"On Faith" Roundtable: The Pew Survey on U.S. Religion


Luke already pointed us to the new Pew survey on U.S. religion, and the Washington's Post "On Faith" had a roundtable on the very topic with some heavy hitters including Martin Marty, Susan Jacoby, Chester Gillis, Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, Anthony M. Stevens-Arroyo, and many others. Each weighed in on the survey and gave their interpretation of the American religious landscape with quite different conclusions. Here are some excerpts.

Martin Marty, "In Sickness and In Health"
Is it a mark of the health or sickness of American religion that so many Americans have switched their religious affiliation in adult life or dropped out? The answer is "yes."

Before elaborating, let me say that both findings point to something that is almost inevitable in today's world, and that virtually all religious leaders are aware of the trends.

Now to separate the two issues:

Is the fact that so many have switched their affiliation a mark of health or sickness. Let's look at the natural causes: there are millions and millions of "interfaith" marriages, and in many cases the switching occurred out of love on the part of one spouse for the other, and religion comes along as part of the package deal. Or interfaith marriage may have created tension and worked destructive effects on the marriage and the religious commitments of both. So when either or both "switches," the marriage may prosper, as might the religious faith of both.

There are, of course, many other reasons for switching. It can be a sign of sickness if religion is nothing more than a lightly-purchased commodity, one not backed by faith-commitment so much as by convenience, fad, or fashion and an unwillingness to deal with the demands of a faith.. It can be a sign of dilettantism, of attraction to fads, and that cannot be a good sign of health.

Susan Jacoby, "The American Spiritual Bazaar: Something for Everyone"
The relative ease with which Americans cast off one spiritual identity for another is an old phenomenon; the Pew findings show only that there has been an expansion and acceleration of a longtime, perhaps inevitable, trend in a pluralistic society. Our secular Constitution provided the underpining for the fluid American religious landscape.Try as they might--and religious denominations certainly did in the past--the legal foundation of American society upheld the right of citizens to choose their own religion. Your priest, rabbi, or parents might be furious if you stepped outside the fold, but American society as a whole didn't care.


America has always been a nation that offered extraordinary possibilities for reinvention[sic]; religious reinvention is one of those possibilities. From the standpoint of denominations being abandoned, this is certainly a weakness. The Catholic Church could count on no help from American society when people started abandoning it because of its stands on birth control, divorce, and a celibate male priesthood. Most rabbis still refuse to participate in ecumenical marriage ceremonies because they know that every intermarriage weakens traditional Judaism. Paradoxically, the ease with which Americans change religious identities may account for the excessive respect with which religion in general is regarded in this country.

In general, the Pew findings strongly support the idea advanced by Alan Wolfe, director of the Boisi Center for Religion and Public Life at Boston University, that American religion can be characterized as "broad but shallow." We have a minority of devout right-wing fundamentalists who have exercised political influence out of proportion to their numbers, and a minority of secularists who exercise less political influence than their numbers merit. In between there is a broad America that believes in God and respects religion in general but is not strongly committed to exclusionary religious principles or to a closer relationship between religion and government. There are also huge numbers of Americans who describe themselves as "spiritual but not religious"--a phrase I take to mean that they are hedging their bets by believing in some sort of divine providence but are not interested in undertaking the obligations that adhere to traditional religion. These are not people who want to get up for temple on Saturday or church on Sunday morning, but they like to watch television shows about angels and teenagers who talk to God.

Chester Gillis, "We Are Seekers and Shoppers"
Americans are seekers and shoppers. When it pertains to religion, they are no different. You may hear someone say, “I was baptized Catholic, married a Lutheran and became one, divorced, and now am unaffiliated.” This describes a growing number of Americans. The Pew Forum survey tells the story of religious identity in America. We are a mobile society not only in where we live, work, and travel our travel; we are also religiously mobile.

