Way back in the early 1980s, when I was working at The Charlotte News (now gone, alas), I heard the Rev. Billy Graham make a very interesting statement about American religion. It was much easier, he said, to do an evangelistic crusade in a highly secular city like New York or Los Angeles than in a Bible Belt location such as Atlanta or Dallas.
Why? The problem with the Bible Belt, he said, was that most of the people like to think they are Christians, when they are actually nominal Christians who don't take the faith very seriously. It's like they have had an "inoculation of faith" that makes it harder for them to embrace the real thing. People In the big, secular cities were much more honest, he said, about what they believe or don't believe.
No, I don't think he used the word "nones" in that press session. But he could have.
I share this flashback, of course, because the Pew Research Center has released another blast of newsworthy information about one of the most important trends in the past quarter-century of so in American life -- the rising number of people openly identifying as atheists, agnostics or as "unaffiliated," when it comes to claiming a specific religious tradition. This new study -- click here for the full .pdf text -- follows the famous "Nones on the Rise" study in 2012 that generated a tsunami of headlines and coverage.
Once again, the big action in this study is on the doctrinal and cultural left, as well as in the muddy middle of American religious life, the sector I have long called "Oprah America." The headlines, of course, have focused on the massive, but declining, number of Americans who call themselves "Christians." The Washington Post headline is epic:
Christianity faces sharp decline as Americans are becoming even less affiliated with religion
This is true. However, God is, as always, in the detail. Ditto for the Flying Spaghetti Monster.
I'll focus on a key chunk of the nuanced Post report, in part because (a) it was written by former GetReligionista Sarah Pulliam Bailey and (b) because our own Julia Duin is working on a post looking at coverage of the latest study and she will not include the Post report, because of her ongoing feature-writing relationship with The Washington Post Magazine.
A key factor is the number of Americans who are switching religions. Many are switching out, turning from nominal believers to "none" status. Also, many people are switching churches and this continues to plague oldline Protestant flocks, as well as the Catholic church. Looming in the background, as always, is the issue of declining vs. replacement birthrates.
Bailey reports, including information from Greg Smith, associate director of research at the Pew Research Center:
There are more religiously unaffiliated Americans (23 percent) than Catholics (21 percent) and mainline Protestants (15 percent). “That’s a striking and important note,” Smith said.
The groups experience their losses through what’s called “religious switching,” when someone switches from one faith to another. Thirteen percent of Americans were raised Catholic but are no longer Catholic, compared with just 2 percent of Americans who are converts to Catholicism.
“That means that there are more than six former Catholics for every convert to Catholicism,” Smith said. “There’s no other group in the survey that has that ratio of loss due to religious switching.”
That's amazing, in light of decades of red ink in the membership books of liberal Protestant churches. Here are my questions: What percentage of American Catholics are, in effect, "nominals" who have little or no contact with the faith? What percentage of the new "nones" come from this nominal flock, as opposed to those who could be called "faithful" or even "creedal"?
Meanwhile, the oldline Protestant numbers have shown more of the same:
Pew estimates there are about 5 million fewer mainline Protestants than there were in 2007. About 10 percent of the U.S. population say they were raised in the mainline Protestant tradition, while 6 percent have converted to mainline Protestantism.
Evangelical Protestants have experienced less decline, due to their net positive retention rate. For every person who has left evangelical Protestantism after growing up, 1.2 have switched to join an evangelical denomination.
So the evangelical news is not good, even if it is not as bad as in most other pews. The Bible Belt world of nominal Baptist and evangelical life has been hit hard, in part because those churches have long been the semi-established churches in that part of the nation. As I have always said, in many Texas towns there are more Southern Baptists than there are people.
So what's the big picture and what is the new news? The bottom line: More of the same. Here is what I wrote here at GetReligion at the time of the 2012 "nones" study, with help from University of Akron scholar John Green's thoughts on the political implications of these numbers.
... I flashed back to a Media Project seminar in the summer of 2008, when Green stood at a whiteboard and described the changes that he was seeing in the landscape of American religion. Everything he said on that day showed up years later, in the 2012 Pew Forum study of the religiously unaffiliated.
On the right side of the American religious marketplace, defined in terms of doctrine and practice, is a camp of roughly 20 percent (maybe less) of believers who are seriously trying to practice their chosen faith at the level of daily life, said Green. Then, on the other end of the spectrum, there is a growing camp of people who are atheists, agnostics or vaguely spiritual believers who define their beliefs primarily in terms of the old doctrines that they no longer believe. This is especially true when it comes to issues of salvation and sex. As the old saying goes, on these issues these spiritual-but-not-religious believers reject all absolute truths except the statement that there are no absolute truths.
In recent national elections this growing camp of secularists and religiously unaffiliated people have formed a powerful coalition with Catholic liberals, liberal Jews and the declining numbers of people found in America's liberal religious denominations (such as the "seven sisters" of oldline Protestantism). Add it all up, Green said in 2009, and you had a growing camp of roughly 20 percent or so on the cultural left.
The bottom line: This coalition was emerging as the dominant voice in the modern Democratic Party on matters of culture and religion. Just as Republicans have, in recent decades, had to wrestle with the reality -- the pluses and the minuses -- of the energy found on the Religious Right, leaders in the Democratic Party will now be faced with the delicate task of pleasing the Religious Left and its secular allies.
Three years later, the numbers are still headed that way.
The nominals are still turning into nones, creating strong polls on the doctrinal right and the liberal and unaffiliated left. So here is my question: Headline writers have embraced the "nones." That's a great, punchy term that will even fit cleanly in a one-column headline. But what should be call people in that steady block on the other side, the folks holding on to traditional forms of faith -- often, but not always, in healthy or even growing congregations?
Rod "friend of this blog" might want to call them the new old "Benedictines." Close, but not very headline friendly in a public newspaper.
The omnipresent LifeWay research Ed Stetzer has hinted at another term, over at Christianity Today:
So what are we supposed to think of Christianity in America?
The big trends are clear, the nominals are becoming the nones, yet the convictional are remaining committed.
In other words, Americans whose Christianity was nominal -- in name only -- are casting aside the name. They are now aligning publicly with what they’ve actually not believed all along.
The percentage of convictional Christians remains rather steady, but because the nominal Christians now are unaffiliated the overall percentage of self-identified Christians is decline. This overall decline is what Pew shows -- and I expect it to accelerate.
So it's "nones" vs. the "convictional" or maybe "convictionals"? I used to be a headline writer and I'm not sure that works.
It's crucial for journalists to realize that there is more to the 20-plus percent crowd that's strongly affiliated with faith than the evangelicals. There are daily and weekly Mass Catholics, and Orthodox Jews, and conservative mainliners, and Eastern Orthodox Christians and others. The Mormons are over there, too. So we can't really call them the "creedals," even if that's with a small "c." There are, of course, people who would want to jump straight to calling them "bigots," and that would fit well in a headline, but I don't think most journalists are ready to go that far -- at this point.
So journalists out there, especially copy editors: What would be a good, punchy, headline-friendly term for this other key group that keeps showing up in the Pew numbers?
Be nice and keep it clean.