Survey Shows More Mainline Protestants and Catholics Have Taken on the Once-Evangelical Label of ‘Born Again’

Ryan P. Burge is an assistant professor of political science at Eastern Illinois University. His research appears on the site Religion in Public, and he tweets at @ryanburge. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of BCNN1.


Just as more Americans are becoming religiously unaffiliated (“nones”), there’s another major shift happening on the other side of the religious spectrum. More people today say they are “born again” than at any point in the past three decades.

It almost seems counterintuitive. While significant portions of the country jettison religion, others are increasingly identifying with a more devout expression of the faith. Across segments of Christianity—not just evangelical Protestants—Americans are heeding the scriptural call that “you must be born again” (John 3:7), even when the label has not historically been part of their faith traditions.

For decades, demographers have measured born-again identity. The General Social Survey (GSS), asks respondents, “Would you say you have been ‘born again’ or have had a ‘born again’ experience—that is, a turning point in your life when you committed yourself to Christ?”

Just over 36 percent of the entire sample said that they were born again in 1988, the first year the question was asked. The question appeared sporadically on the GSS until 2004, when it became a part of every bi-annual survey as the number of affirmative responses began to rise. In the last 14 years, the share of born-again Americans has risen to 41 percent, and much higher (54%) among people of color. Since 2010, at least half of people of color say that they have had a “turning point in their life” when they committed themselves to Christ.

Some might assume the continued rise of born-again Christians reflects the steady portion of evangelical Protestants in America, while mainline Protestants, who are less likely to call themselves born again, have undergone more rapid decline. But actually, across all Christian traditions—even mainline denominations and Catholics—born-again identity is trending up.

Large shares of black Protestants and evangelicals have consistently considered themselves born again, and they’ve grown even more likely to do so over the past 30 years. While just three in five of black Protestants were born again in 1988 (60%), now it’s 80 percent. The increase for evangelicals was 68 percent to 78 percent during the same time period.

The surprise comes with mainline Protestants, who have gone from 28 percent identifying as born again to 40 percent. And the portion of born-again Catholics has doubled (from 14% to 28%). Those increases are especially striking because neither tradition teaches that a born-again conversion is a necessary component of their faith.

Over the years, being born again may have evolved from being seen as a distinctive for evangelical Protestantism to a way to suggest that they are particularly active in their faith. Across Christian traditions, the more often a person attends church, the more likely they are to say they have had a born-again experience, regardless of their affiliation.

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Source: Christianity Today