Crunching the Numbers

By McKinney, William | The Christian Century, April 18, 2012 | Go to article overview

Crunching the Numbers


McKinney, William, The Christian Century


THOUGH GIVING to religion in the U.S. topped $100 billion in 2010--putting it at nearly I percent of GDP--no monthly index charts the nation's leading religious indicators. Even the Census Bureau, the nation's most comprehensive data-gathering enterprise, avoids collecting basic information about religion. No constitutional provision bars the collection of such information, but the government has long hesitated to intrude in the affairs of religious bodies. So most of what we know about religion in America is based on what individuals and groups reveal voluntarily to independent researchers. Fortunately, a small number of public foundations, most notably Lilly Endowment, the John M. Templeton Foundation and the Pew Charitable Trusts, continue to fund basic research on the state of American religion.

One of the most comprehensive recent surveys of American religious participation was reported in 2008 by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. The survey included over 35,000 respondents, making it possible to present detailed demographic and attitudinal data on large and small religious communities.

The Pew report notes that the American religious landscape is increasingly fluid and competitive. Fully 28 percent of Americans have changed their religious affiliation since childhood, a percentage that rises to 44 percent when interdenominational "switchers" within Protestantism are included. The ranks of the religiously unaffiliated are now 16 percent of American adults and fully a quarter of those age 18 to 29.

Protestantism continues to lose market share and will soon be a minority religious tradition. It remains fragmented: 25 percent of Americans identify with evangelical Protestant denominations, 18 percent with mainline or old-line Protestant churches, and 7 percent belong to historic black churches.

Baylor University's Institute for Studies of Religion is emerging as another significant resource on religious change and demography. ISR has directed three large national surveys conducted by the Gallup Organization. The latest, published in September 2011, The Values and Beliefs of the American Public, looks especially at health and religiosity, the relationship between entrepreneurship/work and religion, religion and the American ethos (individualism), and the relation between religious beliefs and views on politics and same-sex marriage.

The researchers probe believers by testing their response to the statement "God has a plan for me." Those who strongly agree with this statement have lower income and educational levels than other Americans and are more likely to believe that the U.S. economic system is fair and does not require governmental intervention. They tend to view government as too intrusive, to believe that anything is possible through hard work and that healthy people don't deserve unemployment benefits. These findings illuminate some voter dynamics evident in the 2012 presidential race.

Much of the Baylor report explores differences between liberals, moderates and conservatives. Not many surprises here. Self-described liberals, we learn, are less likely than self-described conservatives to say they believe in ultimate truth but more likely to believe that all religions worship the same God.

The most interesting portions of the Baylor study deal with attitudes toward homosexuality and civil liberties for gays and lesbians. The researchers find that a majority (65 percent) of Americans now favor same-sex civil unions and that 47 percent favor gay marriage and oppose laws prohibiting it. Attitudes toward gay civil liberties are major points of division between liberals and conservatives: 70 percent of conservatives support a law banning gay marriage, while only 14 percent of liberals do so.

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The past two decades have seen two important methodological breakthroughs that have improved our ability to observe trends and changes in congregations. …

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