No doubt there are numerous reasons for such mobility, including exogamous marriage, longer lives and geographic, social, and economic factors. America’s freedom of ideas, speech, and religion underscores how different it is from many nations where a single religion dominates or where changing affiliation is simply not done, frowned upon, or even forbidden

For me, the most dramatic statistic reported in the survey is the category of “unaffiliated,” which has the highest self-identification (31%) among 18 to 29 year olds. This result mirrors studies of young Catholics (described as millennials born in 1979 or later) who demonstrate a low rate of identifying with institutional Catholicism. Recent statistics also indicate that one third of Americans who identify themselves as Catholics, approximately 23 million people, do not belong to parishes and thus likely do not have regular contact with the church.

Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, "The U.S. is Post-Denominational"
It is clear from this Pew study that the old denominational affiliations no longer apply. The religious landscape in the U.S. is best described these days as “post-denominational.” Post-denominational means that it is far less important whether you are Methodist or Baptist, or even Catholic, than where you fall along the continuum of fundamentalist to evangelical to progressive (liberal) to secular or unaligned. While some faiths or denominations generally are more evangelical or more liberal, each tradition has a wide spectrum within it. If you are a liberal Christian in a conservative Protestant denomination, you may have more in common with a Reformed Jew than with the Christians in your own denomination.

The shift in religious affiliation, or away from religious affiliation, has the most correlation, in my view, with that range of religious cultural assumptions than with any specific doctrine. And when people move from one affiliation to another, they are choosing a better cultural fit.

Anthony M. Stevens-Arroyo, "What's Missing From the Unsurprising Pew Study"
There are two reasons none of this is new: 1) religious identity with institutions changes when people migrate; and 2) personal religious preferences change when people of different faiths intermarry. To dispatch the last point first: the percentage of people married to a person of another church in the Pew Study is 40% and that is the same as the percentage who have switched religion. Protestants, like Baptists and Methodists, switch from congregation to congregation with amazing ease. The more intermarriage among people of different denominations, the more one or both leave the original congregation. Moreover the so called “non-denominational” churches serve the purpose of reconciling the religious differences between two Protestants by providing a vanilla brand with which both can feel comfortable.

All of this is common sense and has been researched before Pew came along. What it might mean is a thornier issue. Accommodating contemporary patterns of choice is considered by some a sign of religious weakness, but as proof of religious vitality by others. Like the argument about whether the glass is half-full or half-empty, solving the puzzle is more a statement about the observer’s preconceptions than an evaluation of fact.

In the PARAL Study we found that the religion of the mother is more likely to dominate in a family where only one faith is chosen for the children. This is Jewish law, of course, but it also demonstrates that practice of religion while a child falls within the realm of the woman. Professor Ana María Díaz-Stevens of Union Seminary in New York calls it “the matriarchal core.” Unlike the Pew study results which lumped together all people, the PARAL Study found that among Latinos the Catholic religion of the mother is more likely to be the children’s religion in two out of three households.

The role of migration is also a major factor in religious switching. The Pew Study pointed out that Catholicism rests today on the new members added by immigration. What was left unstudied was the larger theme explored in the PARAL Study about how Latino immigrants have changed U.S. Catholicism. In fact, the supposed “defection” of Latinos and Latinas is really more about “disaffection” for new parishes and lackluster liturgies. We found that as upper mobile Latinos and Latinas move to the suburbs, there is a tendency to perceive the suburban parish as not as welcoming as the typical mission or barrio congregation where Latinos predominated. Social distance is the result.


Anonymous said…
With Stevens-Arroyo (and others), I'm shocked that these findings are being presented as "new" and that the study is getting as much hype as it is.

The trends identified here have been longstanding in American religious history (as everybody on this blog should know), and even in their "present day form" they've been identified at least as far back as 1980 when a Gallup survey found that less than half of US adults had always been a member of the religion or denomination they were presently members of (as Martin Marty noted in this week's edition of his "Sightings" newsletter).

So the real story here may be about American (false) perceptions of religious stability, and about American forgetting.

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