A recent American Religious Identification Survey revealed that the percentage of Americans who self-identify themselves as Christians is declining, most notably in New England. Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and a frequent blogger, raised an alarm about the numbers, connecting the increase in secularization with support for same-sex marriage.
Newsweek magazine editor Jon Meacham took notice of Mohler’s blog and wrote an attention-grabbing cover story for the Easter week edition. Called “The End of Christian America,” the story also explored political ramifications of the trend. Meacham argued that God is not dead, but less influential in American politics, which he saw as a good thing for religion, concluding:
“The decline and fall of the modern religious right’s notion of a Christian America creates a calmer political environment and, for many believers, may help open the way for a more theologically serious religious life.”
As expected, Mohler responded to Meacham’s take on his views with an analysis of Meacham’s analysis, arguing that Newsweek got it mostly right but overstated his political concerns: “My main concern is evangelism, not cultural influence,” Mohler wrote.
It’s not my intention to enter that debate, but I couldn’t help but reflect that the survey at the heart of the discussion records respondents’ self-identification of their religious preference. I’ve long observed that wearing a Christian label and living a Christian life are two different things.
Does the survey really note a change in the way people live, or does it reflect a decreasing desire to be identified among the Christians, a term that clearly means different things to different people? Have the actions of some Christians made others less inclined to claim the same name? There’s a reason why many believers these days are opting for the term “Christ-followers.”
Whatever the label, however, the thing that matters is hard to capture with statistics: it’s not what we call ourselves that counts, but how we live.
Professor of Old Testament at Campbell University Divinity School in Buies Creek, North Carolina, and the Contributing Editor and Curriculum Writer at Good Faith Media.