Tom McFeely is the National Catholic Register’s News Editor. He lives in British Columbia.
A new survey of religion in America has found the nation’s Christian faith to be quite resilient in the face of contemporary secularizing trends.
But you wouldn’t know that from coverage in the secular media about the survey, called the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS).
Here was CNN’s take, for example: “America becoming less Christian, survey finds,” was the title of CNN’S article yesterday about the release of the new ARIS survey.
In fact, the report found only a minute decline in the national percentage of Christians in 2008 compared to the last ARIS survey in 2001.
“The percentage of Christians in America, which declined in the 1990s from 86.2% to 76.7%, has now edged down to 76%,” noted a March 9 press release about the survey issued by Trinity College in Hartford, Conn. The ARIS surveys are conducted by Trinity College’s Program on Public Values.
In other words, after a sharp decline in the 1990s, the percentage of Christian Americans has remained virtually stable throughout this decade.
At the same time, the ARIS survey did unearth a very worrisome trend for some Protestant denominations.
Of the drop in the percentage of Christians since 1990, “Ninety percent of the decline comes from the non-Catholic segment of the Christian population, largely from the mainline denominations, including Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Episcopalians/Anglicans and the United Church of Christ,” the press release stated. “These groups, whose proportion of the American population shrank from 18.7% in 1990 to 17.2 % in 2001, all experienced sharp numerical declines this decade and now constitute just 12.9%.”
The Catholic share of the population actually edged up from 24.5% of the national population in 2001 to 25.1% in 2008, but that’s slightly below the 26.2% share in 1990.
The big gains among the country’s Christian population have occurred among those who identify themselves as evangelicals.
The numbers of people who characterize themselves as “Christian,” “Evangelical/Born Again,” or “non-denominational Christian” increased from 5% of the population in 1990 to 8.5% in 2001 to 11.8% in 2008. Also, the survey found that 38.6% of mainline Protestants now identify themselves as evangelical or born again.
“It looks like the two-party system of American Protestantism — mainline versus evangelical — is collapsing,” Mark Silk, director of the Public Values Program, said in the press release. “A generic form of evangelicalism is emerging as the normative form of non-Catholic Christianity in the United States.”
We’ll report in more detail in a separate Daily Blog post about what the ARIS survey had to say about Catholic religious trends.