Presbyterians and Nonverts: 100 Years after Christianity and Liberalism

Danny E. Olinger

New Horizons: October 2023

Presbyterians and Nonverts

Also in this issue

What Machen Learned From the Classics

Machen and Modern Mythology

People who once identified with a Christian religious tradition but now identify with none are the fastest growing group in America today. Sociologist Stephen Bullivant labels these individuals “nonverts” and argues in his book of the same title that these individuals have had a profound effect on the changing relationship of Christianity to American culture.[1] Christianity is no longer the default setting in America. Christianity is now in a minor key; nonverts set the tone, and their music is secular.

Surveys today place those who cite “no religion” as their personal religious preference as fifty-nine million people. Bullivant’s interest, however, is in trying to understand the forty-one million people who say that they were brought up in the church or belonged to the church but now are non-religious. One of his primary findings through extensive interviews and research is that nonverts are often antagonistic to what they perceive to be the injustices associated with the Christian tradition. Feeling that their parents and others in authority have harmed them, nonverts often adopt a neo-pagan (Wiccan) position in which they seek to do no harm to others. This fuels many nonverts’ passionate support of LGBTQ positions.

Nonverts who are not filled with anger about what they perceive as societal harm done to them and others by Christianity often turn away from Christianity due to indifference. The “Flatline Protestant” chapter opens with the words, “I was Presbyterian.” Bullivant asks the twenty-two-year-old young man who made that declaration, “And now?” The young man responds, “I’m nonreligious at this point.” He explains further, “I’m not saying I won’t go back to being religious again. It’s just a little like an inconvenience for me to be a practicing Presbyterian” (74). Prior to this, the young man testifies, he was involved in all sorts of short-term mission trips to Peru, “providing humanitarian aid, all that stuff.” Now he doesn’t hate it; he just doesn’t have time for it. Bullivant observes that this young man’s transition from practicing Presbyterian to nonvert involved no great spiritual crisis. “He just dropped it, as one might a gym membership, when he found other, more pressing things to be doing” (75).

Bullivant’s argumentation for the nonverts’ movement away from the church—that it is most likely a personal decision rooted in individual experience or preferences—is at odds with reporting that identifies scandals in the churches as the main reason people leave Christianity. Political identity and sexual choices, whether personal or by family members, carry the most weight. The scandals only confirm to nonverts that the decision to leave was a correct one.

Bullivant reports that over one million ex-Presbyterians now identify as a “none.” The loss of membership is so rapid in the Presbyterian Church in the USA (PCUSA), over seventy thousand members per year since 2009, that within a decade at its current decline it will be surpassed by the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) as the largest Presbyterian denomination in the United States. But Bullivant states that it is not just the PCUSA that is in a death spiral. The other six Protestant denominations (Episcopal, Evangelical Lutheran, United Methodist, American Baptist, Congregational, and Disciples of Christ) that were labeled mainline—the moniker coming from the churches being on the path of the Pennsylvania Railroad that terminated in Philadelphia, site of the 1908 founding of the Federal Council of Churches—are also in a state of terminal downfall. In the early 1950s, over half of Americans (52 percent) belonged to one of the mainline churches. In 2018, only 12 percent were members, but, even more discouraging, if that were possible, only one-fourth of those who said they were members reported that they attend church on a weekly basis. In other words, a generation into the twenty-first century, only 3 percent of the population of the United States are active members of a mainline Protestant church.

Losing Their Religion

What Bullivant makes clear is that the ex-mainline Protestants are not flocking to Bible-believing, confessional churches but rather are identifying themselves as non-religious. In addition to the one million ex-Presbyterians now checking the “nonreligious” box are seven and a half million ex-Baptists, two million ex-Methodists, two million ex-Lutherans, and one million ex-Episcopalians.

According to reviewer and political scientist Benjamin Mabry, what Bullivant does not examine is the philosophical correlation between these mainline Protestant churches and American secularism. Mabry writes,

The most significant weakness of the book is one it shares with much scholarship on this topic: It does not recognize that American secularism has a great deal in common with mainline Protestantism, that it constitutes a coherent, if yet unnamed, ideological perspective in itself. Seen in this light, what looks like “nonversion” may actually be a very small step between two similar systems.[2]

Mabry observes that throughout Bullivant’s study, the nonverts interviewed return to the same handful of secular ideological arguments to illustrate their opposition to their former faiths.

Mabry then connects the dots in a way that Bullivant doesn’t. Mabry argues that the way in which mainline Protestant churches throughout the twentieth century increasingly de-emphasized the supernatural, soteriological, and eschatological teaching of the Bible led to the point where these teachings lost relevance or were abandoned altogether. What did not happen until the twenty-first century, however, is the utter collapse of Protestant identity. Many Protestants merely simplified their practice in getting rid of the unnecessary element of church attendance and supernaturalism. Mabry concludes, “If the primary reason to go to church was the civil rights activism, what exactly was the purpose of maintaining a priest and sanctuary?”

Christianity and Liberalism

In Christianity and Liberalism, J. Gresham Machen anticipated the collapse of the Presbyterian Church. He stated plainly that the theological liberalism pervading the PCUSA was not Christianity and was going to give birth to something that is not Christianity. One hundred years later, the PCUSA has become a spiritual wasteland, its corporate identity virtually indistinguishable from the modern post-Protestant secular culture.

In Machen’s day, there were those in the PCUSA arguing that it must be a broadening church—namely, that if it didn’t compromise in regard to things proven contrary to scientific inquiry, like the virgin birth and resurrection of Jesus from the dead, the church was going to be ridiculed as ignorant and was going to lose its position in American culture. Machen replied that in moving away from the Bible in an effort to accommodate Christianity to culture, the church was rapidly losing her power. There would be nothing distinctive of Christianity but a sordid life of utilitarianism.

Worse still, Machen pointed out, the attack upon sound doctrine in the church had brought paganism into the church in the name of Christianity. In the Bible’s place was a secularism that sought to explain life, both individually and corporately, in terms of undirected natural forces. This shift meant that the living God, creator of heaven and earth, was no longer the one who defined truth by his revealed will in Scripture. The arbiter of truth now was the individual and how that individual perceived and interpreted reality.

Machen also lamented worship services where the preacher primarily gave advice about the society’s problems. For liberal preachers, this was judged acceptable as the supernaturalism of the Bible was considered symbolic, and thus Christianity was believed to deal primarily with morality, not redemption. For Machen, here rested the most fundamental difference between liberalism and Christianity—liberalism is in the imperative mood. It appeals to the will of man. Christianity begins with a triumphant indicative. It announces first a gracious act of God, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ for sinners.

When Machen wrote Christianity and Liberalism, the reaction among leading moderates in the PCUSA was that, of course, Machen was right doctrinally, but he shouldn’t have stirred up trouble by cutting the liberals out of the church. Machen anticipated such a reaction in Christianity and Liberalism. He maintained that only God could answer such delicate personal questions as to whether one is a Christian or not. But one thing remained clear: liberalism is not Christianity.


[1] Stephen Bullivant, Nonverts: The Making of Ex-Christian America (New York: Oxford Press, 2022).

[2] Benjamin Mabry, “Losing Their Religion,” First Things, August–September 2023.

The author is editor of New Horizons. New Horizons, October 2023.

New Horizons: October 2023

Presbyterians and Nonverts

Also in this issue

What Machen Learned From the Classics

Machen and Modern Mythology

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