Donald Wuerl

Catholic Archbishop of Washington Donald Wuerl joins other Christian leaders during an Easter prayer breakfast at the White House last month. Although such public expressions of religion remain a feature of American life, the nation’s Christian population has declined, a new study shows. (Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)

By David Lauter and Hailey Branson-Potts
May 12, 2015

The U.S. has become significantly less Christian in recent years as the share of American adults who espouse no systematic religious belief increased sharply, a major new study found.

For what is probably the first time in U.S. history, the number of American Christians has declined. Christianity, however, remains by far the nation’s dominant religious tradition, according to the new report by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center.

The erosion in traditional religious ranks seems likely to continue. Among Americans aged 18 to 33, slightly more than half identify as Christian, compared with roughly 8 in 10 in the baby boom generation and older age groups, the new data show.

Moreover, in a reverse of previous patterns, younger Americans do not appear to be adhering more to traditional faiths as they become parents. Just the opposite seems to be happening — members of the millennial generation have grown less religious as they age.

The rapid increase in the number of adults without ties to traditional religious institutions has strong implications for other social institutions and for politics.

Whether a person attends religious services regularly is among the strongest predictors of how he or she will vote, with traditional religion strongly tied to the Republican Party, at least among white Americans.

The decline in traditional religious belief adds to the demographic challenges facing the GOP, which already faces difficulties because of its reliance on white voters in a country that has grown more racially diverse.

The interaction between religion and politics may work both ways. Some scholars believe that close ties between traditional religion and conservatism, particularly on issues such as same-sex marriage, have led many younger Americans to cut ties with organized religion.

Opposition to same-sex marriage on the part of religious conservatives “is turning off so many people from Christianity,” said Phil Zuckerman, a sociology professor at Pitzer College who specializes in studying secularism. “We’re seeing a backlash” against the linking of religion and politics.

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