Report

Pilgrims' Progress, American Style (Fall 2008 Trust Magazine article)

"This civilization is the result . . . of two quite distinct ingredients, which anywhere else have often ended in war but which Americans have succeeded somehow to meld together in wondrous harmony; namely the spirit of religion and the spirit of liberty.”

Penned nearly 200 years ago by Alexis de Tocqueville, the French chronicler of American democracy, those words remain a strikingly accurate description of the role of religion in America—as evidenced by the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, an exhaustive new study by the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life. What it found was that, unlike that of other industrialized countries, America's “spirit of religion” remains strong. “People are very devout,” observes Luis E. Lugo, the forum's director. “They take religion very seriously.”

More than half of those surveyed said that they attend religious services regularly and pray daily. Furthermore, a plurality of those surveyed who are affiliated with a religion wanted their religion to preserve its traditional beliefs and practices rather than to either adjust to new circumstances or adopt modern beliefs and practices. And significant minorities across nearly all religious traditions saw a conflict between being a devout person and living in a modern society.

But, as de Tocqueville also noted— and the survey underscored—a “spirit of liberty” pervades the practice of religion in America. “Churn” in religious affiliation is extremely high: More than one-quarter of American adults (28 percent) have left the faith in which they were raised in favor of another religion, or no organized religion at all. If change in affiliation from one type of Protestantism to another is included, the number rises to 44 percent of adults.

Moreover, for all their religiosity, most Americans have a non-dogmatic approach to faith. A majority (70 percent) of those who are affiliated with a religion, for instance, do not believe that theirs is the only way to salvation. “What we're seeing,” says Lugo, “is that there's extraordinary diversity.”

The free-market approach that characterizes the American economy applies to religion as well, adds John C. Green, a senior fellow in religion and American politics at the forum, noting, “There's extraordinary dynamism.” Green, who is also Distinguished Professor of Political Science at the University of Akron, points out: “When Americans have more options, they take advantage of them. And perhaps because of that diversity and dynamism, there's an absence of dogmatism when it comes to faith.”

Overall, the report finds strong links between Americans' views on political issues and their religious affiliation, beliefs and practices. The message for politicians is clear. “First, because America is so diverse, you can't rely on a single religion in order to get elected,” says Green. “In fact, you have to build a coalition of different groups. And because Americans have a variety of beliefs and behaviors, you can appeal even to members of different affiliations on the basis of particular issues. And because Americans, despite being diverse, are overall quite religious, then as a practical matter it's good to be a religious candidate of one kind or another.”

As the ampersand in its name suggests, the forum focuses not on theology but on the nexus between religion, politics and public policy; Director Lugo, for example, is a former professor of political science who has taught and written about religion and public life. Accordingly, the survey—which interviewed more than 35,000 Americans and was pathbreaking for its reach into some of the smallest and previously least-researched religious denominations—sought detailed information on the size of religious groups in America, their demographic characteristics, religious beliefs and practices, and basic social and political values.

Thus, while the survey affirmed links between faith, on the one hand, and social and political attitudes, on the other, the connection is often complicated. In general, it found that people who identify themselves with an organized religion tend to be more conservative on issues such as abortion and homosexuality; the more religious they are, the more conservative they are, too.

“It's not just that Catholics are different from evangelicals, but regular mass-attending Catholics are different from those who never darken the door of a church,” notes Green. “And there's a similar kind of division among evangelicals, between those who go to church regularly and those who don't.”

Yet race and ethnicity can transcend religion. White evangelicals and members of historically black Protestant churches may share many views on faith and cultural issues, but evangelicals tend to vote Republican and members of historically black churches are heavily Democratic. The unprecedented level of scrutiny allowed the researchers to tease apart the numbers and reveal unique insights into America's varied religious landscape. For example:

  • While many religious groups are holding their own in terms of membership, there is often significant turmoil below the surface. The Catholic Church has lost more adherents than any other religious group in the United States and converts are relatively few, but defections have been offset by the disproportionately large number of Catholic immigrants.
  • Jehovah's Witnesses have the lowest retention rate of any religious tradition—only 37 percent who were raised in the faith remain in it—but the group wins enough converts so that total membership has, in fact, grown.
  • The number of people who say they are unaffiliated with any particular faith today (16 percent) is more than double the number who were unaffiliated as children. In fact, the unaffiliated are the fourth-largest category in the survey, after evangelical Protestants, Catholics and mainline Protestants. Moreover, young adults (ages 18–29) are much more likely to be unaffiliated. If those generational patterns persist, researchers say, recent declines in the number of Protestants and growth in the size of the unaffiliated population may continue. However, only one-quarter of this group (4 percent of all respondents) describe themselves as atheists or agnostics; the others say their religion is “nothing in particular.”
  • Of all the major racial and ethnic groups in the United States, African Americans are the most likely to report a formal religious affiliation, and members of historically black Protestant churches are among the most devout respondents, generally trailing only Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses in the degree of their piety.
  • Intermarriage between Americans is high. Among married respondents, 37 percent had a spouse with a different religious affiliation. That included Protestants who were married to another Protestant from a different denomination, such as a Baptist who was married to a Methodist. (Hindus and Mormons were the most likely not only to be married, but also to be married to someone of the same religion—90 percent and 85 percent, respectively.) “In their very homes, many people are living with someone who is of a different religious tradition,” notes Lugo. “This shows that diversity is found not only in the public square.”
  • Political orientation and attitudes on social and cultural issues are often closely associated with religious affiliation, but views on certain political issues, such as the economy and the environment, are less closely linked. For example, there is broad agreement among most groups on the need for environmental protection and government assistance to the poor, even if it involves the government's going into debt.

Like much new information, the survey's findings raise as many questions as they answer, and the forum is planning a follow-up study. One area of ongoing investigation is churn—or, as Green puts it more elegantly, Americans' “religious journey.” While the survey essentially took two snapshots of respondents, capturing their religious affiliation now and as children, the hunch is that many adults have converted a few times between those start and end points.

“There are plenty of people who start out as something, go to college or wherever and just lose their religious identity and don't think of themselves in that tradition or maybe even join a different group, and then come back—what I affectionately call ‘reverts,'” Lugo says. “In particular, we'd be interested in how that's correlated with middle age and people rediscovering their roots.”

At the same time, Lugo and his colleagues recognize that—in deference to that ampersand—they need to further explore the nexus between religion and public life. Accordingly, the next survey will seek to assess different religious groups' views on a broader range of economic and social issues as well as degrees of political participation.

“We know that Latinos and African Americans are very liberal on economic questions,” says Lugo. “On social questions they tend to be more conservative than most. So why is it that, for some folks, social conservatism leads to a more liberal political ideology and to vote Democratic, and for others it doesn't?”

The goal, he concludes, “is the first-of-its-kind religious-political typology that digs deeply on both sides, religion and politics, and comes up with a very nice portrait of the country.”

You can read the entire U.S. Religious Landscape Survey at http://religions.pewforum.org. The online presentation includes dynamic tools that allow users to easily access information about the country's religious composition and comparative data about religious groups.

Sandra Salmans is senior writer of Trust.