A new study by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) shows that religion in the United States is undergoing some dramatic changes.
In a nutshell, the nation is becoming more diverse, and it’s happening rapidly. White Christians, who accounted for 81 percent of the population in 1976, now make up just 43 percent. Mainline Protestant denominations have been losing members for years, and now evangelical churches have been hit with the same trend. In addition, the number of Americans who say their religion is “none” now account for 24 percent of the population.
Daniel Cox, PRRI’s director of research, noted that older Americans tend to reflect the historic faith patterns in America, but Americans under 30 are much different: They've grown up with a much more diverse crowd, including non-Christians and religiously unaffiliated people.
Young people are increasingly rejecting the Religious Right's 'Christian nation' myth.
Because young people have more diverse relationships, they don't perceive the United States as a “Christian nation.” I was struck by this comment by Cox: “The young are much less likely to believe this is a ‘Christian nation’ or to give preference to Christian identity. Young people and seniors are basically inhabiting different religious worlds.”
No disrespect to older Americans – I’m quickly becoming one myself – but I think the Millennials’ view is more in touch with our nation’s spirit of pluralism and religious tolerance.
To be clear, people interpret the phrase "Christian nation" in different ways. To some, saying that America is a “Christian nation” is a way, albeit somewhat insensitively, to note that the majority of Americans are (and have historically been) members of Christian denominations. But the historical revisionists of the Religious Right make a big leap from that and assert that since most Americans are Christian, it follows that our country was founded officially to be a Christian nation with the tenets of that faith enforced by law.
Religious Right groups have pushed this argument for years, and when they make it, the version of Christianity they believe was aligned with the government (or should be) is – surprise! – their own.
Nothing in our history supports the “Christian nation” myth, and much undermines it. For proof of this, we need not look beyond the text of the U.S. Constitution, which says nothing about Christianity being a preferred religion. (The words “Christian,” “Jesus Christ” and “God” appear nowhere in that document.) In fact, the church-state provisions of the First Amendment clearly apply equally to all faiths: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof….”
Language in Article VI of the Constitution also debunks the “Christian nation” idea. The passage in question ensures that “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” This guarantees that no American can be compelled to believe certain things about faith or belong to a certain church as a condition of holding public office. An officially “Christian nation” would never have adopted such a provision.
The “Christian nation” myth is plagued by other defects, some of which I outlined in this 2012 article. This pernicious claim has dogged our nation for too long. More often than not, it is used for bad purposes: It takes our actual history – an inspiring story of a new nation that dared to extend religious freedom to all – and replaces it with an exclusionary, ahistorical tale of fundamentalist Christian triumphalism. Worse, it sends the message that some Americans are nothing more than second-class citizens in their own nation.