By / Jul 9

A new survey on American religion finds that the percentage of Christians has stabilized, after falling for two decades.

The survey, called the 2020 Census of American Religion, finds that 7 in 10 Americans (70%) identify as Christian, including more than 4 in 10 who identify as white Christian and more than one-quarter who identify as Christians of color. Christians of color include Hispanic Catholics (8%), Black Protestants (7%), Hispanic Protestants (4%), other Protestants of color (4%), and other Catholics of color (2%). Nearly 1 in 4 Americans (23%) are religiously unaffiliated, and 5% identify with non-Christian religions.

The largest religious demographic are those who identify as white and Christian. More than 4 in 10 Americans (44%) identify as white Christian, including white evangelical Protestants (14%), white mainline Protestants (16%), and white Catholics (12%). Black Americans are also mostly Christian (72%). More than 6 in 10 (63%) are Protestant, including 35% who identify as evangelical and 28% who identify as non-evangelical Protestants.  Three in 4 Hispanic Americans (76%) also identify as Christian, and half (50%) are Catholic. About 1 in 4 (24%) identify as Protestant, including 14% who say they are evangelical and 10% who identify as non-evangelical Protestant.

Six in 10 Native Americans (60%) identify as Christian, with most (47%) identifying as Protestant (28% evangelical, 19% non-evangelical) and an additional 11% who are Catholic. Asian American and Pacific Islander Americans are as likely to be religiously unaffiliated (34%) as they are to be Christian (34%). The Christian subset includes 1 in 5 (20%) who are Protestant (10% evangelical, 10% non-evangelical) and 10% who are Catholic.

(All respondents who identified as Christian were asked: “Would you describe yourself as a ‘born again’ or ‘evangelical Christian,’ or not?” Respondents who self-identified as white, non-Hispanic, or Protestant and affirmatively identified as born-again or evangelical were categorized as white evangelical Protestants.)

A much smaller percentage of Americans identify as Latter-day Saint (Mormon), Jehovah’s Witness, or Orthodox Christian. The rest of religiously affiliated Americans belong to non-Christian groups, including 1% who are Jewish, 1% Muslim, 1% Buddhist, 0.5% Hindu, and 1% who identify with other religions. Religiously unaffiliated Americans comprise those who do not claim any particular religious affiliation (17%) and those who identify as atheist (3%) or agnostic (3%).

Until 2020, the percentage of white Americans who identify as Christian had been on the decline for more than 20 years, losing roughly 11% per decade. In 1996, almost two-thirds of Americans (65%) identified as white and Christian. But a decade later that had declined to 54%, and by 2017 it was down to 43%. The proportion of white Christians hit a low point in 2018, at 42%, but rebounded in 2020 to 44%.

The recent increase is primarily due to an uptick in the proportion of white mainline Protestants, as well as a stabilization in the proportion of white Catholics. The report notes that since 2007, white mainline Protestants have declined from 19% of the population to a low of 13% in 2016. But over the last three years, the mainline has seen small but steady increases, up to 16% in 2020. White Catholics have also declined from a high point of 16% of the population in 2008 to 12% in 2020.

Since 2006, the most radical decrease in affiliation has occurred among white evangelical Protestants, a group that shrank from 23% of Americans in 2006 to 14% in 2020. That proportion has generally held steady since 2017 (15% in 2017, 2018, and 2019).

The proportion of white Christians decreases for the younger generations. A majority of white Americans 65 and older (59%) identify as Christian, as do those ages 50-64. But that drops to 41% for those ages 30-49. Only 28% of Americans ages 18-29 are white Christians (including 12% who are white mainline Protestants, 8% who are white Catholics, and 7% who are white evangelical Protestants).

Roughly one-in-four Americans ( 26%) are Christians of color (including 9% who are Hispanic Catholics, 5% who are Hispanic Protestants, 5% who are Black Protestants, 2% who are multiracial Christians, 2% who are AAPI Christians, and 1% who are Native American Christians). More than one-third of young Americans (36%) are religiously unaffiliated, and the remainder are Jewish (2%), Muslim (2%), Buddhist (1%), Hindu (1%), or another religion (1%). 

The shift among Christians of color is more modest. While the numbers are small, African American Protestants make up 8% of Americans ages 65 and older but only 5% of Americans under the age of 30. Among those aged 18-29, 26% are Chrisitans of color (including 9% who are Hispanic Catholics, 5% who are Hispanic Protestants, 5% who are Black Protestants, 2% who are multiracial Christians, 2% who are AAPI Christians, and 1% who are Native American Christians). By contrast, the proportions of Hispanic Protestants are significantly higher among younger Americans than among people over 65. 

White evangelical Protestants are also the oldest religious group in the U.S., with a median age of 56, compared to the median age in the country of 47. Black Protestants and white mainline Protestants have a median age of 50. 

