By / Dec 5

On Dec. 5, 2022, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in 303 Creative v. Elenis, an important case for free speech and religious liberty. Since 2016, Lorie Smith, founder of the web design firm 303 Creative, has been in the process of challenging a Colorado law that violates her First Amendment rights. It is the same law that was used to target Jack Phillips and which led to the 2018 Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission case. In that case, the court ruled favorably for Jack Phillips on narrow grounds but failed to address the underlying conflict between anti-discrimination laws and free speech rights.

A decision in this landmark case involving 303 Creative is expected in May or June of 2023.

What is this case about?

Like Phillips, and like Barronelle Stutzman of the Arlene’s Flowers Inc. v. Washington case, Lorie Smith is a creative professional who serves anyone through her business. She has created all kinds of custom websites for all types of people, but she refuses to use her “design skills and creativity to express messages that violate her deeply held religious convictions.” 

The state of Colorado views Smith’s work as a public accommodation, and thus, it is subject to Colorado’s Anti-Discrimination Act, which prohibits discrimination, including refusal of service, against any protected class, including sexual orientation or gender identity. This puts Smith’s desire to run her business according to her beliefs in direct conflict with Colorado’s law. 

Though the results of this case certainly impact religious liberty, the primary issue of this case is one of free speech. The central question before the court is “whether applying a public-accommodation law to compel an artist to speak or stay silent violates the free speech clause of the First Amendment.”

What arguments were made?

Kristen Waggoner, CEO, president, and general counsel of Alliance Defending Freedom, argued on Smith and 303 Creative’s behalf. Her central argument was that the enforcement of Colorado’s Anti-Distcrimination Act against Smith violates her first amendment free speech rights by forcing her to create speech inconsistent with her religious beliefs. The argument went to great lengths to demonstrate that Smith’s decisions in what projects she will take on are not based on who is requesting her services but rather what message the work will convey.

As Supreme Court analyst Amy Howe explains, “This means . . . that she would ‘happily’ design graphics for an LGBTQ customer who runs an animal shelter. But she will not take on commissions that would be inconsistent with her Christian beliefs—including, she says, by promoting same-sex marriage—because a custom wedding website would ‘express approval of the couple’s marriage.’”

Furthering this idea that the message rather than the individual is central to the decision, in the argument, Waggoner concluded that Smith would not create a website for a hypothetical heterosexual couple who wanted to share their love story and include details of their relationship beginning with an affair and progressing after divorces because she believes that divorce and extramarital sex are wrong.

Both the Colorado solicitor general and the U.S. deputy attorney general argued that the Colorado law “merely regulates sales, rather than the products or services being sold, and therefore does not require or bar any speech.” The state argued that Smith is not being forced to create anything, but that whatever she decides to create must be available to be purchased by anyone. The arguments also focused on how a potential ruling could impact similarly suited circumstances where the individual does not want to serve those entering into an interracial marriage or a marriage between people with disabilities. 

Why does this case matter?

This case has significant implications for the free speech of all people. If the court were to rule against Smith, it would establish a precedent that cuts to the core of our nation’s fabric. The First Amendment protects free speech—even when that speech is unpopular. 

Beyond that, for us, as Christians, our beliefs on matters of marriage and gender are core to our convictions, pointing to God’s design and the living picture of Christ and his Church. Throughout the argument, it was apparent that the justices were operating from vastly different worldviews and perspectives, with several justices seemingly unaware of the centrality of this belief to the Christian faith.

As ERLC President Brent Leatherwood said today:

Christians have, for 2,000 years, said that marriage is a picture of the gospel. It was clear from today’s oral arguments that several justices have never encountered this notion on a prior occasion. This is unfortunate as it is central to understanding why a Christian creative professional would object to being compelled by the state to say something contrary to this deeply held belief. That is why Justice Gorsuch was exactly right when he seemed to suggest this case is not about who is being served, ‘but about what’ the state of Colorado is forcing upon the speech creator. Today’s proceedings reveal why the Court should rule in favor of 303 Creative because to do otherwise would be tantamount to giving the government keys to a paver to roll right over private business-owning Christians who disagree with whatever the prevailing cultural notions about marriage and family happen to be fashionable at a given moment.

It is essential that people of faith not only have the ability to believe these fundamental truths but also to live them out in the public square. No one should be forced to sacrifice their most deeply held beliefs to participate in the marketplace and contribute to our society. The ERLC is urging the court to rule in favor of 303 Creative and will be preparing Christians and churches to respond to this important decision next year.

By / Jun 22

In her brilliant book, Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life, Zena Hitz writes that true education involves “a reaching out past the surface, a questioning of appearances, a longing for more than is evident.” Her contention contrasts with modern conceptions of education that see the goal as absorbing correct opinions and dictating to students the predetermined correct interpretation.

Thomas S. Kidd’s new biography of Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Jefferson: A Biography of Spirit and Flesh, models the kind of intellectual exploration Hitz celebrates. There is perhaps no more controversial figure from American history than Thomas Jefferson, our nation’s third president and the author of America’s most cherished document, the Declaration of Independence. Kidd succeeds in revealing the complexity of this enigmatic man by, on the one hand, refusing to bypass his moral deficiencies, while, on the other hand, elucidating his intellectual genius and unmatched contributions to America’s political formation. As a result, Kidd’s biography takes readers, perhaps more successfully than any previous attempt, into the inner life of the “sage of Monticello.”

Just like Disney and the COVID-19 pandemic, the telling of history has been unable to evade the forces of politicization. On one side, we are told that figures like Jefferson are anathema and that their contributions should be deleted from the pages of history books because of their obvious moral failures. On the other side, such figures are placed on pedestals and celebrated as heroes with their mistakes fully whitewashed. Kidd wisely avoids both extremes in his biography, which serves as a “narrative of Jefferson’s moral universe more than a traditional biography” (3).

Through Kidd’s close examination of Jefferson’s inner life and corresponding actions, a picture emerges of a man with many contradictions. How could the same man write one of the most compelling arguments for universal human freedom in history while holding slaves in bondage for the entirety of his life? How could the same man champion frugality as a republican virtue, yet pursue luxury to the degree that his entire adult life was lived under a dark cloud of suffocating debt? How could one so skeptical of dogmatic religious assertions call himself a Christian and remain a lifelong reader of the Bible?

The central dilemma in Jefferson’s moral universe

Of course, perhaps the greatest enigma—and one that Kidd treats in depth—involves Jefferson’s sexual relationship with his slave (and half-sister of his deceased wife), Sally Hemings. Kidd’s discussion of Hemings occurs in several places throughout the book, and he calls the affair “arguably the central dilemma in Jefferson’s moral universe” (89). Hemings was inherited by Jefferson upon the death of his father-in-law and was herself the progeny of a sexual affair between master and slave.

Jefferson’s affair with Hemings began in France after Sally served as travel companion for Jefferson’s young daughter Polly in 1787. By this time, Jefferson had been a bachelor for nearly five years after the tragic death of his wife from complications following childbirth. Jefferson apparently promised her he would not remarry. While Jefferson would never speak openly about the affair, it became the source of public speculation and scorn during Jefferson’s many political battles. 

