Americans Are More Secular — What That Means for Liberty
Recent polling shows that within just one decade Americans have become increasingly non-religious.
Are Americans becoming less religious, or, more specifically, are we becoming less Christian? The answer seems to be yes. As we approach Constitution Day this Sunday, this new reality has implications for American Liberty.
According to data from a new survey released last week by the Public Religion Research Institute, a study of more than 100,000 Americans across the nation found that the number of those who call themselves “religious and spiritual” has declined from 59% in 2012 to 48%. Currently, just 43% of white Americans claim to be Christians and only 30% Protestants. In 1976, the numbers were 81% Christian with 55% Protestant. That’s clearly a significant drop in one generation.
PRRI found that the decline in religious observance among Americans is highest in young Americans. The non-religious or “nones” now make up 34% of all Americans under the age of 30. And young Americans who are religious and identify as Christians are a shrinking percentage. Interestingly, among religiously unaffiliated Americans, a minority (only 27%) claim to be either agnostic or atheist. It’s interesting that most Americans who identify as secular and non-religious aren’t willing to entirely reject religious beliefs.
Part of the problem with surveys like this is the fact that people’s definitions for what makes someone a Christian are constantly evolving. Hence the common delimiters such as Protestant vs. Catholic, mainline vs. evangelical, denominational vs. non-denominational, and so on. To make matters even more confusing, racial delimiters have been added.
So, the bigger question is what’s the point behind publishing this data? Why is it important to track America’s religious trends? Much of the answer lies in America’s unique religious history — a Christian religious history — and its significant impact upon the foundation of this great nation.
Looking back on America’s historical roots, one theme becomes quite evident early on. America was a place — the place — of refuge for the persecuted. It is well documented that the Pilgrims traversed the Atlantic in the Mayflower out of a desperate hope to make it to the New World where they would have the opportunity to worship God freely in accordance with their religious convictions. This spirit of religious liberty was in many ways the spark that ignited the nation’s founding. Even though not all the Founding Fathers were Christians, they all acknowledged the central, significant and important role religion played in establishing a stable and enduring republic. And not just any religion, but Christianity in particular.
“Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people,” wrote John Adams. “It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
When the 13 colonies declared their independence from British rule, they justified their rebellion by appealing to an authority greater than that of the king — the highest authority of all, God. There is no question that the Declaration of Independence overtly appeals to religious truth as the key to our human rights. It’s a truth our Founding Fathers held to be “self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” Those Rights were eloquently summarized by three concrete concepts: “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
The Founding Fathers recognized that the rights of people are not a creation of government, rather they are a manifestation of common human dignity and value endowed by our Creator. The government’s role first and foremost is to protect its citizens by protecting their rights. The whole reason these rights were enumerated in the Constitution was to explicitly limit the power of government to strip citizens of their God-given rights.
We can break down our concern about the decline of religious affiliation into two categories. First, it leads to a loss of human freedom. By necessity the more secular a society becomes, the larger and more authoritative and restrictive the government becomes. We have glaring examples of this truth over the past century in countries where communism took control. When God is removed from a recognized place of ultimate moral authority, then all that’s left to fill that void is human power, resulting in some form of totalitarian government — rule of men rather than Rule of Law.
As evidenced by the rise of groups like antifa, there are those who would seek to shut down the free speech of others as a means of gaining greater power and authority over them. They wouldn’t flinch at limiting the rights of those with whom they disagree.
Second, it leads to an increasing loss of human dignity. We see this in America’s culture war over abortion and the celebration and forced acceptance of deviant behavior like homosexuality and transgenderism. Truth about humanity is also increasingly becoming a scarce commodity, where people are taught to value their feelings above objective reality. This lends itself to ridiculous notions like having “safe spaces” to protect people from ideas with which they don’t agree.
In short, the reason for concern about a growing secularism in America is the implications it has on our cultural understanding of “unalienable rights.” The fewer number of people believing in and recognizing the authority of God, from whom we all receive our rights and dignity, the more imperiled our Liberty becomes.
The reality is that Christianity is in America’s DNA. It’s the country’s moral backbone. The nation as we know it and the individual freedoms that we are privileged to enjoy would soon collapse and disappear should that moral foundation be removed. That is why the survey numbers are troubling. But as all Christians know, our ultimate hope rests not in men. We pray for our nation, we love neighbors and help those in need, we speak the truth and we entrust ourselves to our Savior, Jesus Christ.