Cover Story
Illustration by Krieg Barrie

The sixth wind?

Headlines trumpet Christian decline, but a closer look suggests another rise in serious faith

Issue: "Is Christianity in the U.S. doomed?," June 20, 2009

Sometimes it seems that an atheistic tsunami has hit. Anti-Christian books land high on bestseller lists. Polls purportedly show a decline in belief. Newsweek this spring had one of its traditional Easter cover stories on "The Decline and Fall of Christian America."

Whenever the conventional wisdom points in a particular direction it's good practice to ask: What if the opposite is true? What if nominal Christian affiliation is declining but serious biblical belief is actually on the rise? What if Christianity in America is not dying, but instead getting its second wind-or maybe its sixth wind?

After all, the American colonists were a mixed multitude, with high-minded preachers and a greater number of lowlifes. By the 1730s rampant concern with spiritual decline set the stage for a Great Awakening, with a decline later in the century leading to a Second Great Awakening in the early 1800s.

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Those second and third winds of American Christianity had died down so much by 1850 that spiritualism was surging-but then came a northern urban revival in 1858, a revival in the Confederate armies during the terrible war, and the post-war growth of urban missions that together could constitute a fourth wind. A fifth wind blew in the 1950s as Billy Graham and others came to the fore amid threats of nuclear war, and that brings us to the present, where we face radical Islam but not Hitler or Soviet missiles.

What is the evidence that a sixth wind may now be blowing? The numbers are ambiguous. Recent publication of the 2008 American Religious Identification Survey of 50,000 adults led some to say the heavens are falling, since from 1990 to 2008 the portion of American adults who self-identify as Christians dropped 10 percentage points, from 86 percent to 76 percent. Those who report no religious affiliation almost doubled, from 8 percent to 15 percent.

But almost all of that change occurred from 1990 to 2001: since then, essentially no change. Furthermore, a Baylor survey in 2006 showed that two-thirds of Americans who claim no religious affiliation say they believe in God. A 2008 Pew Forum study found two of every five religiously unaffiliated persons still describing religion as important in their lives. Levels of religious affiliation probably measure not belief but how settled Americans are in communities-and the increased number of single, childless adults translates into less settling.

Furthermore, Pew reported that "the unaffiliated have one of the lowest retention rates of any of the major religious groups, with most people who were raised unaffiliated now belonging to one religion or another." The survey showed 39 percent of those "raised unaffiliated" are now Protestant, and most of those are in evangelical churches. Another 15 percent of those unaffiliated as children or teens are now in Catholicism or some other faith.

In comparison, 80 percent of those raised as Protestants are still Protestants (some 3 percent are Catholic, 4 percent are involved with some other faith, and 13 percent are unaffiliated). We hear often about evangelical kids drifting away-and the danger is certainly real-but we don't hear often enough the good news of God's grace falling on those raised among scoffers. The movement is both ways, but God's pull is stronger than atheism's push. Naomi Schaefer Riley in God on the Quad (2006) reported on the many students who ignore professorial propaganda, forsake secular liberalism, and seek deeper religious faith.

Stephen Prothero, who chairs the religion department at Boston University, summarizes the recent polling results this way: "What the data do not tell us is that the United States is becoming 'post-Christian.' If you meet a random American walking down the street, the odds are only one in 62 that he or she will self-identify as atheist or agnostic."

In any event, quantitative results tell us little about quality. What if the drop during the 1990s was largely among nominal "Christians" who now respond more honestly to pollsters than they once did? Atheists with axes to grind may exaggerate changes, and some Christians follow the American tradition (begun by the Puritans) of emphasizing decline from the good old days. But here's a question: What are observers without a foot in either camp noticing?

I had lunch recently with two Oxford-educated Brits who have just co-authored God Is Back: How the Global Revival of Faith Is Changing the World (Penguin Press, 2009). John Micklethwait is editor-in-chief of The Economist, a weekly newsmagazine that shows skepticism about everything, and Adrian Wooldridge is the magazine's Washington bureau chief. Micklethwait described the duo theologically as "non-involved outsiders," and Wooldridge, an Anglican, added, "I support the church like a flying buttress, from the outside."

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