Kidd deftly examines Jefferson’s letters from Paris around the time of the affair to find clues but ultimately concludes that we have no direct evidence concerning the precise nature of their relationship. Jefferson envisioned himself in the style of the biblical patriarchs, ruling over his estate and slaves at Monticello, and followed that lifestyle even in his sexual habits. Sally Hemings would bear six of Jefferson’s children. Her son would later write that she was hesitant to return from Paris to the life of a slave in America but relented when Jefferson promised certain privileges and vowed to free her children when they reached the age of 21.

Sally herself was not mentioned in Jefferson’s will, even though he did emancipate two of her children presumably in keeping with his promise to her. Jefferson likely left her name out of his will to avoid political scandal. Nevertheless, she was informally freed at Jefferson’s death and formally emancipated five years later by Jefferson’s daughter.

Despite expressing early opposition to slavery, Jefferson never expended political capital to end the wicked institution and maintained negative views of Black people as a race throughout his life. In old age, Jefferson wrote against emancipation on the grounds that free Blacks’ “amalgamation with other colour produces a degradation to which no lover of his country, no lover of excellence in the human character can innocently consent” (195). As Kidd points out, it’s hard to imagine how any man could reconcile such sentiments with his own contradictory actions. But again, we see in Jefferson a man of many enigmatic contradictions. 

Jefferson and the question of religion

What are we to make of Jefferson’s own religious faith? Kidd concludes that Jefferson was a Unitarian. He denied the Trinity, cut out most of the miraculous stories for his infamous cut-and-paste Bible, and despised esoteric conversations on matters of theological doctrine. But he maintained a lifelong belief in a Creator God who providentially ruled the universe and held the teachings of Jesus in high esteem. 

Jefferson’s writings are filled with references to God’s guiding providence, and Jefferson even appealed to God in prayer. He based the Declaration of Independence on the Christian doctrine of creation and adorned the walls of Monticello with French paintings of biblical scenes. He sent his daughter Patsy to Catholic school in France while they were living there during his diplomatic mission and preferred the spiritual temperament of America to the apathetic luxury of Europe. But these words and actions must not lead to Jefferson’s christening; to him, Jesus was a man—the most excellent one—but just a man all the same. 

Further, Jefferson was reared in a context informed by the Bible, and Jefferson himself knew the Bible better than many Christians today. Kidd masterfully recognizes scriptural allusions in Jefferson’s writings and points out how Jefferson and the other founders envisioned themselves repeating biblical and classical scenes from history on the new American stage (29).

But Jefferson’s most intense religious passions were reserved for his political convictions. Kidd deftly points out many instances of Jefferson applying biblical imagery to political happenings. The Age of Revolutions was, for Jefferson, a new creation. His Federalist political opponents were deemed “heretics” because of their longings for monarchical ways. The victory of republican liberty in America was a sure sign of God’s providential hand guiding history toward its climactic end. In Jefferson, we see already the seeds of that tendency to conflate America’s political actions positively with God’s actions in the world. 

In conclusion, Kidd’s biography leaves no stone unturned in examining the inner life of America’s third president. Jefferson’s legacy has loomed large since America’s inception, and Kidd’s deep dive into Jefferson’s moral and religious universe will aid readers who want to understand this brilliant man of confusing contradictions. 

By / Nov 19

On Nov. 18, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), through the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) and Office for Civil Rights (OCR), announced the rescission of waivers issued by the Trump administration that protect the religious freedom and consciences of millions of Americans. Notably, HHS is rescinding waivers given to South Carolina, Texas, and Michigan, including child welfare agencies in those states.

Why does this matter?

This action is deeply troubling for faith-based organizations and people who serve communities in their states according to their religious beliefs. The waivers granted to these states protect the religious freedom of faith-based groups serving vulnerable children. 

We need more organizations serving children in foster care, not less. There are currently 423,997 children in the U.S. foster care system, and that number is likely going to continue to increase due to the COVID-19 pandemic and its affect on families. At a time when children need safe, permanent, and loving homes, the government should be ensuring that more providers can serve.

One of the states whose waiver is being rescinded by HHS is South Carolina, and this action will impact an organization entitled Miracle HIll.

Miracle Hill Waiver

In 2019 under the Trump administration, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced a religious liberty waiver for South Carolina’s faith-based organizations following a request from South Carolina Gov. McMaster. The governor made the request when one such organization, Miracle Hill Ministries, was in danger of losing its funding because of an Obama-era regulation that applied to all HHS grantees. 

For almost 30 years, Miracle Hill served all foster children of any race, nationality, religious belief, sex, disability, or political belief and was responsible for finding good placements for 15% of the over 4,500 children in the South Carolina foster care system. Miracle Hill is clear that its sincerely held religious beliefs are what motivate their work in caring for the needy and vulnerable. They view their foster care services as direct obedience to the biblical directive to care for vulnerable children.

This waiver, based on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), granted protections for faith-based organizations in South Carolina and allowed them to continue receiving federal funding without compromising their religious principles and convictions.

Fulton v. City of Philadelphia

In June, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled in Fulton v. City of Philadelphia  that faith-based foster care and adoption providers, such as Catholic Social Services in Philadelphia, can continue serving children and families according to their convictions. In the Fulton decision, the court strengthened and clarified the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. 

The basis for the court’s ruling is a clause included in contracts by the City of Philadelphia that give city officials the power to grant certain exemptions. The city government said it has never given out such an exemption and had no intention of providing one to CSS based on their religious beliefs. While the Fulton case set an important precedent for faith-based child welfare providers, there could be lawsuits filed against HHS for this rescission of religious liberty waivers.

Americans have a Constitutional right to religious freedom, and our government must respect the First Amendment and people of faith who serve according to their deeply held religious beliefs.

HHS stated that they would “evaluate religious exemptions and modifications of program requirements on a case-by-case basis.” 

How is the ERLC involved?

Brent Leatherwood, ERLC’s Acting President, stated, 

“These actions not only prevent faith-based child welfare providers from serving vulnerable children in foster care, but they also reveal an animus toward people of faith. Instead of a government that serves the people, these actions show a government willing to target groups for their beliefs. This has the effect of further eroding trust at a time when government institutions can least afford it. Our public square cannot continue to sustain these sorts of reckless and arbitrary changes that are rooted in political ideology, especially those that punish faith-based adoption agencies and religious organizations. Children in need are the ones who end up suffering because of this unending political warfare. That must stop.”

The ERLC is advocating before the administration on behalf of the faith community.  As Leatherwood affirmed, “Every elected official must recognize that religious freedom is a cornerstone of the Constitution. Our government, therefore, has a duty to protect the rights of those who enter the public square with sincerely-held religious beliefs, not assail them. We have communicated our concerns about these moves to the Administration and we will continue advocating on behalf of the faith community on this important matter.”

The ERLC will always promote and defend the human dignity, religious liberty, and conscience rights of all people and religious organizations — within each administration, on Capitol Hill, and throughout the public square. We will continue to work to ensure that vulnerable children in our nation can find safe, permanent, and loving homes.

By / Oct 5

Yesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court began its 2021-22 term. For the first time in more than 18 months, the justices will be physically present in the courtroom for oral arguments. Justice Kavanaugh will participate remotely because he tested positive for COVID-19 last week. According to the Supreme Court, “Courtroom access will be limited to the Justices, essential Court personnel, counsel in the scheduled cases, and journalists with full-time press credentials issued by the Supreme Court.”  However, the court will provide a live audio feed for the October, November, and December oral arguments.

