Charting America's Religious Landscape

By Jane Lampman writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, October 1, 2002 | Go to article overview
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Charting America's Religious Landscape

Jane Lampman writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor

As they have throughout the nation's history, Americans see themselves today as a religious people, but their ties to churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples are in flux and continue to loosen.

A dramatic rise has taken place over the past decade in the proportion of residents who say they have "no religious preference," even while most of them continue to believe in God. This group doubled between 1990 and 2001 to an unprecedented 14 percent of the population, according to a 2001 survey.

Now, a recently released study of religious congregations - the widest snapshot of American denominational ties ever completed - confirms this and other key trends:

* Socially conservative denominations grew faster between 1990 and 2000 than others, with mainline Protestant churches continuing to decline.

* The overall increase in religious affiliation did not keep pace with the rate of US population growth (8.8 percent compared to 13.2 percent).

* Almost half of Americans are not claimed by any religious group.

* Some of the rapid increases in adherents are linked to immigration, which is reshaping Catholic and Protestant churches as well as smaller world faiths.

The recently released report - "Religious Congregations and Membership in the United States: 2000" - is the latest in a series of 10-year studies conducted at the same time as the US Census (which does not gather religious data). The study was sponsored by the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies, and published by Glenmary Research Center (GRC), a Catholic group in Nashville, Tenn.

The report is not as reliable as a census since it is based on self-reported data from religious denominations, which have varying skills and approaches to data collection that often must be adjusted to be comparable. The 149 participating religious bodies reported more than 140 million adherents. For the first time, estimates were included for Muslims and Eastern religions as well as for Christians and Jews, although some Muslim groups have questioned the results.

And there are significant gaps: Some major African-American denominations, such as the African Methodist Episcopal Church, are not included; data for independent churches cover only those with more than 300 members; and some groups, such as Jehovah's Witnesses, declined to participate.

Still, it's the most comprehensive look at the religious landscape so far.

Who's growing?

Only four of the 17 religious groups with more than a million adherents have increased faster than the US population (see chart on page 12).

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints - which sends its young people out to recruit in the US and abroad - grew most rapidly, by 19.3 percent, to 4.2 million. Its greatest support remains in Utah and surrounding states.

Evangelical groups next in line include the Christian Churches and Churches of Christ, at 18.6 percent, and Assemblies of God, the largest Pentecostal denomination, at 18.5 percent.

Pentecostals are known for their emphasis on "gifts of the Holy Spirit," including healing and speaking in tongues. According to church statistician Sherri Doty, the Assemblies of God expansion is due partly to growth in ethnic communities. "Hispanic churches grew by 29 percent and Hispanic adherents by 53 percent," she says.

The Catholic Church, which at 62 million is the country's largest denomination, grew by 16.2 percent. Immigration played a key role here as well, including Hispanics and Vietnamese, says Kenneth Sanchagrin, director of GRC.

Many Catholics have moved from the Northeast and Midwest to the South and Southwest. Dr. Sanchagrin sees migration to the South, a Baptist stronghold, as presenting challenges for ecumenical relations.

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