Religion Is Alive and Diverse in US When Asked, Most Americans Claim a Specific Denomination

By Lawrence J. Goodrich, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, January 10, 1994 | Go to article overview

Religion Is Alive and Diverse in US When Asked, Most Americans Claim a Specific Denomination


Lawrence J. Goodrich, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


JUDGING from American network television and movies, almost no one in the United States attends church or believes in God.

When was the last time you saw a character go to church, turn to a pastor, or pray to God? Indeed, when "L.A. Law" this season added a fundamentalist Christian lawyer to the cast, it was so unusual that several newspapers and magazines took note.

Now, once again, social science has stepped in to show that, when it comes to religion, the American media have got it wrong - seriously wrong.

The United States is a unique society, manifesting high levels of economic development, education, and religious belief. This conclusion, reported in detail by such researchers as George Gallup Jr. and the Rev. Andrew Greeley, is reaffirmed by the National Survey of Religious Identification (NSRI). The survey, conducted in 1990 by the Graduate School of the City University of New York, is discussed in a new book, "One Nation Under God," by Barry Kosmin and Seymour Lachman (Harmony Books, 312 pp., $25).

The telephone survey polled a sample of 113,000 people over a 13-month period across the continental US. According to the authors, it is "the largest and most comprehensive poll ever on religious loyalties, and the most accurate and detailed as to geographical distribution."

In answer to the National Survey of Religious Identification question "What is your religion?," 86 percent of respondents said they were Christians: The two largest groups were Roman Catholics, at 26 percent, and Baptists, at 19 percent. Jews represent 2 percent of the population, with Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus numbering no more than 0.5 percent each. Of those polled, 7.5 percent said they had no religion, and 2.3 percent refused to answer.

The survey found that many more Americans claim to be Catholic, Baptist, Methodist, Episcopalian, Lutheran, Presbyterian, and Unitarian-Universalist than membership figures of those denominations show. This indicates that many Americans who are not members of those churches, and who may not even attend, still identify themselves in those traditions. On the other hand, the numbers of Mormons, Jews, Muslims, and Eastern Orthodox Christians were found to be less than the claimed membership of those bodies.

One can understand little about the US without understanding its religious diversity and how that plays out in the national makeup and political decisionmaking. For example, membership statistics on a county-by-county basis compiled by the Glenmary Research Center in Atlanta showed that there are geographical regions in which one religion predominates. The NSRI likewise finds "heartlands" for four religious families: Baptists in the South, Lutherans in the Upper Midwest, Roman Catholics in the Northeast, and Mormons in Utah and other Rocky Mountain states (see maps, Page 11).

Methodism (including the mostly white United Methodist Church, the three historically black Methodist denominations, and several smaller bodies) is a more "national" religion, but Methodists are more likely to live east of the Mississippi River. "The Methodists, and the other religious denominations that were dominant in the Colonial period, tend to be well distributed now across most of the states," Kosmin and Lachman write.

Among other groups:

r People who say they are Jewish by religion are mostly found in southern New England, the Middle Atlantic states, Florida, and California.

r The largest percentage of Pentecostals are found primarily in Arkansas and the states surrounding it.

r A higher percentage of nonreligious people is found in the West (see map, Page 11), but the West is also the most religiously diverse region of the country. Ethnicity and religion

Ethnic and religious stereotypes abound in the US, but are increasingly off the mark. The survey finds that most Americans who claim Irish or French descent are not Catholic, and most Arab-Americans and Asian-Americans are Christians. …

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