The previous term of the Supreme Court contained some important cases that advanced the cause of religious liberty in the United States. This term, the cases the court will be hearing and deciding could have major implications on both religious liberty and life issues. Here is a rundown of some of the cases we will be watching. 

Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization

In mid-May, the Supreme Court granted cert on a case reviewing a Mississippi law that would replace the ‘viability standard’ with a limit on abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy. The issue the court will be deciding is whether pre-viability prohibitions on elective abortions are unconstitional.

Mississippi passed a law in 2018 titled the “Gestational Age Act,” prohibiting abortions after 15 weeks except in a medical emergency and in cases of severe fetal abnormality. According to the findings in the legislation, “an unborn human being’s vital organs begin to function at ten weeks’ gestation. Hair, fingernails, and toenails also begin to form.” And “at twelve weeks’ gestation, an unborn human being can open and close his or her fingers, starts to make sucking motions, and senses stimulation from the world outside the womb.” 

A doctor with Jackson Women’s Health Organization filed a lawsuit in federal district court challenging the law and requesting an emergency temporary restraining order (TRO). A district court enjoined Mississippi from enforcing the law, finding that the state had not provided evidence that a fetus would be viable at 15 weeks. Additionally, the district court believed that the Supreme Court precedent prohibits states from banning abortions prior to viability. The case represents a significant opportunity for the pro-life movement as hundreds of proposed state laws protecting the unborn could potentially take effect.

The ERLC filed an amicus brief in this case, requesting the U.S. Supreme Court overturn the precedent set in the Roe v. Wade (1973) and Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992) decisions that have prevented states from prohibiting abortion. The ERLC joined with other pro-life organizations on the brief, including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, National Association of Evangelicals, and the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. 

Oral arguments for Dobbs will be held on Dec. 1, 2021.

For further reading:

Carson v. Makin

Each state is required to ensure that they are providing every school-aged child access to a free education. The state of Maine relies on local school administrative units (SAUs) to ensure that children have access to free education. For private schools to be approved, they must meet the state’s compulsory attendance requirements, and it must be “nonsectarian in accordance with the First Amendment.”

Three families wished to send their children to private schools that were accredited, but did not meet the nonsectarian requirement because they are religiously affiliated. As a result, they were denied public financial assistance. They filed a lawsuit in federal court arguing that the “nonsectarian” requirement violates the Constitution on its face and as applied.

This case is a follow-up to Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, a 2020 case in which the Supreme Court held that Montana could not cut families off from a scholarship program available to all because they wanted to send their children to religious schools. In Espinoza, a state constitutional provision in Montana prohibited state tuition assistance funds from being used for private, religious education. The court will take up a question that wasn’t answered in the Espinoza case — “Does a state violate the Constitution when it operates a program that provides students with money to attend private schools but bars them from attending schools that provide religious instruction?”

The ERLC filed an amicus brief, arguing that the government should not discriminate against religion or people who wish to send their children to religious institutions.

Oral arguments for the Carson case will be held on Dec. 8, 2021. 

Ramirez v. Collier

On Sept. 8, just hours before John Ramirez was to be executed for a murder in Corpus Christi, the Supreme Court granted a stay of the execution. Ramirez sued Texas prison officials in August for refusing to permit Dana Moore, pastor of Second Baptist Church in Corpus Christi, to minister to him when he is executed. This case deals with the question of whether the state can prohibit a pastor or spiritual advisor from offering audible prayers and spiritual touch to an inmate condemned for execution.

Brent Leatherwood, ERLC’s acting president, stated that “the high court should overrule Texas’ ban and allow this important and solemn moment of ministry to proceed. Religious freedom doesn’t end as you approach the moment of death, and we have joined a brief saying as much,” Leatherwood said in written comments. “The state has yet to make a compelling argument for why Pastor Moore, an SBC pastor, cannot minister to Mr. Ramirez in these final moments.”

The ERLC filed an amicus brief asking the U.S. Supreme Court to protect the freedom of a condemned Texas inmate to have a Southern Baptist pastor lay hands on and pray for him when he receives a lethal injection.

Oral arguments for the Ramirez case will be held on Nov. 1, 2021.

Brief the ERLC has joined 

In addition to the cases before the Supreme Court this Fall, the ERLC has joined a brief on Petition for Writ of Certiorari (asking the court to grant cert.)

Seattle Union Gospel Mission v. Woods

Seattle Union Gospel Mission is a nonprofit ministry that serves the homeless in King County, Washington, by providing food, shelter, legal services, and addiction-recovery support. They also share the gospel with the homeless they serve. Matthew Woods, a lawyer, applied to work at the legal clinic even though he didn’t to the mission’s religious requirements for employees — including attending church and embracing the mission’s biblical view of sexual relations. Woods wasn’t hired, and he sued. 

The mission’s religious convictions are the foundation for all the work they do, and they expect every staff member to share and live in accordance with the their religious beliefs. It is that evangelization that makes the mission so successful at the work they do. The question in this case is who counts as a minister for the purposes of the ministerial exception.

The ERLC engages our culture with the gospel of Jesus Christ in the public square to protect religious liberty and promote human flourishing. One of the ways we do this is by advocating for these things before the Supreme Court. While we’ve worked diligently and pray earnestly that the court will make decisions that uphold life, religious liberty, and the freedom of conscience, we ultimately place our trust in God to fulfil his plans and use the work of the ERLC along the way. As the psalmist declares, “Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the LORD our God” (Psa. 20:7 NIV).

By / Aug 17

There has been much written lately about the declining rates of childbearing. Some argue that it is a good choice in light of economic and climate concerns, while others worry about the fact that men and women are delaying marriage and childbirth until later in life, leading to a population decline. Nowhere is this more acute than in Japan where a city of some two dozen adults have resorted to lifelike dolls as stand-ins for people because the last child born in the city was over 20 years ago. The recent COVID-19 epidemic has even contributed to what has been called a “baby bust” in the United States. This decline in births has serious implications for all areas of life, including religion.

In his new book, Faith and Fertility: The Demographic Revolution and the Transformation of World Religions, Baylor historian Philip Jenkins looks at the close connections between rates of fertility and religious adherence across the globe. His book explores the relationship between childbearing and secularization and the current ways that the religious landscape of the world is being reshaped, especially in Western Europe and North America where fertility rates have fallen precipitously in recent decades. 

In your introduction, you say that there is a direct relationship between the fertility rates of a society and its religiosity. Countries with high fertility rates also (typically) enjoy higher rates of religiosity, and vice versa. Is one feeding the other, or are these just predictors of the future?

Anyone who ever took a college course on sociology knows about debates over causation and correlation. If two things happen at the same time, does one cause the other, or are they both caused by something else altogether? Or, are they simply unconnected? What I am saying is that if you look at particular countries, or regions, that linkage between fertility rates and religiosity is very strong indeed. Moreover, sudden changes in the one trend correspond really neatly to changes in the other. In fact, as I argue, you can actually use fertility changes as a predictor of what will happen in the religiosity of a particular society, and those predictions are very likely to hold good. So is this causation or correlation? 

