The Rise and Fall of American Christianity | Sojourners

The Rise and Fall of American Christianity

Stuart Monk /
Stuart Monk /

The recently released Pew Research Center Report has revealed that Christianity within the United States is on the decline. Christians are freaking out and the fear mongering has begun — many seeing it as an apocalyptic sign of the moral downfall of our secular society coinciding with a theological weakening caused by “liberalism.”

Everyone seems to have an explanation of the data, and among Christians, the infighting has already begun, with most denominations rationalizing their growth, decline, or stagnancy by offering the same explanation: We’re theologically sound and remaining faithful to God while everyone else is getting it wrong.

What Christians must understand — and accept — about these statistics is that religious data about a country doesn’t accurately reflect its corporate actions pertaining to following Christ.

For example, in 1948, 91 percent of Americans identified as Christian (Protestant [69 percent] and Catholic [22 percent]) according to Gallup polling.

Here’s what else was happening in 1948:

Segregation was still widely practiced and racism was everywhere. It would still be another five years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus and six years before Brown v. Board of Education.

The Cold War had begun and the Red Scare was sweeping the nation, inspiring fear, anger, and trepidation. People, organizations, and institutions who voiced dissent, criticism, and non-conformist views were portrayed as traitors — wrongfully persecuted due to widespread panic and political fanaticism.

Women were the victims of inequitable social, professional, and religious practices and expectations. Largely excluded from leadership positions, receiving unfair wages, and forced into specific gender roles, a largely “Christian” culture refused to empower women and maintained an unhealthy “status quo.”

Nearly two decades later — in 1965 — an astounding 93 percent of the United States population identified as Christian. But again, the sixties were hardly representative of a “Christian nation.”

Racism was still prevalent (despite two decades of being “Christian”) and the Civil Rights movement was fighting to establish equality among a nation still struggling with assumptions, biases, bigotry, oppression, injustice, and sheer hatred.

The country was becoming more heavily involved in Vietnam.

The Watts riots reflected major social and racial upheavals happening throughout urban areas.

The drug revolution was coinciding with a sexual movement that embraced “free love” and rejected the traditional idea of marriage. Culture was becoming radicalized, with social and political activism often turning violent — instigated by both citizen groups and government entities alike.

Although we’ve established a nostalgic appreciation and patriotism for those times, neither era was an especially glorious time in our history, and few would want to replace the current state of our society with what it was like in the past.

The point is that while the percentage of Christians in America was near its highest — the moral state of our society was far from “Christian.”

In many ways, today’s America is more Christian than at any previous moment in its history! Slavery and segregation has been abolished, gender inequality is on the decline, the wage gap has decreased, church communities are more diverse than ever, and people’s rights and opportunities related to education, jobs, and opportunities are better than ever (but there’s still a long way to go).

For Christians, the most worrying aspect about the Pew Research Report shouldn’t be that Christianity is declining, but that the population of those claiming to be Christian hasn’t historically affected the nation in a very Christ-like way.

For a faith based upon following the example of Jesus — who brought healing, restoration, empowerment, peace, forgiveness, justice, and love wherever he went — the statistics for when Christianity had the largest majority of the population within the U.S. unfortunately correlates with some of our country’s most racist, unfair, violent, and inhumane moments.

So before we lament the decrease of “Christianity” and mourn its death within America, maybe we should be hopeful that this is an opportunity for followers of Christ to actually act like Jesus — becoming a Christian nation for possibly the very first time.

Stephen Mattson blogs at He's contributed for Relevant Magazine, , and studied Youth Ministry at the Moody Bible Institute. He is now on staff at the University of Northwestern – St. Paul, Minn. Follow him on Twitter @mikta.

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