A Happier New Year for Christianity in America?

Gallup offers a Christmas surprise to those weary of the “rise of the Nones.” Too good to be true?

By Elizabeth Drescher

December 25, 2014 | Gallup continues to buck demographic trends that have tracked a steady increase in the percentage of Americans who claim no religious affiliation, reporting this week on a poll showing that three-quarters of Americans identify as Christian. In 2013, on the heals of the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life’s “Nones on the Rise” report, which showed a increase in the percentage of the unaffiliated to nearly 20 percent of the population, Gallup held that unaffiliation had slowed. Pew’s findings were validated in subsequent studies of data from the 2012 U.S. General Social Survey on religious affiliation.

The reliability of Gallup’s polling practices was tainted in the 2012 presidential election, when the firm’s predictions of a landslide for Mitt Romney were shown to have been motivated by Republican political leanings. Now, Gallup has doubled down on their affirmation of Christian America just in time for Christmas. “The U.S. remains a largely Christian nation, with over three-quarters of Americans identifying as Protestant, Catholic or Mormon. The U.S. also remains a generally observant nation as measured by Americans’ self-reported attendance at religious services,” their Christmas Eve release chirped. Well, God bless us, everyone!—including the rattly old Ghost of Christmas Past.

One hesitates to be a Scrooge here, but of course, as with all data, the manner in which it is presented is as important as the numbers themselves. Gallup is at pains to highlight only a “slight erosion of Americans’ identification as Protestant and concomitantly slight increase in the percentage with no religious preference” [emphasis added]. And, as far as we can tell—because specific questions used in polling and interviews aren’t included in the release, as is standard practice for Pew and Public Religion Research Institute—people were asked about religious identification rather than religious affiliation. This is not mere semantic hair splitting in that, while the majority of people who have formal membership in an institutional religious group are also likely to identify religiously with that group, the opposite is not true. That is, every person who identifies as “Buddhist,” “Christian,” “Islamic,” “Jewish,” and so on does not necessarily have formal membership in the associated institutional organization.

Shanna White, “Pews in Front of Me,” 2008. Cropped. CC 2.0 licensing.
The questions we need to be asking about American religion and spirituality today are not ones about how many and how often, but rather ones that focus on what — What is religious for you? What is spiritual for you? — and why — Why is that so for you?

Toward the Spirit of Christmas Future

Indeed, last month blogger Tom Schultz wrote about the so-called “rise of the Dones”—people who continue to identify as Christian (and who would, therefore, be picked up in Gallup polling), but who no longer belong to a church (and who, therefore, would not register as “religiously affiliated”), even though they might pop into a service once and a while (and who, therefore, would be counted as among Gallup’s “generally observant” cohort).

I talked with no few Dones (who I tended to identify more as “Mumford Christians”) as I was researching my forthcoming book on the spiritual lives of the religiously unaffiliated. Some identified as “Jesus Followers,” some as “post-Christian” or “post-Evangelical,” some as “None” or “nothing at all” despite a continuing reverence for the teachings of Jesus. Kelly J. Baker, whose reflection on her own complex thinking about returning to church—or not—appears in The Narthex this week, seems to fall somewhere in this religious in-between zone.

Baker’s ambivalence and anxiety about returning to church, and about what this might or might not mean about who she is as a person of faith, keys on factors in religious identity and affiliation that polls such as that offered by Gallup this holiday can’t possibly track. Religious and spiritual identity changes over time. Affiliations migrate across diverse and diffuse networks of relationships. “I’m no longer who I once was,” Baker writes, and her life is oriented around different relationships as a parent and spouse than it was as the graduate student who found a home in an institutional church community. So, while we might point Gallup to research showing that people tend to exaggerate levels of church attendance by about, oh, a 100 percent or so, the problem with the rosy picture Gallup attempts to paint about the enduring Christian character of American religious identity and practice is more fundamental than this. Gallup seems sure to skew its interpretation of the data it gathered, but its question miss the point of the ambivalence toward institutional religion expressed by Baker and a growing cohort of Nones, Dones, and religious whatevers.

The questions we need to be asking about American religion and spirituality today are not ones about how many and how often, but rather ones that focus on what—What is religion for you? What is spiritual for you?—and why—Why is that so for you? Ministry leaders who ask these latter sorts of questions—questions that facilitate relationships of complexity and challenge more than they do demographic reporting aimed at stoking a nostalgic comfort and joy—move toward a receptiveness to the religious and spiritual perspectives and practices of the growing number of religious Others whose spiritual lives play out often well beyond the boundaries of institutional religion but who nonetheless—the reliable data tell us—will come to define whatever American religion becomes next. They carry, that is, the Spirit of Christmas Future. On Christmas Present, then, those who care about institutional religion do well to attend the spiritual stories of these Others wherever they unfold rather than vainly counting on the return of Christmas Past to fill so many empty pews.

Elizabeth Drescher, PhD is the co-editor of The Narthex and a scholar, author, educator, and speaker on the spiritual lives of ordinary people today and in the past. She is the author of three books, most recently, Changing Our Religion: The Spiritual Lives of America’s Nones (Oxford, forthcoming). Her work has appeared in such outlets as The Washington Post, Salon, Sojourners, The San Francisco Chronicle, and Religion Dispatches. Learn more at elizabethdrescher.com and find Elizabeth on Twitter and Facebook.

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