One problem is that the two trends happen in such short time periods — maybe five or 10 years — that it is close to impossible to decide which is cause and which effect. I think for instance of a country like Italy in the 1970s, which quite suddenly in just a few years experienced a very sharp fertility drop, and where in those same years, religious practice and commitment plunged. I can actually make a good case either way, for which trend is causing which. But in a sense, that does not really matter, because the basic linkage is so solid, and attested so widely. What we can say with high confidence is that high fertility societies are also high faith, and vice versa. When a high fertility society suddenly moves to a low fertility model — and those changes do tend to be sudden — then watch closely for the religious effects.

How do the changes in fertility and focus on child-centered families change other attitudes in the society? What are some areas of rapid shifts in public attitude that have coincided with the shift in fertility and religiosity? 

I use the example of Europe from the 1960s onward, although the changes that happened there have subsequently moved over much of the globe. When family size declines, and children are less on the scene, several things happen. Quite rapidly, people lose many of the ties that previously bound them to churches or other religious institutions. They are no longer sending children to church schools or first communion classes or bar mitzvah classes. But also, society becomes more open to arguments that separate sexuality from reproduction. In the older world, families might have listened closely to what religious institutions said about enforcing sexual morality through law, but that changes quickly. In Europe, so many of these changes have happened through referenda and public votes, rather than, as in the U.S., through judicial decisions. So, you can actually map quite revolutionary changes in public attitudes, with a new openness to contraception, divorce, abortion, and gay rights issues. 

As a result, countries that in 1960 were some of the world’s most morally conservative became some of the most liberal. At every stage, you can also link these developments to changes in fertility. As society becomes more liberal or even radical on these issues, so the churches lose ever more support as they are repeatedly depicted as the bad guys seeking to staunch progress. They face a kind of vicious circle. People are prepared to accept or tolerate the churches and clergy but only as long as they keep out of private lives. In terms of how religion has always been seen as a force in public life, that is a revolutionary development.

It is not, you argue, necessarily Marx or Freud whose work has reduced the appeal of religion, but possibly the work of Louis Pasteur and advances in medicine. Why has something like germ theory shifted our understanding of the family? 

One great force driving high fertility in past centuries was the very high death rate for babies and small children. Infant mortality rates were inconceivably dreadful, so people had to have lots of children to compensate for losses. That in turn severely constrained women’s lives. New insights about germs and infections meant that infant mortality rates fell incredibly fast, and that was the essential precondition for smaller family size. At the same time, knowing the causes of disease has massively reduced the role of clergy and churches in seeking to offer healing and protection against bodily ills. Whole areas of life have been transferred to the medical profession, which now can have a real and positive impact, which was certainly not true until the mid-19th century.

Also, higher standards of health mean that death has become a less familiar and visible part of our everyday lives, and that in turn has limited what was once one of the critical functions of clergy, namely in being present at deathbeds and funerals. Today, death is more medicalized, and is regarded as something for the very old, rather than something that can strike anyone at any time. We have had a revolution in death.

Your book deals a lot with secularization theory and the idea that religion will just generally decline and eventually disappear. However, you say that secularization is a self-limiting process. What do you mean by this?

Imagine a society that is low faith and low fertility, and as I say, the two trends go together. Societies age and become more stable. They also become more secular, and more liberal in their cultural and sexual attitudes. If those are your views, you might think that is a wonderful prospect, and we are all joining together singing John Lennon’s Imagine. But a society with a median age in the 40s — and that is much of Europe today — simply cannot survive economically. It needs people to do the working class jobs, to provide the human services, and to pay the taxes. That means drawing in immigrants, who come from young and high fertility lands in the Global South. In Western Europe, that means turning to North Africa or the Middle East, or South Asia. 

But high fertility societies are also high faith societies, and those new immigrants are likely to be strongly religious, not to mention very traditional in their morality. Many immigrants are Muslim, but plenty of others are passionately Christian. So, in that sense, a secular society will inevitably be transformed by those strictly non-secular immigrants. Over time, the immigrants will often come close to outnumbering the old-stock populations. The less religious a society is today, the more religious it will become in a generation or so.

While the secularization that you note about Europe is true, America has traditionally been a sort of outlier to the conversation because it resembles European nations in many respects but has also retained high levels of religious behavior and identity. Will that trend continue or will American begin to look more like Europe in the near future? 

The U.S. was long a problem for scholars of religion, because it was high faith and (relatively) high fertility. Some of us — including myself! — spent lots of time trying to account for this paradox. For better or worse, we no longer have to explain such things because the U.S. has now moved decisively to European levels of fertility. The big change was the economic crisis of 2007-8, which increasingly looks like a social revolution in people’s ways of life and expectations. 

Today, U.S. fertility rates track closely with those of famously low-fertility Denmark, and they may well go lower: it will be very interesting to see the long-term impact of the pandemic. And as we might have expected, low fertility rapidly implies low faith. The best evidence for this is the dramatic growth of the Nones, those who reject any religious affiliation. They already outnumber Catholics, and by 2025 should be the largest component of the U.S. population, above evangelicals.

Ronald Inglehart wrote recently that “Since 2007, the United States has showed the largest shift of any country away from religion and now ranks among the world’s least religious publics.” For anyone who recalls conditions even a decade ago, that’s amazing. So yes, I do think that “Europe awaits.”

This decline in religion though is not a complete rejection of faith. There is an increase as you note in pilgrimages to holy sites and even many of the Nones (as Ryan Burge has argued in his book on the growing religious group) display some continued adherence to religious belief. So, is this part of the larger conversation about a declining trust in institutions across culture, not just the church specifically? 

And that is an excellent point. When people talk about secularization, they often see it as the same as atheism, which it is not. When people cut loose from institutions, they often maintain the underlying codes and belief system, as in the case of the Nones. But here is the problem. If you cast off moorings from any and all churches, and live what you see as a religious life free of institutions, how long can you keep that up? Decades? A generation? And more important, is that something that can be passed on to the next generation. In Europe, it took a few decades, but those Nones gradually did turn into actual atheists, who see no reason at all for the survival of religion. I am not saying that trajectory is inevitable, but it seems like one we should be aware of.

How does the question of mass migration and immigrations contribute to this discussion? What effect does an influx of immigrants have on the religious behavior and fertility rates of a country? How do immigrants change over time in terms of childbirth and religious behavior? 

Right, I mentioned this earlier. Immigrants do tend to be younger than the historic population, because they are the sort of people who are likely to make such a dramatic move, and early on at least, they are very religious. As to what happens over two or three generations, that is a different matter. Certainly, people of migrant stock tend to move toward the norms of the host society, and their fertility rates do drop. Religion is a more complex matter. Christian migrants are a major part of church life in Europe, especially in countries like Britain, and we see a very similar pattern here in the U.S.

Muslims might tend to keep their religion even longer because it is so intimately bound up with every aspect of their lives, and their social realities. It is actually a very major and difficult step to move to be a real “ex-Muslim,” even if you abandon many aspects of the belief system.

In looking at Africa, you note that soon it will demographically lay claim to the title of the most populous Christian continent. What changes can expect to arise from this shift from Western Europe and North America to the Global South, and particularly Africa? 

Some areas of the world resist the drift to low fertility: Africa, and large portions of the Middle East and South Asia. These will increasingly dominate their respective faiths. By 2050 or so, around a third of all Christians will live on the African continent, and that does not include people of African stock living elsewhere in the world. The impact on Islam will be a bit less, because Muslim numbers are holding up very well in South Asia, but the African share will certainly grow for them too.

