Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Goodbye, Jehovah

New Pew research shows diminishing belief in Biblical God

There’s new research out from Pew showing that the United States continues to leave Christianity behind.

Pew asked Americans about their beliefs in God. By “belief in the God of the Bible,” here’s what Pew meant:

The survey questions that mention the Bible do not specify any particular verses or translations, leaving that up to each respondent’s understanding. But it is clear from questions elsewhere in the survey that Americans who say they believe in God “as described in the Bible” generally envision an all-powerful, all-knowing, loving deity who determines most or all of what happens in their lives.

So it’s very vague. It’s a definition that would include the pseudo-god of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. I’m sure if Pew drilled down even a little bit, the numbers for even rudimentary Biblical orthodoxy — that is, a historical orthodoxy that would be affirmed by Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox — would be much lower. Keep that in mind before you get too excited about the numbers below.

Highlights of the survey:

    • America is trending spiritual but not religious. Only 56 percent of Americans surveyed say they believe in the God of the Bible. Thirty-three percent either believe in some other god (23%), or some other higher power or spiritual force (9%). Only 10 percent are outright atheist materialists.
    • Nones abandon Biblical religion. Those who identify as religious “Nones” aren’t simply leaving denominations; most of them are leaving Biblical religion entirely. Only 17 percent say they believe in the God of the Bible, though 53 percent believe in a higher power or spiritual force. The point is, ceasing to identify with particular historical expressions of Christianity (that is, churches or denominations) is a gateway to leaving Christianity entirely.
    • Evangelicals and black Protestants are by far the most faithful Christians in terms of professing belief in the God of the Bible. Pew writes:
      For example, while nine-in-ten of those in the historically black Protestant (92%) and evangelical (91%) traditions say they believe in God as described in the Bible, smaller majorities of mainline Protestants and Catholics say they have faith in the biblical God. Sizable minorities of Catholics (28%) and mainline Protestants (26%) say they believe in a higher power or spiritual force, but not in God as described in the Bible.Similarly, while about nine-in-ten adherents in the historically black Protestant tradition (91%) and evangelicals (87%) believe that God is all-loving, all-knowing and all-powerful, just six-in-ten Catholics and mainline Protestants say God possesses all three attributes.This is do not get, at all. If you call yourself a Christian, how on earth do you justify not believing in the God of the Bible? How are the Catholics and mainline Protestants who say they don’t believe in the God of the Bible not apostates? What is the point of their identifying as Christians at all?
    • Christianity is collapsing among the young. There’s no way to sugarcoat this. Pew writes: Whereas roughly two-thirds of adults ages 50 and older say they believe in the biblical God, just 49% of those in their 30s and 40s and just 43% of adults under 30 say the same. A similar share of adults ages 18 to 29 say they believe in another higher power (39%).
    • The Democrats are the Party Of Unbelief. Look: 
    • If not for blacks and Hispanics, Democrats would be even more secular. Pew:
      Most nonwhite Democrats, who are predominantly black or Hispanic, say they believe in God as described in the Bible, and seven-in-ten or more say they believe God is all-loving, all-knowing or all-powerful, with two-thirds ascribing all of these attributes to God. In these ways, nonwhite Democrats have more in common with Republicans than they do with white Democrats. In stark contrast with non-white Democrats, just one-third of white Democrats say they believe in God as described in the Bible, while 21% do not believe in a higher power of any kind. And just one-in-three white Democrats say they believe God (or another higher power in the universe) is all-knowing, all-powerful and all-loving.

Read the entire survey, in detail.

There’s lots to chew on here. I’m not even going to fool with the political analysis. Yes, the Democrats are the secular party and the Republicans are the religious party, generally speaking, but race screws up all predictions. What will happen in the not-too-distant future, when a much greater percentage of all professing Christians in America are non-white? The hostility of the Democratic Party leadership to religious belief has not deterred most blacks and Hispanics from voting Democratic, has it?

I’m much more concerned with the hemorrhaging of historic Biblical Christianity from the American body politic. When the church can’t even get a majority of those under 50 to say they believe in the God of the Bible, the church is in trouble. About as many 18-29 year olds believe in a higher power than believe in the God of the Bible. In 1966, Philip Rieff observed:

The death of a culture begins when its normative institutions fail to communicate ideals in ways that remain inwardly compelling, first of all to the cultural elites themselves.

By this standard, Christianity in the US is dying. Rieff saw this happening in the mid-1960s; it is much, much farther along today. Christian churches and Christian schools have plainly failed to meet the challenges of aggressive secularism.

