had to carry weapon in one hand while they carved stone with the other. But the walls continued rising.

And then another problem emerged. The people complained that they were overburdened by taxes. The Persian king required annual payment – but it was local Jewish leaders who decided how to raise the money the king demanded. And year by year they had pushed the burden onto the poorer people.

When I heard their outcry and these charges, I was very angry. I pondered them in my mind and then accused the nobles and officials. I told them, “You are charging your own people interest!” So I called together a large meeting to deal with them and said: “As far as possible, we have bought back our fellow Jews who were sold to the Gentiles. Now you are selling your own people, only for them to be sold back to us!” They kept quiet, because they could find nothing to say.
So I continued, “What you are doing is not right. Shouldn’t you walk in the fear of our God to avoid the reproach of our Gentile enemies? I and my brothers and my men are also lending the people money and grain. But let us stop charging interest! Give back to them immediately their fields, vineyards, olive groves and houses, and also the interest you are charging them—one percent of the money, grain, new wine and olive oil.”
“We will give it back,” they said. “And we will not demand anything more from them. We will do as you say.” (Neh. 5:6-12)


All in all it is an amazing story. For Christians, it shows what people can accomplish with God’s blessing. For those who would discount God’s role, it is still a great story. (Though I don’t see how anyone who doubts God’s part in the achievement could take Nehemiah’s word for the rest of it.)

Anyway, it is not the only time when people accomplished amazing thing under duress. Three of America’s most forward-looking policies were launched during Abraham Lincoln’s presidency, while the Civil War was going on. The three I have in mind are the Homestead Act, the Morrill Act, and the Trans-Continental Railroad. These three improved Americans’ access to home ownership and higher education and started the greatest infrastructure project in history up to that time. (Yes, greater than the wall of China.)

But I don’t believe the US can replicate that kind of accomplishment. Do you? Is there any possibility of a political or social leader who has the genuine good of the country and the people in mind? Preident Obama campaigned on a promise to make the White House more transparent than every before,  but he is presently trying to force a trade agreement through Congress without discussion because (and he admits this) if people knew what was in the deal they would oppose it. If a trustworthy leader emerged, is there any chance that he or she’d get a fair hearing and bi-partisan support from the population?

I’d like to know what other people think. Leave a comment.