Common wisdom has often held that individuals go through stages of religiosity over the course of their lifetimes where they may leave in their young adult years but return when they have children. How does the shift in fertility affect that concept of the faith life cycle of individuals and their possibility of returning? How does it change the way that churches need to approach ministry and outreach in the future? 

I think about all the effort that churches put into studying and catering for children and young people, and I wonder if we are asking the wrong questions. The demographic revolution sweeping the world right now has its greatest impact on the numbers of the old and very old. Those numbers are soaring, both in absolute and relative terms. How do churches cope with them, apart from just holding helpful seminars on dying, death, and estate planning? That aging, that “graying,” poses questions that most churches have scarcely begun to contemplate. Those are some of the greatest challenges to ministry and outreach, and we scarcely have the vocabulary as yet with which to approach the problem. 

By / Jul 13

Forced displacement is a growing and urgent global crisis. A multitude of conditions, including religious persecution, force people from their homes to pursue safety and the well-being of their families. As the worldwide refugee crisis becomes increasingly dire, churches have an opportunity to profoundly affect displaced people by extending compassion, hospitality, and advocacy. 

Tariq is a refugee from Pakistan who arrived in New York City in 2007. Upon arriving, he connected with an SBC church that helped him settle and assist his family in joining him in the United States. Tariq and his family started a ministry in their neighborhood that serves immigrants in getting settled and integrated into life in the United States. I had the privilege of interviewing Tariq about his family’s journey.

Tell us about your experience in Pakistan before you moved to the United States?

In Pakistan, I worked for a nonprofit called CARITAS, a Catholic organization that serves impoverished communities with assistance in development and poverty alleviation. I worked to coordinate agriculture development and identify community needs to figure out how the nonprofit could help them. Some more extremist groups in Pakistan were opposed to the organization I worked for because it was faith-based. I began receiving threats that if I didn’t cease my community work, I would be killed, and my family would be harmed. My family started receiving threats as well. 

In Pakistan, there are blasphemy laws that are used to persecute religious minorities. These blasphemy laws are often abused. Christians, as well as other minority religions, are often falsely accused. If two people can confirm someone has broken the blasphemy law, an individual can be thrown in jail, even executed, and are often attacked by mobs. 

How did you come to the United States?

Given the threats against my family and me, I decided to flee Pakistan to the United States while my family moved to another place in Pakistan and went into hiding to avoid threats. In 2007, I applied for a visa through my job at the nonprofit. I was connected with someone in New York City who worked for the organization. It took a while to get all of the paperwork confirmed, but I moved to New York once I received my visa. 

What was your experience like when you arrived in the United States?

I felt like a stranger because I was in a new country and didn’t know anything about the city. Thankfully I met a friend from Pakistan who gave me a place to stay for the first year. 

I got connected through a reference to a church called New Hope in Queens. They prayed for my family and me to be able to be reunited. They prayed for me to get a green card and for my wife to get a visa, and both of those eventually happened. They encouraged me. 

They also paid my rent for several months while I could not find work and invited me to share my testimony at church. After a few years, they helped me earn my Master’s degree and begin my career in social work. 

When my wife arrived with our first child in 2010, she felt we should start an organization that could help people in our same position. That year, we created a nonprofit in our community called International Community Care Foundation. Our objective was to support new immigrants to the United States in order to empower them, build their links to communities and churches, and help them adjust to a new home. We also sought to help people who were being persecuted back in Pakistan.

How do you serve other immigrants in your community?

Our church helped us to start our community organization by supporting us financially and with volunteers. We host an ESL program, a children’s program, we connect immigrants to job opportunities, and we help them apply for green cards and citizenship. We have helped over 40 women train in English and eventually get connected to jobs. All of our programs are hosted in our apartment complex. 

We started the children’s program when we realized some moms could not attend because they were watching their children. At the children’s program, we teach English and math, share Bible stories, and put on fun activities. 

The community of immigrants who join us is diverse. We have Muslims, Hindus, Christians, and people from South Asia, Latin America, and Africa. 

What would you like people to know about those who are seeking asylum?

In many countries like Pakistan, life is tough for groups that are persecuted. You are very vulnerable because the blasphemy laws are set up to be used against you at any time. Often women are forcibly converted. It is very dangerous and frightening to be persecuted, but it also puts you in a situation where you lack financial opportunities and often lack basic needs like food. Also, being in that situation can affect your faith, and Christians need encouragement to persevere. I would love to see more people from the United States support and encourage those persecuted worldwide. There are organizations that you can support that help persecuted Christians. 

How can churches support displaced people in the United States?

The support of a church and community can transform a refugee’s life. It certainly transformed my life. The most important thing for me was that I had a community that welcomed me and encouraged me to grow in my faith. This helped me persevere through difficult times. 

Beyond that, financial support and guidance can help get refugees on their feet. It is costly to get legal aid to apply for asylum. It can cost up to $10,000. If you are new to the country, this can be very difficult. Sponsoring someone for asylum is a great way to help. 

Once refugees are established, they can turn around and support other people who are new to the country and need help. Each church can make a significant impact by even helping one person. Also, finding organizations that support refugees and immigrants is a great way for churches to help. 

The answers have been edited for brevity and clarity. If you would like to learn more about Tariq’s organization, International Community Care Foundation, visit their website, Facebook page, or e-mail [email protected].

To learn more about how the refugee and asylum process works in the United States, visit this ERLC explainer.

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 / Jun 21

What does the future of Christianity in America look like? Better yet, what will the global religious landscape be like in a couple of decades? As secularism broadens its appeal and more and more people are religiously unaffiliated, we may find ourselves struggling to answer these questions. Or, we may simply be fearful of the answers.

A recent report titled “The Future of World Religions: Population Growth Projections, 2010-2050,” published by the Pew Research Center, outlines more than six years’ worth of data collection, coalescing their research into a document projecting the world’s religious makeup in 2050 and the trends that lead there. While the authors of this report are quick to admit how fickle some of these projections may be (due to potential factors like war, famine, disease, and others that cannot be accounted for), nevertheless, there is much in “The Future of World Religions” that should grab our attention. 

Here are three takeaways from the Pew Research Center’s report.

1. More religious, not less

If you are paying attention to Western religious trends, you may assume that the global religious trajectory is consistent with what we seem to be experiencing in the U.S., a wayward procession toward secularism. But you would be wrong. Even now, if we were to peer out beyond our own geographic context (and some would argue, even within our own), we would find that the world is not becoming irreligious but more religious. Pew researchers project that this will not only continue, but will surge in the coming decades.

“Atheists, agnostics and other people who do not affiliate with any religion (the report refers to this group as ‘the unaffiliated’) – though increasing in countries such as the United States and France,” the report states, “will make up a declining share of the world’s population.” Of course, because the global population is forecast to increase by 35% from 2010 to 2050, the raw number of religiously unaffiliated people is projected to increase, as we would expect among virtually every religious group. However, “their share of the global population is projected to decrease” from 16% in 2010 to 13% in 2050.