Catholics and Mainline Protestants have failed more profoundly than Evangelicals, but all have failed. Look especially at the Nones, which Pew has in the recent past found to be the fastest growing group among the religious. Note well: most of the Nones do not identify as agnostic or atheist; they simply have no religious affiliation. The new Pew numbers indicate that, to read it uncharitably, Nones are agnostics who can’t bring themselves to admit it.

If only 56 percent of Americans profess belief in the God of the Bible, in even the vaguest terms, in what meaningful sense can we be said to be a Christian nation? Historically Christian, yes, if not constitutionally so. But the trend lines are harsh and undeniable.

Last week in my Virginia talk, an attendee asked if I had any hope for revival. Yes, we should always hope for revival, and work for revival, but we cannot and should not put all our hopes in revival. We should be focusing much more on evangelizing our own ranks, and discipling ourselves. Again, only 43 percent of Americans aged 18-29 profess belief in the God of the Bible, defined in a very vague way. If we knew how many of that 43 percent held more definitively Biblical beliefs about God, I bet we would be shocked by how low the numbers are. As I write in The Benedict Option:

As bleak as [Notre Dame sociologist] Christian Smith’s 2005 findings were, his follow-up research, a third installment of which was published in 2011, was even grimmer.

Surveying the moral beliefs of 18-to-23-year-olds, Smith and his colleagues found that only 40 percent of young Christians sampled said that their personal moral beliefs were grounded in the Bible or some other religious sensibility. Unfortunately, it’s unlikely that the beliefs of even these faithful are biblically coherent. Many of these “Christians” are actually committed moral individualists who neither know nor practice a coherent Bible-based morality. An astonishing 61 percent of the emerging adults had no moral problem at all with materialism and consumerism. An added 30 percent expressed some qualms but figured it was not worth worrying about. In this view, say Smith and his team, “all that society is, apparently, is a collection of autonomous individuals out to enjoy life.”

These are not bad people. Rather, they are young adults who have been terribly failed by family, church, and the other institutions that formed—or rather, failed to form—their consciences and their imaginations.

We have no more excuses, church people. None. The handwriting is on the wall. Our children — if they manage to hold on to their faith into adulthood, marriage, and starting their own families — are going to live in a world far more hostile to and uncomprehending of their faith than the world today. Are they going to be ready for it? The responsibility is ours.

And by the way: I don’t just say this as a religious believer. As we lose Christianity, we are also losing Western civilization. It is troubling, from a believer’s point of view, that not everyone in Christendom actually held the faith, and that not all lived up to its tenets. But at least the values of Christianity were what we collectively professed. That was something. What we’re moving into now is nothing — and nothing is not strong enough to withstand the darkness that is coming upon us.

Consider, in this account of the poet W.H. Auden’s Christianity:

The Nazis’ rise to power in that same year, 1933, made large moral questions seem suddenly more urgent. “The novelty and shock of the Nazis,” he wrote later, “was that they made no pretense of believing in justice and liberty for all, and attacked Christianity on the grounds that to love one’s neighbor as oneself was a command fit only for effeminate weaklings.” Moreover, he continued,

this utter denial of everything liberalism had ever stood for was arousing wild enthusiasm, not in some remote barbaric land outside the pale, but in one of the most highly educated countries in Europe…. Confronted by such a phenomenon, it was impossible any longer to believe that the values of liberal humanism were self-evident. Unless one was prepared to take a relativist view that all values are a matter of personal taste, one could hardly avoid asking the question: “If, as I am convinced, the Nazis are wrong and we are right, what is it that validates our values and invalidates theirs?”

Communism opposed Nazism but offered no answer to this question. The Communists, Auden wrote, promised to create a future world in which everyone would love their neighbors, but they claimed that in order to do so, “one must hate and destroy some of one’s neighbors now.”


Even at the time, Auden seems to been hoping half-consciously for some moral or intellectual shock that could dislodge his fantasy of inevitable universal love. He found it in November 1939 when he went to a German-language cinema in Manhattan which was showing an official German newsreel celebrating the Nazi victory over Poland. (Until the United States and Germany declared war, German films could be shown freely in American theaters.) Auden was startled by the shouts of “Kill the Poles!” that rose from the audience of ordinary German immigrants who were under no coercion to support the Nazis. He told an interviewer many years later: “I wondered, then, why I reacted as I did against this denial of every humanistic value. The answer brought me back to the church.”