Maggie Gallagher

Is America's long love affair with Christianity coming to an end?

Newsweek and other media decided the most appropriate way to mark the anniversary of Jesus' death was to trumpet the end of the influence in America of the religion he founded. Do they not recall how that story ends?

Yes, there is a kernel of truth in the headlines. Since 1990, according to American Religious Identification Survey 2008, Americans who say they have no religion jumped from 8 percent to 15 percent.

These people are not necessarily atheists or agnostics. A 2006 Baylor University study titled "American Piety in the 21st Century" found that the majority of people who say they have no religion also say they believe in God. A third of "nones" pray sometimes. One out of 10 people with no religion attend church at least once a month, and a similar proportion say they firmly believe Jesus is the son of God.

Nonetheless the growth in "nones" is a significant phenomenon. Northern New England has replaced the Pacific Northwest as the place with the highest proportion of "nones"; 34 percent of Vermonters, when asked about their religion, tell pollsters "none."

The big jump in "nones," however, is mostly old news. Almost all the increase occurred between 1990 and 2001. In that last seven years the number of Americans who say they have no religion barely inched up from 14.2 percent to 15 percent.

Similarly, in the last seven years there has been almost no visible decline in Christian identification: Between 1990 and 2001, the percentage of Christians in America dropped from 86 percent to 77 percent. In the most recent survey it edged down to 76 percent.

The latest news is thus mostly good news for Christians: The data show the sharp drops of the 1990s are ancient history. Far more significant (by far) in recent years than any shift away from Christianity have been the shifts within Christianity.

And here the press reports missed the one really big, obvious headline: Mainline Protestants are dying out.

The study's authors summarize:

Maggie Gallagher

Maggie Gallagher is a nationally syndicated columnist, a leading voice in the new marriage movement and co-author of The Case for Marriage: Why Married People Are Happier, Healthier, and Better Off Financially.