By / Oct 27

My friend Rod Dreher has put forward an important observation and queryabout the cohesiveness and difference in moral convictions between evangelical Protestants and Catholics on matters related to culture war issues like abortion and homosexuality:

Here’s something I have never figured out. In theory, Catholics ought to be a lot more theologically conservative on such matters. They have a clear teaching proclaimed by a clear church authority, with a deep Biblical theology behind it. And yet, on the whole, it doesn’t seem to matter to lay Catholics. Evangelicals, on the other hand, have the Bible, but no binding interpretive authority to keep them from diverging. Yet, on these issues, they are more morally conservative than Catholics — even by Catholic standards.Why is this? I’m asking in a serious way. Any of you have a theory? I’m not going to publish gratuitous Catholic bashing or Evangelical bashing in the comments.

Dreher’s observation and question are clarifying and worth considering. Why is it that Catholics with an interpretive authority (the Magisterium) are all over the map on key moral issues while evangelicals (with all their attendant schisms) are relatively settled on the same issues?

I have two main responses to Rod.

First, I want to challenge the assumption behind Rod’s question that protestants are inherently prone to “interpretive pluralism.” I’d argue that there is much less interpretive pluralism in protestant evangelicalism than it is accused of by our Catholic friends. While we do not need to rehearse all the different denominations with varying interpretive conclusions, evangelical protestantism has not redefined itself out of existence. Why? Because protestantism (well, evangelicals, at least) recognize that the Bible is supremely authoritative. The Bible is the supreme guide for all matters related to faith (the norming norm). Furthermore, the essence of the faith that all protestants agree on is remarkably consistent and uniform (I have in mind the early creeds). Protestant evangelicals reject the Magisterium not only because we believe it is an unbiblical office, but that it isn’t even necessary. For all the protestant differences on matters that are important (Baptism, Lord’s Supper), the kernel of Christian doctrine is central and clear: Jesus Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. No Magisterium is necessary for what the Scriptures plainly teach and on issues that give rise to our culture wars, the Scriptures are resoundingly clear.

My second response is one that my Catholic friends may not like, but I have to say it with all respect: The difference in how evangelical Protestants and Catholics understand regeneration has enormous implications for one’s doctrine of Scripture, which has enormous implications for the consistency and uniformity of doctrinal-ethical convictions.

Catholics believe in infant baptismal regeneration. The overwhelming majority of Protestant evangelicals reject baptismal regeneration (I’m probably mistaken, but I cannot think of any evangelical branch that believes in infant baptismal regeneration). For Protestant evangelicals, regeneration occurs when a person becomes a new creation in Christ (John 3: 5-7; 2 Cor. 5:17). This makes possible the Bible becoming the living and active Word of God. Christians believe that a supernatural illumination is necessary for the Scriptures to be read authentically as God’s authoritative self-revelation. As the Apostle Paul says, “Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking in the Spirit of God ever says ‘Jesus is accursed!’ and no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except in the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:3). The implication of Paul’s statement is that believing Christian truths requires authentic regeneration accomplished by the sealing of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 1:13-14). Evangelical Protestants reject that infants can be born again of the Spirit without conscientious acknowledgment of who Christ is. How and when people become Christians testifies to their convictions on the Bible as the Word of God. Only a regenerate person can accept the supernatural claims and authority of the Bible.

But if a person is baptized but not regenerate, how can the Bible be supremely authoritative? That’s the crux of disagreement. Protestants believe that Catholics have a faulty doctrine of regeneration, which leads to a faulty understanding of what the Scriptures are to those who identify as Catholics but are not regenerate, which then allows for massive interpretive pluralism by self-professing Catholics on issues that are otherwise very clear in the Bible (ex: sanctity of life, sanctity of marriage). An unregenerate Catholic will not accept the teachings of the Bible as authoritative. My conviction on the matter is that evangelical Protestants breed a higher reverence for the Scriptures out of the conviction that the Bible is very Word of God, something that can be proclaimed only by a regenerating Spirit upon self-aware persons (1 Cor. 2:14-16). Said different: A biblical view of regeneration leads to a biblical view of biblical authority.

I offer this perspective with as much admiration and respect as is possible for Catholicism. Some of my closest friends are Catholic. Catholic allies are among the most devoted in today’s cultural trenches. And Catholic influence on my ethics, particularly natural law, has been immense. Still, that doesn’t change the fact that Protestants and Catholics disagree on some major issues. My Catholic friends would tell me I’m wrong, and that’s okay. Disagreement does not mean hostility. There are simply chasms between Protestantism and Catholicism that are unbridgeable.

For an amicable read on what unites and divides Catholics and Protestants, I would highly recommend Gregg Allison and Chris Castaldo’s The Unfinished Reformation: What Unites and Divides Catholics and Protestants After 500 Years.