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Christian Union
June 14, 2015

Global Trends Bring Major Shifts

by Catherine Elvy, Staff Writer

As the United States is growing increasingly secular, other corners of the globe are becoming distinctly more spiritual.

That was one of the themes that emerged from a recent forum during Princeton Reunions 2015 on contemporary religion in America. Five Princeton alumni reflected on some of the key faith trends shaping the United States and beyond during a panel discussion on May 29 in Frist Campus Center.

Among them, James McDonald, president of San Francisco Theological Seminary, noted the overall Christian share of the U.S. population is declining, but sectors of the developing world are becoming strikingly more religious.
"The religious landscape of the world – and the United States – is changing rapidly," said McDonald.

As for McDonald, the Princeton alumnus of 1970 highlighted how the world's religious epicenters are shifting dramatically from north to south and from west to the east. Just 40 percent of the world's contemporary Christians reside in North America and Europe compared with 80 percent a century ago, according to a recent commentary for The Washington Post.

Also, the Christian communities in Latin America and Africa now account for a shocking 1 billion people, and the number of Christians in Asia is expected to swell by 100 million to reach 460 million by 2025, according to research cited by McDonald.

Closer to home, the slice of religiously unaffiliated individuals in the United States continues to expand, even spreading across gender and age categories and racial backgrounds. However, Protestant evangelicals are maintaining their numbers, according to Pew Research Center.

The organization's massive 2014 study shows the so-called "nones" category – lingo for individuals who identify as atheists, agnostics, or nonreligious – constitutes about 23 percent of the domestic adult population, up from 16 percent in 2007. Overall, religiously unaffiliated people are more concentrated among young adults than other age groups.

On a more encouraging note, the Pew study showed Protestants have slightly increased their counts. About 62 million Americans say they belong to an evangelical faith, up from about 60 million in 2007, according to WORLD News Group.

"Evangelicals stand out in terms of the ability to retain our own young people, including millennials," Albert Mohler, president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, told WORLD News Group. "What's disappearing is cultural Christianity. As happened in Europe, it will not collapse slowly—it's likely to collapse very quickly."

Declines among American Christians are concentrated among mainline Protestant denominations and Roman Catholic parishes, according to Pew.

At the same time, immigration patterns of the last 50 years have brought waves of Hispanics into the United States, providing a sustaining impact to some Catholic communities. Many practice charismatic forms of worship found in Pentecostal churches, McDonald noted.

Another key theme influencing religion in contemporary America is the rise of Pentecostalism. Across the globe, as many as one out of four Christians is Pentecostal or charismatic, with such increases most dramatic in Asia and Latin America. The modern Pentecostal movement dates back to the Azusa Street Revival of Los Angeles, California, in 1906.

"For a movement regarded as only about a century old, this is an astonishing religious development," said McDonald.

Among other major trends, the United States has become more politically polarized, and much of the divide reflects religious persuasions.

Such polarization is obvious in another contemporary topic involving the intersection of politics and economics, namely the vulnerabilities of the working poor who battle structural impediments to mobility.

For his portion of the panel discussion, Obery Hendricks, Jr. Ph.D. '95, a visiting scholar at Columbia University, highlighted the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s plans to launch the so-called Poor People's Campaign and the modern resistance to similar efforts.

Shortly before he was assassinated in 1968, King sought to rally civil rights leaders to help impoverished Americans, specifically to secure jobs, health care, and more equitable pay. "We, as a society blessed by God, have a responsibility to our neighbor," Hendricks said.

The theologian's comments prompted a series of questions from Princeton alumni in Frist as to both the rights and responsibilities of the needy, especially in a spiritual context.

In addition to McDonald and Hendricks, the panelists included: Hannah Clayson Smith '95, senior counsel with The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty; Joshua Davidson '90, rabbi of Congregation Emanu-El of the City of New York; and Thomas Coburn '65, visiting scholar at Brown University.

Princeton Religion Professor Eric Gregory, Harvard '92, Yale Ph.D. '02, served as moderator for the panel discussion.

Ultimately, the changing religious landscape of the United States ushers both opportunities and challenges for its faith communities.

"We need church leaders who are capable of bringing people together across the political, ideological, and cultural divides, and of bridging those gaps," McDonald said.

Kaczor echoed that hopeful note, noting he senses a shift in public opinions, especially among the young, on the morality of abortion, despite more than four decades of legalized abortion in the United States. "I see a lot of hope in the younger generation," he said.
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