The decline of Christianity in Australia and America


'Death of religion?' by Chris JohnstonYou often hear clichés and truisms contrasting the place of religion in America and Australia: 'The USA is a very Christian country, and Australia is very secular'; 'While Americans wear their religion on their sleeve, Australians have a natural aversion to public displays of religion, and to religion in politics.'

But in the Rudd/Obama era there are new parallels and convergences with regard to religion in the two countries.

First, to the political leaders who are pivotal in setting the tone for engagement between religion and politics. Both Rudd and Obama are publicly practising Christians, and acknowledge the place of Christianity in forming their centre-left political views. Rudd is the first Labor leader since the bitter split in the 1950s to eschew the party's aggressively secular tradition, and openly acknowledge the importance of Christianity in his thinking.

In a 2005 interview with ABC TV's Compass, Rudd, still in opposition, said this came at the risk of being seen by his Labor colleagues as 'some slightly besotted God botherer', but he didn't want God to become a 'wholly owned subsidiary of political conservatism in this country'.

Rudd described himself as a Christian socialist, and said it was important for 'Christians in politics not to cherry-pick the gospel, but to understand its complete dimension, including the social dimension'. He went on to say that 'given what's happening on the political right in this country, and in America, it's important that people on the centre-left of politics begin to argue a different perspective from within the Christian tradition'.

These words could easily have been uttered by Obama. He was brought up in a non-religious household, and it was only as a young adult community organiser in Chicago that he embraced Christianity, primarily because of its emphasis on social justice. 'I was drawn to the power of the African American religious tradition to spur social change,' he says in his book, Audacity of Hope.

Since taking office, he's been at pains to confirm the pluralist polity of America, and that Christianity does not have a privileged position. Raising the ire of conservative evangelicals, at a press conference on his recent visit to Turkey he said, 'We do not consider ourselves a Christian nation or a Jewish nation or a Muslim nation. We consider ourselves a nation of citizens who are bound by ideals and a set of values.'

Sentiments Kevin Rudd would heartily agree with.

But the convergences don't end with the political leaders. Statistics reported in the recent Easter edition of Newsweek magazine caused a stir in America. In bold red letters on a black background, typeset in the form of a cross, its provocative cover read 'The Decline and Fall of Christian America'.

Written by the magazine's editor, Jon Meachem, the article analysed the results of the 2008 American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) published in March this year, and built its argument around two startling statistics.

Firstly, since 1990, the number of Americans claiming no religious affiliation has nearly doubled from eight to 15 per cent, matched by similar decline in the percentage of Christians.

The numbers of unaffiliated in Australia are slightly higher. Our 1991 census revealed this as 12.9 per cent, and in the latest census in 2006 it had grown to 18.7 per cent.

Secondly, the biggest decline in US affiliation was concentrated in the north-east, the Christian heartland of the country. This massive decline in the area where Christians first settled and founded the nation caused many conservative Christian leaders to claim America has become a post-Christian country.

But as Meacham argued, this is overly alarmist: 'While the percentage of Christians may be shrinking, rumours of the death of Christianity are greatly exaggerated. Being less Christian does not necessarily mean that America is post-Christian.'

In his presentation of ARIS, Meacham outlined just how Christian the country still is. Some 76 per cent call themselves Christian (in Australia, 64 per cent are Christians). The largest Christian group is Catholics, making up 25 per cent (almost identical to Australia's 25.8 per cent).

The statistic highlighting the major difference with Australia is the massive conservative evangelical base in the US; 45 per cent of American Christians, or 34 per cent of the total adult population, define themselves as 'born again'.

In Australia, in the 2006 census, only 1.1 per cent described themselves as Pentecostal, but 'born agains' also reside in other denominations. In a survey conducted for Sydney's Centre for Public Christianity, 15 per cent of 2500 respondents identified as 'born again' — significant, but much smaller than the percentage in the US.

So, after widespread disillusionment with Bush and the Religious Right, and the landslide election victory of Obama, the religious pendulum has swung. The perceived place of Christianity in America is suddenly very different, and with the shift, maybe it's not so different to Australia.

Peter KirkwoodPeter Kirkwood worked for 23 years in the Religion and Ethics Unit of ABC TV. He has a Master's degree from the Sydney College of Divinity. 

Topic tags: peter kirkwood, compass, newsweek, religion, christianisy, kevin rudd, barack obama, pluralist, secular



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Existing comments

I think religion in general, and Christianity in particular, will be around for as long as people live in a social system that alienates them from their own essential humanity. God and religion express that alienation. However, the author misses an important point in that the decline of Christianity is also expressed through a continuing fragmentation that cannot be measured neatly through authoritative statistical sources. No-one's scared of the priests anymore - and, yes, Virginia, once upon a time they were! The decline is best understood in terms of fragmentation rather than absolute decline.
Barry York | 12 June 2009

John Garratt Publishing is about to release "How Secular are We?" the next issue in Voices Essay series on religion in Australia. This Essay was written by Denham Grierson.
Tony Biviano | 12 June 2009

Also of interest is the fact that the decline in the number of Christians was reported without context. It was a sensationalist headline no doubt.

The reality is that the percentage of adult Americans who claimed to be Christians dropped from 86 percent in 1990 to 77.7 percent in 2001 and THEN to 76 percent in 2008. In other words, almost none of the change happened in the last 8 years of the study.

A significant shift does not a decline, nor a fall, make.
Lestat | 14 June 2009

I believe most people are just adopting the herd mentality and fear being left out of that herd. It looks like people are finally critically thinking for themselves, and questioning their beliefs.

Once the belief in religion drops, watch the politicians adopt a majority view as well, just to appeal to the masses (UK is a good example).
John Adams | 15 June 2009

I'm not convinced there is much decline. There is a decrease in the "nominal/cultural" christians, those who attend once/twice a year if at all. From a political point of view I don't think that nominal christians vote based on their "faith".

Both Rudd and Obama articulate the social justice message of christianity, not just the US religious-rights obsession with abortion, sex-ed, gay marriage, etc... This could reduce the secular-lefts hostility to Christianity.
MP | 15 June 2009

Very interesting statistics. Christainity is not dead, but perhaps emerging through more interest in social justice, which is its very core, 'love one another'.

As I see it, prayer is one of a Christian's greatest resources, this article calls for this response.
Bernadette Introna | 09 July 2009

I take it Bernadette, that more prayer to boost the numbers of christians is your target? Perhaps the prayers have already been working; and christians are diminishing. Keep praying, it seems to be working!
Petar Belic | 23 October 2009

Christianity will fall it has happened to other religions in the past like the pagans unlike the forced conversion in ancient Rome it will happen in four stages

1. lowering church attendance
2. decrease in funds
3. decrease in prospective celebrants
4. bankruptcy

this is what will happen and when all is said and done we will have no religious tension in government, a less restricted scientific community and religious terrorism will be a thing of the past, don't fear the change embrace it cause we will have no boundaries to unlocking the secrets of life and the universe.
Nicholas McNamara | 21 June 2011

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