Switching in American Religion: Denominations, Markets, and Paradigms?
N. J. Demerath III and Yonghe Yang
Only a few decades ago, one's religious affiliation was considered as unchanging as one's gender, race, or ethnic group. Once a Protestant, Catholic, or Jew, always a Protestant, Catholic, or Jew. Even within Protestantism itself, once a Baptist, Presbyterian, or Adventist, always a Baptist, Presbyterian, or Adventist. Beginning in the 1960s, however, these perceptions began to change. Now some people see switching religions as almost on the same level as switching any other consumer product. In fact, sociologists often speak of a religious "marketplace."
But such changes are easily exaggerated. Recent headlines and media stories sometimes give the impression that religious switchers are now a majority of the population and that as a result the country has turned sharply to the religious right. Because religion is in keen demand among potential consumers in an increasingly active marketplace, this is seen as one more disconfirmation of the hypothesis of "secularization." Far from becoming secular or nonreligious, the country is undergoing "sacralization" and becoming more religious. In fact, there is a good deal of loose interpretation in all of this. Let us take a look at recent social scientific evidence on the subject to see what is really going on and why.
To begin, it is by no means clear that religious switching is actually increasing. It is true that Wade Clark Roof and William McKinney ( 1987) have heralded a new age of "religious voluntarism"--by which they mean increasing individual religious choices without the old constraints of denominational loyalties and customs, and which may include staying in one's parents' religion, changing to another religion, or abandoning religion altogether. However, Paul Sullins ( 1993) has recently argued that there has been a statistically significant decline in religious switching over time. But then C. Kirk Hadaway and Penny Marler ( 1993) show that matters are a little more complicated. They find that switching within large denomi-