In 2015, the Pew Research Center released the largest study
of American Religious identity ever done in the United States of America,
called America’s Changing Religious Landscape. The big discovery was that the
number of American Christians had declined by 7.8 percent since the previous
survey in 2007, while the number of Americans religiously unaffiliated had
increased by 6.7 percent to 22.8 percent of the national population. The only
bright spot for Christianity was that even though Evangelical Christianity had
declined as a percentage of the national population (down 0.9%), it had grown
in real numbers by 2.4 million adherents.
There was a
second important trend buried in the numbers and completely missed at the time.
Hispanic immigration has propped up this declining American Christianity. The
loss of Christian adherents would have been worse if it had not been for
Evangelical Christianity owed its
increase largely to Hispanic converts from Catholicism, and both Mainstream
Christianity and Catholicism would have sustained bigger losses if it had not
been for increases in Hispanic membership. These trends indicate that if the
USA builds an effective border wall, immigration will further decline and along
with it the number of Americans identifying as Christian.
The first trend
is that the three largest types of Christianity—Evangelical and Mainstream
Protestantism and Catholicism—had big losses between the 2007 and the 2014
survey. Evangelicals lost 8.4%, Mainstream Protestants lost 10.4% and Catholics
lost 12.9% of the their members.
Luckily, this was countered by
newcomers joining these faiths. There were 9.8% new Evangelicals, 6.1% new
Mainstream Protestants but just 2% new Catholics. So the final, overall numbers
came out to a 1.5% increase for Evangelicals, but a loss of 4.3% and 10.9% for
Mainstream Protestants and Catholics, respectively. The Pew report emphasized
that many of these leavers left formal religious membership altogether.
However, a significant number simply joined other types of Christianity.
The second trend
is that none of the three types of Christianity can sustain its numbers by generational
replacement. That is, the children of these adherents are fewer than the number
of adults. This is largely because of declining family size. For example, 30%
of Evangelicals were born in the generation between 1928 and 1946, while just
21% were born in the Millennial generation between 1981 and 1996. As the older
generation passes away and the younger generation ages, the total number of
adherent will drop. The imbalance is similar for the other two forms of
Christianity. Without an influx of new blood, all three types of Christianity
will decrease in size.
The third trend
is that nearly 80% of the replacements for the losses in these types of
Christianity comes from Hispanics. All three have had a five percent increase in
ethnic diversity in the seven years between 2007 and 2014. That increase is 80%
Hispanic for all three forms of Christianity. Indeed, for Evangelicalism, the
increase in the percentage of Hispanics accounts for its increase in real
numbers of members. If Hispanic immigrants or their children had not joined
these three types of Christianity, all three would have shown significant
losses. Catholics would have dropped 12.5% of its members in those 7 years
(instead of 10.9%). Mainstream Protestants would have lost 9.2% (instead of
just 4.3%), and Evangelical Protestants would have lost 6.4% (instead of
The fourth trend
is that this Hispanic increase came in different ways. Most Hispanic immigrants
arrive as Catholics. Catholicism’s 5% increase is part of the decades-long influx
of Hispanic members that has kept the numbers of American Catholics fairly
steady. It has also helped Catholicism to become the most ethnically diverse
form of Christianity; 41% of Catholics are non-white and most non-whites are
For the two
forms of Protestantism, however, Hispanic membership has come from conversion.
These are Hispanics who have been in America for a long(er) time and they
convert to this still dominant form of American religion as part of the assimilation
process. For the Mainstream Protestant denominations, the number of converts
was not enough to prevent a decline in membership, but for Evangelical
Protestantism it was.
be the impact of an effective wall between the USA and Mexico? These trends
from the past eight years suggest that the number of Christians in the USA will
decline faster than it has been. This will first be evident in Catholicism, but
it will soon show up in the membership of the Mainstream Protestant denominations
and then among Evangelical Protestant Christians.
Labels: Catholic, Christianity, church membership, decline, evangelical, Hispanic, immigrants, immigration, mainstream, Mexico, Pew Research, unaffiliated, wall