One of the puzzles of a newly released survey about Christmas in the United States was the striking finding that Americans' belief in the historical accuracy of the Christmas story -- the virgin birth, the angelic proclamation to the shepherds, the star of Bethlehem, and the wise men from the East -- has fallen by nearly 20 percentage points during the last decade. In a PSRA/Newsweek poll in December 2004, two-thirds (67 percent) of Americans affirmed their belief that the Christmas story is historically accurate, compared to 24 percent who said they believed it is a theological story written to affirm faith in Jesus Christ. In the December 2013 PRRI/RNS Religion News Survey, the percentage of Americans affirming the historical accuracy of the Christmas story fell to less than half (49 percent), with 4-in-10 (40 percent) saying they believe it is a theological story written to affirm Christian faith.
Upon further examination, the declining belief in the historical accuracy of the Christmas story tracks other related trends, such as a similar double-digit drop in belief that the Bible is the word of God. In 2004, a Pew Research Center survey found that only 13 percent of Americans believed the Bible is not the word of God but is a book written by men, compared to 82 percent who affirmed that the Bible is the word of God. In 2013, a PRRI/Brookings survey found that 3-in-10 (30 percent) Americans now believe that the Bible is not the word of God but a book written by men, compared to 63 percent who affirm that the Bible is the word of God.
As a scholar, it is surprising to find public opinion shifts of this magnitude over a relatively short period of time on any issue. There are clear exceptions -- such as the rapidly shifting public opinion on same-sex marriage, which has doubled from 26 percent support to 52 percent support over the same period -- but as a rule, such large-scale changes are rare. They are also less expected on a measure that is less about public policy and more about underlying theological beliefs, where changes tend to move at a more glacial pace.
Searching for an explanation, my first instinct was that these shifts would be primarily explained by generational replacement, since younger Americans are less likely to hold orthodox religious beliefs. In the intervening decade, older Americans adults have died while a new cohort of 18- to 26-year-olds have come up as adults measured in public opinion surveys. Surprisingly, however, while belief in the historical accuracy of the Christmas story has dropped by 22 percentage points among 18- to 29-year-olds (from 64 percent in 2004 to 42 percent today), it has also dropped 20 percentage points among seniors (from 70 percent in 2004 to 50 percent today). No solution there.
The mystery deepened further when I looked at shifts in opinion within religion groups. Catholics, as they typically do, reflect the trend in the general population, with belief in the historical accuracy of the Christmas story dropping 21 percentage points during the past decade (from 72 percent in 2004 to 51 percent today). While most other major religious groups also reflected declining belief in the historical accuracy of the Christmas story, they are much more modest and well below the general population decline: a 12-point decline among white evangelical Protestants, a 10-point decline among minority Protestants, and a statistically insignificant two-point decline among white mainline Protestants. Among the already skeptical religiously unaffiliated, declining belief in the historical accuracy of the Christmas story fell a modest six points, from 25 percent in 2004 to 19 percent today.
So, if these shifts aren't explained by a decade of generational displacement, and most religious groups have experienced more modest shifts in opinion than the population as a whole, what gives?
The solution to the Christmas belief mystery, which tracks the broader shift in belief about the Bible as the word of God, can be seen in the changing fortunes of two groups: white evangelic Protestant Christians, who are most likely to affirm the historical accuracy of the Christmas story, have declined, while the religiously unaffiliated, who are least likely to affirm it, have grown. Between 2004 and 2013, the number of white evangelical Protestant Christians in the country has declined by roughly one-third, from 26 percent in 2004 to 18 percent in 2013. Simultaneously, the number of religiously unaffiliated Americans has doubled, from 11 percent in 2004 to 22 percent in 2013.
This question of the historical accuracy of the Christmas story, then, opens up a broader narrative about the changing American religious landscape. While these tectonic forces have been at work at least since the middle of the twentieth century, their effects are now finding their way to the surface in myriad ways. As they do, these new flows promise to increasingly interrupt our assumptions about religious holidays, beliefs, and practices in America as we move into the new year and beyond.