U.S. religious affiliation in a state of flux, study shows

By Rebecca Rosen Lum
Oakland Tribune

The tectonic shifting of American culture has made for a dynamic religious landscape that promises to continue churning, a landmark survey shows.

Immigration, family choices and a search for religious relevance are spurring dramatic changes, according to a report by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

The U.S. Religious Landscape Survey researchers interviewed more than 35,000 people, asking 45 questions.

The survey found Americans freely changing their religious identities.

Forty-four percent of American adults have left the religions or denominations in which they were raised. Some have found new faiths, some remain religious but have no affiliation, and some have abandoned religious belief as well as practice.

People who believe without belonging have become one of the largest groups in the religious landscape. More than 16percent of Americans saythey are religious but don’t identify with any particular faith group.

Some groups struggle to maintain their numbers, the researchers found.

Jehovah’s Witnesses loses more believers than any other faith, with some two-thirds of adult members severing ties. Zealous recruiting efforts keep the faith’s numbers from dwindling, researchers said.

The steepest drop is among mainline Protestant denominations. Researchers link the losses to falling birth rates coupled with an inability to retain members as they reach adulthood.

As late as the 1980s, Protestants — including mainline denominations, evangelicals and historically black churches — accounted for two-thirds of believers, most surveys showed. The Pew report puts the percentage at 51.

Catholics also experience a continuous churn.

That its population has held steady belies the fact that so many — one in three — leave. A bit more than half who go join evangelical faiths; one in 10 evangelicals is a former Catholic. The other half have no affiliation.

Latinos now make up a third of the Catholic church, researchers found. Nearly three-quarters of immigrants from Mexico, and a majority of immigrants from other Latin American countries, are Catholic.

Immigrants and minorities are beginning to influence evangelicalism, the researchers said.

“It looks like evangelical Protestantism is growing, but it is also becoming more diverse,” Pew senior fellow John Green said. “That could lead to more clout politically, but they may not be as united as they were in the past.”

Mainline Protestants will retain their political muscle because of their mission, said William McKinney, president and professor of American religion at Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley.

“Look at the fact that all three presidential candidates left standing are mainline Protestants,” he said.

They are trained to participate fully in society and they vote out of proportion to their size, he said.

“One thing this study shows for me is that people are starting to see religion in a marketplace framework,” said Jim Donahue, president of Berkeley’s Graduate Theological Union.

“Once you see it as a marketplace, market principles apply. People are shopping around. It underscores America as a voluntaristic society.”

The shift among faiths is the most brisk among those younger than 30, who are more likely to change affiliation across faith traditions compared to older believers.

Evangelicals now make up more than 26 percent of the nation’s religious community. The faith includes Pentecostals, Southern Baptists and many of the mega-churches.

Many convert to evangelical beliefs because they desire a closer experience with God or a particular pastor, the researchers said.

Generally, people leave childhood faiths that no longer meet their needs, they said.

Need alone does not tell the whole story, however. Green said the transient nature of Americans accounts for much of the change.

“A person may be very involved with a church in one community, then move to another place and just never get connected up,” he said.

Women have a slim majority in most religious congregations, although men hold the edge in Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu faiths.

More men than women claim to be religious but unaffiliated.

The survey spotlights singularity as well as diversity. More than 70 percent of Mormons marry other Mormons, and nearly 80 percent of Hindus marry other Hindus.

More than a third of religious Americans marry someone of another faith or denomination.

“Americans are not only more accepting of religious diversity, they are more accepting of it within their own homes,” Pew director Luis Lugo said.

“What we’re looking at is a need to develop as an interreligious world,” the Theological Union’s Donahue said. “People want leaders who can speak to their beliefs, yes, but also to the beliefs of others.”

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