What this means, fundamentally, is that people, despite our technological advancements and “progress,” still possess a deep-level “ache” that goes unrelieved without some sort of transcendent remedy. There are questions that atheism and/or secularism (or any other false worldview, for that matter) simply cannot answer. Religion is not losing global influence. On the contrary, it is growing, and picking up steam. And while religious adherence grows among many faith traditions, Islam is projected to grow most rapidly. 

2. The continued growth of Islam

“By 2050, the number of Muslims will nearly equal the number of Christians around the world.” 

There is not a religious group that is projected to experience more rapid growth in the next several decades than the Muslim population, both worldwide and here within the United States. From Middle East-North Africa to the Asia-Pacific to Europe and North America, Islam is forecast to grow both numerically and in its share of each region’s total population. If Pew’s projections hold, Christians (31.4%) and Muslims (29.7%) will make up a nearly identical percentage of the world population, totaling an estimated 60% of all people on earth

While Christians will undoubtedly find this news distressing, we should view these predictions not as something to fear but as an opportunity. After all, these are projections, not certainties. Who’s to say that Christians can’t win to Christ those who are searching, those who are spiritually hungry, and those who are seeking a remedy for their “aches” rather than losing them to another religion like Islam or to the hopelessness of atheism? Despite all the evidence to the contrary, what if the church set out to upend these projections?

What would this take? Well, for one, we’d have to stop all the in-fighting and get serious about the Great Commission. And, certainly, we’d have to take the Great Commandments, the very words of Jesus, seriously — to love God with all that we have and love our neighbor as ourselves. And if we can do that, Lord willing, the Pew Research Center might just have to make significant amendments to their report. 

3. Christianity’s net losses

By far, the most distressing projection included in Pew’s report as it relates to Christianity is what they call the “Projected Cumulative Change Due to Religious Switching, 2010-2050.” According to their projections, no religious group will lose more adherents to “switching,” or leaving one’s faith tradition for another belief system, than Christianity.

“Over the coming decades, Christians are expected to experience the largest net losses from switching. Globally, about 40 million people are projected to switch into Christianity, while 106 million are projected to leave, with most joining the ranks of the religiously unaffiliated” (emphasis added). If you do the math, that is a projected net loss of more than 66 million people, exponentially more than any other group represented in the report. 

While the report isn’t concerned with answering this question, it would be negligent of us not to ask “why?” Is it because those leaving will have found Jesus’ teaching “hard” (John 6:60) like we read in John’s account of the gospel? Is it because we will have practiced some sort of Pharisaical hypocrisy, driving them away from the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 23:13-15)? Or, will they have “gone out from us” because “they were not of us” (1 John 2:19)? Regardless, this projected seismic “switch” will be a tragedy if we do not resolve to prevent it. 

The thing about projections is that they don’t come true until they come true. May we work with all the strength God gives us to see to it that these 66 million who are expected to desert Jesus never actually do. 

Perseverance in the face of projections

Regardless of what any report might project, the church of Jesus Christ is assured of its perseverance. 

Will Christianity always maintain its majority in global population numbers? I don’t know, maybe not. Will American culture continue to secularize? According to this report, it looks that way for the next 30 years or more. Does this put Christianity and Christ’s church in jeopardy of ceasing to exist? By no means!

The first-century church, under the threat of its Roman overlords, would not have been on the favorable end of any projections. I am certain that Christianity’s eventual extinction would have been the recurrent prediction in that day. But here we are, continuing to persevere, because we do not live by the words and projections of man, “but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matt. 4:4). And the Word that has proceeded from the mouth of God has clearly stated that not even “the gates of hell will prevail” against his church (Matt. 16:18). 

We should take Pew’s projections seriously, but let’s not allow them to drive us to despair. Instead, let’s be driven to carry out our mission. Those hungering for some sort of transcendent answer to their aches, those flocking to Islam, and even those disillusioned by their experience of Christianity — whatever the source of that disillusionment —let’s echo the words of Philip in the gospel of John when he said to Nathaniel, “Come and see” (John 1:46). And let’s bring them to Jesus.

By / Apr 7

America is no longer a Christian nation if one goes by the official membership rolls of churches. According to a recent study by Gallup, church membership dropped below 50% for the first time in their 80 years of studying religion. This follows a decades long trend of increasing disaffiliation, rejection, and apathy of faith by Americans. The data from Gallup points to some trends that all pastors and leaders in ministry should be aware of, but it also holds some important points about how to stem the growing number of people walking away from Christianity specifically, and faith generally. 

Problem of decline

The decline noted by Gallup is not a new phenomenon. As Gallup’s polling shows, church membership held steady at roughly 70% for most of the 20th century. However, in the mid-to-late ’90s, there was a sudden uptick in the number of people moving away from religious identity. These “nones” represent the fastest growing segment of the American religious landscape. As Ryan Burge has written in his study of this group, it includes those who are atheists and agnostics as well as those who are “nothing in particular.” It is this third group, who eschew religious labels even as they retain a limited number of religious beliefs, that account for the decrease in religious behavior. For an interview with Burge, view this ERLC article. 

However, the rejection of affiliation is not just from those who dismiss the tenets of the faith. Even among believers, formal membership has declined. What can account for this? While there has always been a fluidity to church membership in America’s religious marketplace where people could leave one church and go to another without much trouble, a trend that has accelerated with the rise of larger parachurch organizations and the ability to “go” to church online. But based on the rapid increase, it seems that there are other reasons for this decline rooted primarily in our loss of trust in institutions across society of which religion is just one victim. 

Crisis of institutions

The trend toward declining membership began in the late ‘90s and has accelerated over the past two decades. While monocausal explanations are rarely sufficient to capture the complexity of any situation, it is not a understatement to say that the past two decades have revealed deep rot within our institutions and a growing distrust by the public that institutions serve the public good. From the scandals of sexual abuse within Catholicism and Protestantism to the #MeToo revelations in the halls of Hollywood, not to mention abuses by celebrities and leaders (both religious and secular), the last decade especially has evidenced the deep problems that exist. 

And the effect of this crisis is that younger generations are less likely to see a reason to join any traditional institution because of a creeping cynicism about the motives and purpose of the institutions. Rather than being places of formation, the institutions are viewed as means for those in power to protect themselves and ensure their ongoing prosperity. And the response increasingly is “Why bother?” Why bother with a church that prioritizes politics over fidelity to the gospel, an abusive leader over protecting the vulnerable, or that is satisfied with “only preaching the gospel” without ever asking what the gospel requires of us when we go into a world filled with injustice? A church that is no more sanctified than the local Kiwanis Club is not worth the effort it takes to invest your life, and at least the Kiwanis don’t require you to give up a Sunday morning. As Russell Moore has said,

“The culture often does not reject us because they don’t believe the church’s doctrinal and moral teachings, but because they have evidence that the church doesn’t believe its own doctrinal and moral teachings. They suspect that Jesus is just a means to an end—to some political agenda, to a market for selling merchandise, or for the predatory appetites of some maniacal narcissist.”

Places of hope and renewal

But it is not all bad news. In fact, the problem reveals the solution, even if it is a generations long project. First, though church membership is declining, religious belief still remains strong. Though the nones are growing, and growing rapidly, over 70% of Americans still identify with some form of organized religion, even if they are unwilling to formally join that religion. As discussed above, it is the institution that needs to be reformed as well as the individual; just because people aren’t on the roll at their church doesn’t mean that they aren’t finding their identity somewhere else. So the task of Christian leaders and congregations is to help situate their members’ identity primarily in the gospel, and especially in the context of a local church that is part of a global body. Institutions are strongest when they are places of character and identity formation.

