09 March 2009

Religion Rebranding Continues

Another national religious affiliation survey has been completed, and it tells the same story as similar surveys over the last decade and a half.

The number of Catholics is holding steady, masking a decline in Catholic affiliation among white parishioners, particularly in the Northeast, made up for by increasing numbers of Latino Catholics in the Southwest. Mainline Christian denominations continue to make up a smaller share of the population as well. The number of people who identify as non-religious is up, again, but the vast majority of them believe in some higher power, although not necessarily a personal Christian God.

This part of the trend is a combination of the demographic decline of non-Hispanic whites in the overall U.S. population and of Christmas and Easter Christians viewing themselves increasingly as non-religious rather than mainline Christian or Catholic.

Meanwhile the percentage of Americans who identify as Pentecostal and Baptist is declining, while the percentage who identify simply as Christian is growing. This is largely a direct rebranding. Those who identify as "Christian" are largely evangelical leaning non-denominational Christians who are abandoning the failed brands of the Baptist church and Pentecostalism, without making a major change in beliefs.

The number of people who adhere to non-Christian religions has stabilized in the last seven years (at 10.4%).

The rebranding trend (in bipolar politics, this is called realignment) is probably not over, as non-religious identified people reach a critical mass in some areas, and as secular practice continues to surpass secular identification.

Fifteen percent of respondents said they had no religion, an increase from 14.2 percent in 2001 and 8.2 percent in 1990, according to the American Religious Identification Survey.

Northern New England surpassed the Pacific Northwest as the least religious region, with Vermont reporting the highest share of those claiming no religion, at 34 percent. Still, the study found that the number of Americans with no religion rose in every state.

"No other religious bloc has kept such a pace in every state," the study's authors said. . . . Thirty percent of married couples did not have a religious wedding ceremony, and 27 percent of respondents said they did not want a religious funeral.

Wedding preferences are a powerful indicator of symbolic values, and suggest that the number of people who identify as non-religious may come close to doubling before the current rebranding era runs its course. Given the decline in the number of mainline Christians we have seen so far, the shoes that have yet to drop may come disproportionately from the ranks of Catholics and Evangelicals (although a disporportionate share of couples in these faiths are not getting married at all, despite their faith).

Personal moral and ethical values tend to be more stable than the identity of church denominations, just as political values tend to be more stable than the identity of political parties. So, for the most part, this significant rebranding of American religious identities is a lagging, rather than a leading indicator of changing American mores. But, the religious institutions that are denominations aren't entirely without impact.

Perhaps the most interesting question about the "rebranding" of American religious belief is how it will impact the character of the remaining predominantly white Catholic churches and mainline Christian churches in the U.S. Presumably, those who remain are the core believers in those faiths. Exit surveys during elections and surveys by groups like the Pew Center have shown that there are big ideological differences between those who attend church more often and are more engaged, and those who are not. While a fall off in attendance among less religious mainline Christians and Catholics may not change the character of routine church services very much, sense of community among those who remain, and the size of special events may change a great deal. Mainline Christians may not longer perceive themselves as an establishment majority, which may paradoxically make their own faith more rewarding as the return to a status of agents of change different from the mainstream culture.

White Roman Catholics may experience a similar phenomena in the Northeast, and in the Southwest and in states like Florida, may rethink their own identities as their parishes grow more diverse. Some white Catholics who are uncomfortable with these changes may leave to join liturgical protestant churches like the Episcopalian and Lutheran churches, in turn changing the character of those churches in a high church direction. Others white Catholics may embrace the diversity caused by an influx of Latino parishioners in a way that restores some of the cultural divide between Catholics and Protestants in the United States that had faded in favor of the Mainline-Evangelical split before the most recent wave of Latino immigration took hold.

The divide between mainline and Evangelical Christians continues to strengthen, those Protestant denominations that bridge it facing schism threats, and in some cases, like that of the Episcopal Church, bringing them to actual schism. (Denominations like the Presbyterians and Baptists experienced similar splits more than a century ago.) The result is to more firmly break the American people into enough cohesive chunks (Roman Catholic, Mainline Christian, African American Christian, Evangelical, Secular, Non-Christian), to leave everyone with a sense of being a religious minority. Again, ironically, this may continue the historical tendency of the United States to be religious than most of its peers, where a single religious denomination or set of practices is and has long been dominant.

("The report from the Program on Public Values at Trinity College surveyed 54,461 adults in English or Spanish from February through November of last year. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 0.5 percentage points." This sample is far larger than the usual political public opinion poll, which makes state and regional numbers valid, but is considerably smaller than Glenmary, a survey of people claimed by denominations conducted by a Roman Catholic affliated entity that has county level data.)

1 comment:

Michael Malak said...

I doubt that many Catholics leave the Catholic Church out of racism. I've never seen a Catholic Church without Hispanics, and Our Lady of Guadalupe is a powerful modern-day (16th century) miracle that inspires the entire New World (North and South America), not just Mexico where she appeared.

From my view (and I used to go door-to-door with the Legion of Mary to evangelize the Catholic faith), most leave the Catholic Church for one of three reasons:

1) Marriage issues. Either they married outside the faith, or they were in a Catholic marriage and then remarried (and thus not allowed to receive communion).

2) The scandal of the changing of the Mass circa 1970 (from Latin, priest offering the Sacrifice of the Mass at an altar against the rear wall, facing with the people, and with minimal interaction with the people; to the vulgar tongue, priest saying Mass facing the people at a table, and with Protestant-style interaction with the people)

3) The recent sex abuse scandal