Recent demographic analyses suggest that Christians will constitute a minority of the American population in less than 50 years—which has understandably caused some alarm among believers. But most of the anxiety is misplaced.
This is not the first time that prognosticators have predicted the imminent end of Bible-believing Christianity. Such predictions have been circulating for the past hundred years. There are good reasons to believe that orthodox Christianity in the United States is not likely to retreat in the same way that it has in Britain or much of Western Europe.
Instead, it will transform—and the result is likely to be disconcerting to believers and secularists alike.
To understand what changes are likely to occur in the next half century, it’s important to remember what did—and did not—happen after each of the earlier predictions of the imminent collapse of American Christianity or evangelical Protestantism.
In the 1920s and 1930s, liberal Protestants predicted the demise of those who believed in the “fundamentals” of the faith—including the Virgin Birth, biblical inerrancy, and the literal, physical second coming of Jesus.
Such projections concluded that American Christianity would become overwhelmingly liberal in its theology and these “fundamentalists” would account for only a small minority.
“Fundamentalism is still with us but mostly in the backwaters,” liberal New York pastor Harry Emerson Fosdick declared in 1935. “The future of the churches, if we will have it so, is in the hands of modernism.”
In the mid-1960s, professors at America’s leading divinity schools began predicting not only that would belief in the “fundamentals” soon shrink, but that even Christian theism itself might vanish—at least among the educated. Their reasoning at the time was that belief in the God of the Bible no longer seemed rational or met the needs of the contemporary generation.
For instance, mid-20th-century theologian Paul Tillich attempted to redefine God in existentialist terms as the “ground of being,” and Harvard Divinity School professor Harvey Cox’s tried to redefine Christianity as a secular ethic. Most controversial of all, a Time magazine cover in April 1966 provocatively asked the question “Is God Dead?”
In the early 21st century, analyses of public opinion polling data led some to predict “the end of Christian America,” as a Newsweek cover story phrased it in 2009.
In other words, for the past century, numerous people have been predicting that orthodox Christian doctrine, and maybe even Christian theism or the Christian label itself, would become passé in the United States, especially among the educated.
And in the end, it turns out theologically orthodox Christianity has had a lot more staying power than these predictions have suggested.
Few would have guessed from hearing Fosdick’s sermon in 1935 that a young man named Billy Graham had just experienced an evangelical conversion at a revival service in rural North Carolina. The most famous American evangelist of the 20th century (and a confidant of several US presidents) would retain a belief in the authority of the Bible and the “fundamentals” of the faith that Fosdick believed were outdated.
Some of those who read Cox’s The Secular City or saw the Time cover announcing the demise of belief in the mid-1960s might not have guessed or predicted that Christians would continue to gain cultural and political influence in the country.
Five years after Time asked “Is God Dead?” its 1971 cover story was on “The Jesus Revolution”—and another five years after that, Newsweekproclaimed 1976 “the Year of the Evangelical.”
Those who believed that the end of George W. Bush’s presidency marked the beginning of the “decline and fall of Christian America” were clearly premature in their predictions, as the political events of the next 10 years showed. Similarly, Fosdick and the liberal theologians of the mid-20th century were incorrect in their prediction that educated people would no longer be attracted to Christian orthodoxy.
Such trends suggest that traditional Christian doctrines like the Virgin Birth may have had more appeal even to the educated than liberal Protestants had once expected.
It’s tempting, therefore, to dismiss the latest predictions of Christianity’s decline in the United States as yet another forecast doomed to fail. But before we become too triumphant in our thinking, we need to remember that while earlier predictions of the end of theologically conservative Christianity were not entirely right, they were not altogether wrong either.
If we want to know what is likely to happen to American Christianity over the next few decades (and what the predictions of its coming decline really mean), we need to understand what did happen after each of the predictions in the past—not just what didn’t.
Fosdick was not entirely right in saying that believers in the fundamentals of the Christian faith would occupy only a marginal position in American Christianity, the 1920s and 1930s really did mark the end of a certain kind of Christian influence, as Fosdick suspected. Specifically, when it came to Northern Protestant institutions, he was mostly correct.
In the North (and even in many parts of the South), nearly every Protestant educational institution took the liberal side of the fundamentalist-modernist divide. So did the major Northern denominations and many of the largest interdenominational ministries and missions organizations.
Thus, the 1920s marked the formal end of Bible-believing evangelical cultural dominance in most areas of the country that were outside the South or some parts of the Midwest. That is, the US was still culturally Christian by the mid-20th century, but the most common cultural expression of that faith was not fundamentalism.
Instead, it was almost entirely aligned with the theologically liberal ecumenical Protestantism taught in the Ivy League divinity schools and treated as normative in the nation’s news magazines.
Plenty of Americans still went to churches that preached a doctrine of salvation from hell through faith in Jesus. But except for Billy Graham, this was not the version of Christianity claimed by most theologians and pastors gracing the covers of Time.