Someone who goes through the military comes out a certain type of person. He or she has been molded and shaped by the norms of the institution into a person who values, loves, lives, and acts in accordance with institutional norms and expectations, often to such a degree that it is apparent in all areas of their life. 

The church should be no different. The decline in church membership is not the real problem, only the evidence of the deeper problem that people are not being formed into the type of people that prioritize the local body. In order to change this, a perspective is required that looks not just at the immediate circumstances, but generations down the line and into eternity. As C.S. Lewis reminds us, it is in the everyday choices that we are being conformed into either a heavenly or hellish creature. It is an ongoing process of formation and molding—or sanctification, to use the terminology of the New Testament—that occurs over a long period of time. 

More importantly, the church should hold out the beauty and power of the community that is the church to the world. The early church had its share of struggles and growing pains, with division between rich and poor, Gentile and Jew, and controversies over who had baptized them, all of which were rebuked. They were also called to unity and community because of their shared identity in Christ. It has become increasingly obvious over the past year that we are not meant to live life alone. Isolation is not good for our souls. And the community the church offers in its rituals and membership is a fellowship that goes deeper than just a Kiwanis meeting. 

The church is a place of vulnerability as we reveal our pains and hurts. It is a place of love as we are served by and serve those around us. It is a place of welcome as we are brought in without regard for our past and are seated at the table where the cup and bread are passed from one broken individual to another. And it is a place where the markers of identity that matter outside the church—race, gender, income, marital status—are not ignored, but they are subsumed in the deeper identity shared by all who are united to Christ. People are looking for community. May they see the church as a place where they are pursued and welcomed into deep, lasting relationship.

By / Apr 5

The odds are increasing that you know someone (if not multiple people) who identifies as part of the “nones” of religion, whether that is someone who identifies as an atheist, agnostic, or nothing in particular. According to multiple studies, the nones make up one of the largest segments of religious America and are the fastest growing religious demographic, especially among young Americans. How can the church respond to this shifting religious landscape? Part of that response starts with understanding just what is going on. 

In his new book, The Nones: Where They Came From, Who They Are, and Where They Are Going, social scientist and pastor Ryan Burge offers a detailed study of the nones in order to offer churches and ministry leaders the tools necessary to understand and minister to those who have given up on religion. Drawn from his years of research and data analysis, Burge provides an excellent and accessible resource for those seeking to understand both why the nones have grown so much in recent years and the variety within this large subgroup of Americans. 

You spend the first part of the book introducing yourself and describing the relationship between your role as a professor and a pastor. How do you see those connected, and how does each inform the other in this book?

The impetus for writing the book was really a confluence of my work as both a pastor and a political scientist. I’ve been on the staff of three different American Baptist churches in rural Illinois. Two of them are substantially smaller today than they were a decade ago, and the third one has closed. I’ve seen it in the pulpit in my current church. When I began my work there in 2006, we had about 50 in the sanctuary on a good Sunday. Today, we are lucky to get 15. That makes you ask the big questions like: Why is this happening? And, can I do anything about it? 

Luckily for me, I have the tools at my disposal to answer a lot of those queries in a fairly rigorous way. I’ve been digging into survey data about religion and politics for the last 15 years and have made a name for myself by publishing a lot of that analysis in a variety of outlets. It seemed like a worthwhile endeavor to focus my analytical lens onto the biggest story in American religion during my lifetime—the rise of the nones. I felt like I could help pastors understand what was happening in American society in a more neutral and nuanced way than they would be able to on their own. 

In your discussion of religious affiliation, you describe “the three B’s: religious behavior, belief, and belonging. When looking at the rise of the “nones,” is there one of these that seems especially important? 

For anyone who is a serious scholar of religion, the biggest question they face on a daily basis is foundational—how do we measure religion? Because if you really sit back and think about religion, it’s so incredibly multifaceted. The most widely accepted way to classify religious expression is the three B’s—behavior, belief, and belonging. Behavior is usually measured by how often someone attends religious services or prayers. Belief is typified by questions about theological matters like a person’s view of the Bible, belief in Heaven and/or Hell, or willingness to believe there is evil in the world. Belonging is more of a sociological approach. It focuses on who you are willing to associate with when you are asked about your present religion on a survey. Respondents are typically given a range of choices such as Protestant, Catholic, Mormon, Buddhist, or Atheist.

What’s interesting about the nones is that they seem to cast off the B’s in a pretty similar pattern. The first to go is almost always religious behavior. About a third of Americans say that they attend church less than once a year. That seems to be accelerating as the society has become less social and more digital. After behavior, the next one to fall by the wayside is clearly religious belonging. Today, about 30% of Americans indicate that they have no religious affiliation, and that has been climbing without any plateaus since the early 1990s. However, the last to leave is clearly religious belief. The GSS has been asking respondents about their belief in God since 1988, when just about 5% professed an atheist or agnostic worldview. In 2018, that had only climbed to about 11%. Even though about a third of Americans don’t behave or belong, 90% still believe in God at least sometimes. That says something about us as people—many of us still want to believe. 

One of the examples you point to in the difficulty of measuring all of these changes is “social desirability bias.” You highlight one study of Ashtabula County in Ohio as a case study of this phenomenon. First, what is social desirability bias, and how does it affect the way that social scientists study religiosity? What does it reveal for pastors and ministers about the way their communities think of their own religious behavior? 

Social desirability bias is the thing that keeps researchers up at night, especially those who study things that have a strong moral component like sexual behavior, drug use, racial attitudes, and church attendance. There is a well-documented reality that when people are asked on surveys about these types of behaviors, some of them lie. They want to make themselves look good in the eyes of the survey administration, which means they typically underreport drug use or sexual partners and overreport the rate at which they attend church. The study of Ashtablula County, Ohio,is a perfect example. On a survey, about 36% of respondents said they went to church weekly, but when researchers did a thorough check of the pews on a Sunday, attendance was only about 20%. 

Because of social desirability bias, we can never be entirely sure what the true beliefs and behaviors are of the public we are trying to study. This, unfortunately, is not good news for pastors and denominational leaders because the reality is that the real rate of religious adherence, church attendance, and belief in God is probably overreported. We will never be able to determine how inaccurate our estimates are, but it’s well understood that the public is less religious than they want us to believe.  

Looking at the declines and gains in the major traditions, some have pointed to theological differences as the only reasons for decline or maintenance, particularly in the Mainline denominations. Why is that narrative too simple? What other factors are contributing to the decline across the traditions?    

Whenever I show the graph of the American religious landscape over the last 40 years, there are two lines that move dramatically. The nones were 5% of the population in 1972, and then they were 23.5% of the population in 2018 using the GSS calculation. However, the other big shift is among mainline Protestants. These are the more theologically moderate Protestant traditions like United Methodists and Episcopalians. They were 30% of the population in 1976. Today they are 10%. 

