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
* The overall increase in religious affiliation did not keep pace
with the rate of US population growth (8.8 percent compared to 13.2
* Almost half of Americans are not claimed by any religious
* 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
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.
Only four of the 17 religious groups with more than a million
adherents have increased faster than the US population (see chart on
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