Examining America's Changing Religious Landscape

May 15, 2015
Hollis Research Professor of Divinity Harvey Cox
Hollis Research Professor of Divinity Harvey Cox

The Pew Research Center recently released a report titled "America's Changing Religious Landscape." Among the findings detailed in the report were a decline in Americans who identify as Christian as a share of the population and a rise in Americans who are not affiliated with a religious tradition.

The report comes just weeks after HDS hosted Alan Cooperman, Pew's director of religion research, who gave a talk on global religious trends during the Dean's Leadership Forum.

To get some perspective on Pew's most recent study, HDS communications reached out to Harvey Cox, the Hollis Research Professor of Divinity.

HDS: The percent of Americans who identify as Christian has fallen by nearly 8 points since 2007. What issues might be causing the decline in Christianity and what steps, if any, can Christian religious leaders take to hold on to their current flock and rebound from a shrinking population?

Cox: The "decline in Christianity" is regional. We are in a period of vigorous growth for Christianity, not in Europe or the U.S., but globally, especially in Africa and Asia. The job of Christian religious leaders here in America is not to hold on to their flocks, but to help them contribute to a period in which – numerically – Christianity will no longer be dominant in the West and in which we will see expressions of Christian theology, ethics, and liturgy emerge that will be different in many respects from the ones we are used to.

I do not bemoan a minority status for Christianity in America. Christianity has often been at its best and most vigorous when a minority (100-350 CE), and has not always performed well as a majority. Jesus said his followers were to be the "salt of the earth," and a lamp in darkness.

HDS: As the number of religiously unaffiliated Americans continues to grow, do you see it becoming more difficult to have conversations across religious traditions?

Cox: Regarding "religiously unaffiliated," notice that surveys show that very few of these people want to be thought of as atheists. They sometimes call themselves "spiritual but not religious." This means they are objecting to the institutional and theological scaffolding of the faith, usually not to the core content of the message. They are often in "search mode." In some ways this is a healthy development, but it means religious leaders need to shape new ways of making them feel welcome.

HDS: Christianity has dominated American politics and culture. Does the decline in Christianity and continued growth of religiously unaffiliated Americans mean the United States will eventually no longer be a Christian nation?

Cox: A "Christian nation"? America never was. The founders were Deists, Enlightenment thinkers and even atheists as well as Christians. This mix is reflected in our founding documents. In recent years changing immigration patterns have made America more and more multi-religious. Our big challenge here is to see if we can be successful in this pluralistic experiment.

—by Michael Naughton