The American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS), recently released by Barry A. Kosmin and Ariela Keysar at Trinity College, has captured some bold headlines. And no wonder: The share of people classified as "Nones" (who claim atheism, agnosticism, or have no stated religious preference) has nearly doubled since the survey began, from 8.2 percent in 1990 to 15 percent in 2008. Mainline churches continue their precipitous decline; for example, Methodists have fallen from 8 percent to 5 percent over that same span. Even the share of Americans who call themselves Baptist is down.
Such trends prompted Newsweek magazine to proclaim on its cover, Edward Gibbon-like, "The Decline and Fall of Christian America." In the April 13 issue, available right before Easter, editor Jon Meacham opined, "While we remain a nation decisively shaped by religious faith, our politics and our culture are, in the main, less influenced by movements and arguments of an explicitly Christian character than they were even five years ago."
But is it possible that Newsweek missed the real story? According to the survey, rather than being headed for a crash, the American church, while shrinking slightly relative to the overall population, is becoming more conservative and evangelical, though somewhat less denominational.
Meacham saw this trend but missed its significance. "A third of Americans say they are born again," he noted; "this figure, along with the decline of politically moderate-to liberal mainline Protestants, led the ARIS authors to note that 'these trends … suggest a movement towards more conservative beliefs and particularly to a more "evangelical" outlook among Christians.' "
The real story here, for good and for ill, is that evangelicals ...1