Recently, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life released the first set of findings from its massive U.S. Religious Landscape Survey 2008. As I studied the report and tracked its initial coverage in the mainstream media, I took special note of the provocative phrases employed to catch the public’s attention: “many Americans switch faith identity,” “faith identity fluctuates,” “constant membership turnover,” “a quantum leap in the rate of change,” “Churn. Churn. Churn.”
For those who read beyond the headlines and initial paragraphs of these news stories there was important information. Based on a sample of more than 30,000 adults and done with a methodological rigor that will make this survey a benchmark for future attempts to map the religious life of Americans, the Landscape Survey offered much to ponder. First, America remains stunningly Christian, at least in terms of religious self-identification. Of those polled, 78.4 percent identified themselves that way. After more than a century of modernity, secularism, higher education, enlightenment, and new religions, the vast majority still see themselves as in some way Christian.
That “in some way” is important. The survey documents the amazing variety of ways that Christians understand and practice their faith. And here is where the survey’s detailed analysis simultaneously confirms, sharpens, and challenges what many of us thought was going on. According to the surveyors, the biggest chunk of American Christianity is Protestantism, which makes up 51.3 percent of the adult population. So Protestants are still the religious majority in our society, but just barely so. The study goes on to note trends that suggest that any Protestant triumphalist celebrations better take place quickly. The Protestant majority has declined in relative size from the 60 to 65 percent level often noted by surveys taken during the 1970s and 1980s. Steady decline has been Protestantism’s overall trajectory from the 1990s on.
When the researchers slice the story generationally we see that 62 percent of those 70 and older are Protestant, while only 43 percent of those aged 18 to 29 identify themselves that way. Unless major and unanticipated changes take place, this survey may be the last one to paint a picture of American religious life before Protestants experience a historic shift and become a minority movement in the land they once claimed to shape.
The researchers have much more to say about Protestantism, about the three major subtraditions that comprise it—evangelical (26.3 percent), mainline (18.1 percent), and historically black (6.9 percent)—and about the generational, educational, income, and family-size dynamics that are shaping it. But what I found especially noteworthy was the discovery that “roughly one-third of all Protestants…were either unable or unwilling to describe their specific denominational affiliation.” Thus not only is Protestantism a composite of very different traditions, but many who placed themselves within this category did so with considerable vagueness about what that means. Specific denominational identities recede into the background in the story the survey tells.
One of the findings that has generated the earliest buzz is the dramatic growth of what the researchers call the fourth largest religious tradition in America. After the evangelicals, which make up 26.3 percent of the adult population, the Catholics (23.9 percent), and the mainline (18.1 percent), come the unaffiliated (16.1 percent). Almost equal in size to mainline Protestantism, the unaffiliated have as much internal diversity as the rest of America’s faith communities. Consisting of small groups of atheists and agnostics, this “tradition” included 12.1 percent of Americans who identified themselves as “nothing in particular.” For those interested in emerging trends, it is important to note that this group experienced the largest net growth of any of the major religious groupings, climbing from 5 percent in the 1980s to 16 percent today.
There are other startling revelations when one crunches these numbers. At first glance, American Catholicism looks relatively stable, making up 23.9 percent of the adult population, a figure very similar to the 25 percent regularly reported over the past several decades—except, as the researchers remind us, for the stunning fact that actually American Catholicism has suffered the greatest losses of any faith community. Almost one-third of the survey respondents who claimed to have been raised as Catholics no longer label themselves that way. Now fully 10 percent of America’s adults are former Catholics. How, given that massive exodus, could Catholicism’s numbers change so little? In a word, immigration. Nearly half (46 percent) of the 34 million immigrants surveyed by the pollsters identified themselves as Catholic. A very different Catholic reality is emerging behind the surface stability.
The great flux that is condensed within the numbers in the preceding paragraph is not just a Catholic story. The Landscape Survey tells us that all denominations are experiencing many exits and entrances. In fact, fully 44 percent of those surveyed indicated that they had moved from the religious tradition they were born into to another.
What do all these statistics mean for those who lead American congregations? Interestingly, the survey does not focus on congregations at all. Yet the local churches, synagogues, and temples of the land are the places where all this switching, fluidity, and vagueness manifest themselves week after week. In every worship service, board meeting, Sunday school class, social event, and rite of passage, all the churn that the Landscape Survey points to “out there” in the national environment is going on “in here”—in the lives of individual members and the small faith communities they belong to. Once upon a time religious leaders represented very distinct religious communities that were clearly differentiated from the ones down the street or across town. Now our leaders work in a sea of religious vagueness and search for ways to help people surrounded by a growing tide of “nothing in particular” find something in particular to build a life upon. Stay tuned.
James P. Wind is president of the Alban Institute. A version of this article will appear in the Spring 2008 issue of Congregations magazine.
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