It would be easy to say that the rise of the nones is easily explained—lots of mainline Protestants became nones. Except that’s much too simplistic. The data indicates that mainline Protestants have clearly had problems with retention for decades, but those who left that tradition were nearly evenly split between becoming evangelical or leaving religion all together. Under the surface, there’s a lot of turbulence in the religious marketplace. Nearly half of Americans raised in a specific Protestant tradition are not members of that denomination as adults. So, while many mainliners left to become nones, there were Catholics and evangelicals who also walked away from faith as well. 

There is a fear that America (and other parts of the world) are secularizing and that this is inevitable? How is America like the European countries that have become “post-Christian?” How does it differ? What does this mean for the American religious landscape?

The problem with the United States from a social science perspective is that there’s not really a good comparison case to the rest of the world. Our closest neighbor socially and culturally is clearly western Europe. They are a region that can match us in terms of educational attainment and economic output, but they have a much different history with religion than the United States. Many European countries have a state religion, and lots of conflicts on the continent were fought for expressly religious reasons. In my estimation, both of those were bad for the health of religious institutions on the continent, and the data bears that out. In countries like Germany, France, and Sweden less than 10% of its citizens attend church on a weekly basis. 

But, I think that there are clear reasons to think that the United States will not get to the same place as our European counterparts. While most European countries had (or still have) a state religion, the Founders were careful to ensure a strong separation of church and state. Also, the United States was fortunate to have a great deal of religious pluralism from its earliest days. Many colonies had a nice mix of Baptists, Methodists, Congregationalists and others even before the Revolution. And now, it’s not at all uncommon for a state’s largest religious tradition to only be 30% of the population. That pluralism seems to drive down religious resentment and may be one of the reasons that the United States is still so religious compared to Europe. 

One phenomenon that appears to be starker in recent years is the relationship between political identity and religious behavior, and the growing “God gap.” Does a person’s political identity, whether by party or ideology, influence their religious identity, or is the reverse true? Are there any major outliers to this theory? 

For decades, social scientists just assumed that the most important framework that people used in making political decisions was a religious worldview. This is something that any evangelical has heard about countless times from the pulpit. Christians should have the “mind of Christ” and take on a biblical worldview. However, there’s mounting evidence now that this is probably not the way that many Americans make decisions on who to support in elections. Michele Margolis’ recent book, From Politics to the Pews, makes a strong argument that politics is our primary framework, and everything else lies downstream of that—which means that we make decisions on where to go to church based on the politics of that congregation, not on theological considerations. 

In the 21st century, the parties have become more polarized than ever before. And while most people only consider the political sorting that has occurred, they miss the fact that the parties have sorted on religious dimensions as well. For instance, just over half of the American public is white and Christian. Yet, 75% of the Republican party is white and Christian, and it’s only 38% of the Democratic party. Thus, to be a person of faith in the United States is increasingly becoming synonymous with being a Republican, and being a “none” almost automatically sorts you into the Democratic camp. 

One interesting data point is the relationship between childbearing and a return to religion. How does the fact that people are delaying marriage and childbearing play into the story of the nones? Is it likely that these people will return even later in life? 

There is a very popular concept in the social science world called the life cycle effect that has made its way into a lot of discussion of church growth over the last several decades. It works like this: when people are young, they are typically fairly religious. Their parents encourage them to be part of a youth group, and they attend camps, retreats, lock-ins, etc. However, when they move into young adulthood and move away for college, they drift from religion. This typically lasts until they get married and have children. Then, they want to replicate their own religious upbringing in their offspring and come back to more consistent church attendance. 

In the book, I take a deep dive on that concept to see if that theory actually matches the data. Looking at trends in religious disaffiliation dating back to people born in the 1930s, I find that the life-cycle effect was especially prominent among the baby boomers. Many of them did come back to faith when they moved into their 30s and 40s. However, that’s no longer the case. The lines of disaffiliation are only pointing upward now as younger generations age. Even when they have children, they still drift away from religion. Pastors can no longer take for granted that the kids in their church may be gone for a while, but they will be back. Instead, many who leave never return. 

The common perception of the nones is that they are a monolithic category of people, many of them resembling Christopher Hitchens or Richard Dawkins. Is this picture still relevant? How has the group changed in recent decades?

I hope that’s one of the biggest contributions I make in the book, to provide clear and compelling evidence that all nones are not the same. Social science considers three different groups under the umbrella of the nones—atheists, agnostics, and nothing in particular. Atheists make up about 6% of the population and agnostics are about the same size. However, nothing in particulars are over 20% of the population today. That makes them the same size as white Catholics or white evangelicals. 

Their growth over the last decade is notable. In 2008, atheists made up 3.4% of the population and agnostics were just slightly larger at 4.5%. By 2019, atheists had nearly doubled in size to 6.6% and agnostics were 6.2%. However, the increase in the nothing in particular category is worth considering. They were 14.4% of the population in 2008 but had risen to 21.5% of the sample in 2019. That growth (7.1%) is larger than all the atheists in the United States today. There’s no religious group that is growing faster than nothing in particulars, yet very little attention has been paid to this group by scholars, pastors, or the media. 

On that note, how is the category of nones a broad category? How are the three groups you highlight—atheists, agnostics, and nothing in particular—different from one another? Is one more open to outreach and religion? 

To compare atheists to nothing in particulars is to see just how large the disparities are between the two groups. Forty-four percent of atheists have a four-year college degree, they are one of the most educated religious groups in the United States. Only 19% of nothing-in-particulars have a bachelor’s degree, which means they are the least educated group in the United States. Three-in-five nothing in particulars make less than $50,000 per year, and it’s only 40% of atheists. 

Christians have seemed to make all the nones into atheists, when the data indicates that nothing-in-particulars are three times their size. Also, when you look at data surrounding religious switching, atheists are incredibly unlikely to ever return to a religious tradition, while about 20% of nothing-in-particulars come back to a religious tradition over a four-year period of time. Instead of making a boogeyman of atheists, churches would be a lot better served by focusing their efforts on reaching the nothing-in-particulars. 

One of the final conclusions you make in the book is that spiritual interest hasn’t declined, but rather people’s willingness to take on the label of Christian, Muslim, Hindu. What are the important takeaways for how the church can minister in this new context? How will outreach and evangelism need to look different? How can churches keep “throwing out seed” as you encourage them in the final pages of the book? 

When thinking about church growth, pastors would be well served by placing things into two categories: things that can be changed and things that cannot. The macro-level shifts in American society toward secularization can clearly not be held back. There’s just too much momentum now to think that it will not continue for the near future. Fighting against this is like trying to extinguish a forest fire with a garden hose. It’s just not a productive use of time. 

However, there are things that pastors can do when thinking about the rise of the nones and the future of their church. I mention several in the book, but a big one is to listen to each none’s story about why they left the faith. I talk in broad generalities in the book, because that’s the nature of social science. But, if there are 60 million nones in the United States, there are 60 million stories of why people left religion behind. Some are deeply traumatic and involve abuse or neglect. Others are important theological debates about the nature of God and sin. But some are incredibly trivial like they were upset that the church moved the Sunday service up 30 minutes. 

Listening to those stories without preconceived notions or judgment is a good place to begin. But the purpose of that dialogue should not be to convert, but instead to understand. At the end of the day, most people just want someone to really listen to them without an agenda. Churches have been failing at that for years and that’s only become more of a problem as many become hyper-focused on growth. A good conversation goes a long way to building bridges and forging bonds.