In the 1960s, the US experienced another religious shift. While one could certainly not say God was dead—with fewer than 5 percent of Americans identifying as atheists or agnostics at the time—traditional Christianity did experience a blow from which it never fully recovered. Specifically, ecumenical Protestantism had in fact lost some of its cultural dominance.
During the previous decade, church attendance had reached record highs, and 75 percent of Americans said that religion was “very important” to them, but that number plunged to 52 percent by the late 1970s. Many liberal Protestant colleges dropped the last vestiges of religious belief as a rising number of young baby boomers began seeking spiritual fulfillment outside of organized religion.
Yet as we now know, most of the decline in church attendance during this era occurred not among evangelicals but among liberal Protestants and northern Catholics. Southern Baptist churches grew rapidly in the 1970s. The Northeast and West Coast became more secular, but the South did not.
If history is any guide, we can expect the current predictions—that fewer than half of Americans will identify as Christians—to contain an element of truth. But it probably won’t play out exactly as many people anticipate.
Instead, it is more likely that liberal Protestantism will continue to decline in numbers and cultural influence as fewer people identify as Christians—especially among those who live in the northern states and do not attend church. From the beginning of social science surveys, the percentage of Americans who identify as “Christian,” whether Protestant or Catholic, has always been much higher than the percentage of Americans who regularly attend church.
But that probably will not be the case to the same extent in the future.
Indeed, in several northeastern states, Christianity already looks like it does in Canada, where just over 50 percent of the population identifies as Christian. In Vermont, for instance, only 54 percent consider themselves Christian, and in Massachusetts, that number rises only to 58 percent. In both states, only about 40 percent of people say they are certain that God exists. And in both states, less than 25 percent of the population report attending church weekly.
It’s likely there will come a point when those who are unsure about God’s existence and who don’t attend church very often will drop the Christian label—or at least their children will. And if that happens, the Northeast may start to look like the United Kingdom, where less than half the population even claims to be Christian.
Whereas in Alabama, 86 percent of the population currently identifies as Christian, 82 percent are “absolutely certain” that God exists, 65 percent are evangelical or Black Protestant, and 77 percent say that religion is “very important” to them. Thus, it’s difficult to foresee what sort of imminent demographic change could cause the state to become majority non-Christian.
More than that, 51 percent of people in Alabama say they attend church every week, and 84 percent go at least some of the time. Even if religion became a bit less important to millennials and Gen Z, it’s hard to imagine Alabama and other parts of the rural South being entirely taken over by “nones.”
An America in which only a minority of the population is Christian would therefore look less like Britain and more like Italy, where a culturally conservative Catholic south has long been at odds with a more urban, industrial, and post-Christian north.
Or, to use an example closer to home, it might resemble the state of Pennsylvania, where one can find pockets of conservative Mennonites, evangelicals, or devout Catholics living only a few minutes’ drive away from very secular, post-Christian places.
The dominant strand of Christianity in the US may well be theologically conservative—but those theological conservatives will not be evenly distributed across the American landscape.
Instead, in northern cities, they’ll be concentrated heavily among immigrant groups, and they’ll be a minority in the rest of the population. They may be more likely to attend nondenominational churches that lack the institutional presence of established groups that have dominated American religion for most of the country’s history. But in the rural South, Christianity will likely remain as much of a cultural rallying cry as ever, even as southern Christians sense the rest of the country moving away from their beliefs.
It’s quite likely, in fact, that the end of Christian America will mean an increased public association between Christianity and the cultural values of the rural South—at the extreme end of which is Christian nationalism.
If that happens, much of the South may well become even more fervent in its culturally Christian displays of public religiosity. This happened before, in the late 19th century, when many white Southerners embraced a “Lost Cause” theology—combining evangelical piety with white supremacy and regional pride.
The “end of Christian America” will therefore not likely lead to widespread secularization and religious apathy, as it has in much of Europe, but rather to increased cultural polarization.
The conflation of religious faith with regional values is likely to make Christianity less appealing to Americans in secularized regions of the country—and less authentically Jesus-centered in the regions that conflate Christianity with regional pride.
And while the regional polarization of American religion may be a hindrance to the spread of the gospel, perhaps this new cultural reality will prompt followers of Jesus to look to the pages of the New Testament once again.
In the first century, Christian disciples found themselves at odds with the culture of both the highly religious regions of Galilee and Judea and the deeply hedonistic or intellectually skeptical environments of Corinth and Athens. The Christian church was born in an environment where disciples were outcasts in both the synagogue and the pagan theater.
Likewise, in today’s environment, Christians who want to be witnesses for the gospel will need to be more discerning than ever to avoid linking the cause of Jesus to a regional faction.
Perhaps in a post-Christian, regionally divided country—where regional expressions of Christianity like Christian nationalism still exist—an authentic Christianity can continue to flourish as a vibrant countercultural alternative.
Daniel K. Williams