In writing recently about Atlantic contributor Jeffrey Tayler’s longing to see religious believers placed in “straitjackets,” I was reminded once again of the astounding recent triumphalism from the secular Left. If 2015 has a culture-war theme so far, it might be “the year of the liberal gloat” — and not without some justification. First, the Pew Research Center’s Religious Landscape Survey saw large-scale increases in the “nones” — those people who declare no religious affiliation — and corresponding decreases in Christian religious identification. As a result, America seems to be moving inexorably left on key social issues. Second, in large-scale culture clashes — such as the religious-liberty battles in Indiana and Arkansas — the combination of secular media, social media, and corporate pressure put conservative politicians to flight. And then, of course, the Supreme Court not only created a constitutional right to same-sex marriage out of whole cloth, it did so in a manner that all but established a new civic religion.
The collective picture is one of a nation in a process of deep and profound change, with orthodox Christians guarding an ever-shrinking cultural, political, and spiritual perimeter. But that’s not the entire story. What if America, instead of simply secularizing, were becoming simultaneously more secular and more religious? In other words, what if the country were simply becoming more religiously polarized just as it is becoming more politically polarized?
In fact, this thesis more closely mirrors our actual recent national experience. If the nation were truly turning its back on orthodoxy, why are the post-Christian mainline denominations experiencing declines while more-conservative churches either are holding steady or growing? If Christians were in perpetual retreat, why were they also winning their own share of cultural victories — for example, defending Chick-fil-A and Hobby Lobby, supporting embattled pastors in Houston who faced intrusive subpoenas, and cleaning up conservative political failures by stepping up with massive grassroots financial support for embattled bakers, photographers, and pizza-makers? Why were movies with overt Christian themes consistent box offices “surprises,” often far out-grossing Hollywood’s far-left “message” films?
What if America, instead of simply secularizing, were becoming simultaneously more secular and more religious?
One of the joys of my profession is the privilege of speaking every year to many thousands of Christian conservatives at churches, conventions, and other events, and as I speak against defeatism, I often ask pessimistic questioners if their church is losing members, if their pastor is wavering on marriage, abortion, or any other sexual-revolution issue, or if their kids are marching in lockstep with their progressive Millennial peers. With precious few exceptions, these concerned Christians turned out to be expressing fear for other churches, other pastors, and other kids — buying the narrative of massive religious drift without actually seeing it firsthand. They were living vibrant Evangelical lives at vibrant Evangelical churches, yet at the same time fearing they were part of a dying breed.
They’re not. It turns out that atheist triumphalism is misplaced, and that present trends indicate that American religious life is likely to stabilize around the poles — with the two largest groups being Evangelicals on one side and the “nones” on the other. The true casualties in this religious conflict will be the “somes,” those people of more casual religious belief who will either abandon it entirely or convert to true orthodoxy.
Skeptical? Then consider two charts — one from the Pew Religious Landscape Survey and one from Leah Libresco, a brilliant and thoughtful writer at FiveThirtyEight, a site built for for stat junkies. First, when people change religions, they are more likely to become Evangelical than to adopt any other faith. Libresco explains:
[Evangelicals are] better at holding on to the people born into their tradition (65 percent retention compared to 59 percent for Catholics and 45 percent for Mainline Protestants), and they’re a stronger attractor for people leaving other faiths. According to Pew’s data on conversion rates, 10 percent of people raised Catholic wind up as evangelicals. Just 2 percent of people born as evangelicals wind up Catholic. The flow between mainline and evangelical Protestants is also tilted in evangelicals’ favor. Twelve percent of those raised evangelical wind up in mainline congregations, but 19 percent of mainline Protestants wind up becoming evangelical.
The result is that Evangelicals, alone among the major religious faiths, actually made net gains in a key population metric:
But things really get interesting when present trends are projected forward. It turns out that the dramatic growth rate of the “nones” is an unsustainable function of their smaller initial numbers:
Gain and loss numbers can wind up skewed by how large (or small) different groups are to start off with. It’s easier for unaffiliateds to gain followers, on net, because there are fewer unaffiliateds to lose in the first place.
In fact, people raised unaffiliated have about the same chance of staying unaffiliated (53 percent) as people raised Catholic do of staying Catholic (59 percent), according to the Pew data. But when unaffiliateds lost about half of their 9.2 percent share of U.S. adults, they lost only 4.3 percentage points’ worth of the population at large. In contrast, because nearly a third of Americans are raised Catholic, when that church loses about half its members, it amounts to a much bigger group of people.
Moving forward — and assuming present trends continue — Libresco was able to project a “steady demographic distribution” that looks something like this, with a column that accounts for differences in fertility. Unaffiliated Americans, for example, tend to have kids below the rate of replacement and grow by drawing people affiliated with other faiths, while Mormons have children well above the rate of replacement and grow in part through large family size.
It’s a fascinating analysis, and it has the benefit of squaring with long decades of personal experience of a vibrant Evangelical movement, other social science indicating that those who actually attend church (we’ll call them “adherents” rather than “affiliates”) tend to maintain stronger marriages and more coherent religious-belief systems than non-attenders, and biblical admonitions that lukewarm spirituality is ultimately untenable. After all, orthodox Christianity ultimately makes too many demands on its followers to be conducive to casual convictions.
When cultural liberals crow about the influence of shows such as Will & Grace and Modern Family, they’re really boasting about their ability to win over the casuals, those with just “some” faith. I’ve never in my life met a serious Christian who was substantially influenced by a sitcom. At the same time, however, Evangelicals are having more than their share of success at winning adherents from other faiths and no faith at all. In this equation, however, while the broader Christian faith remains strong, Catholic Christianity is suffering staggering losses.
But if angry atheists such as Jeffrey Tayler were looking forward to a future where the faith they despise most — the orthodox Christian faith of Evangelicals and other faithful Christians — has diminished to the point of irrelevance, they will find themselves frustrated and even more enraged. The faithful aren’t going anywhere, the nation remains polarized, and look for the culture war to rage on and on. With a large and growing secular Left, expect the cultural institutions it controls to remain hostile to Christians. With a large and growing Christian orthodoxy, expect the cultural institutions it controls to continue to be persistently expansive. Meanwhile, the national political struggle must be to protect and preserve constitutional structures that guarantee freedom of expression and freedom of conscience against those who seek to achieve through raw government power what they cannot achieve through the marketplace of ideas. Atheists are proving that they can’t secularize the faithful through persuasion. They cannot be permitted to use coercion.