The Los Angeles Times recently featured a new study from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. The results offer a snapshot of faith in America–although “home movie,” might be a more accurate description of the report. People of faith in America are on the move–it’s like a pilgrimage.
For instance, so many Christians are leaving the Protestant tradition that Protestantism is on the verge of becoming a minority faith.
According to the report, barely 51 percent of Americans are Protestant. Among the younger crowd, 18-29 year olds, only 43 percent claim to belong to this brand of Christianity. More than four in 10 adults–nearly 44 percent–claim to have switched religious affiliations or abandoned religious ties altogether.
Richard J. Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, was quoted by the Times as saying, “The presumption of a Protestant framework for understanding the American character is now a thing of the past. We are an increasingly pluralistic society, and we Protestants now have to think about how we can contribute to the common good as simply one more voice in the American choir.”
Of course the case can be made that there never was a Protestant majority. The diversity that exists even among Protestants cast serious doubt on the idea of a monolithic religious sub-structure underlying American social life.
Jerry Campbell, president of the Claremont School of Theology, a United Methodist seminary, told the Times, “Technically, one would not say that this was ever a Protestant nation, rather it was a nation made up primarily of individuals who professed to be Protestants.”
The study took note of this diversity among Protestants. There is considerable fragmentation and hundreds of denominations milling around under the Protestant umbrella in America. Evangelical Protestant churches comprise about 26 percent, mainline Protestants about 18 percent, and black Protestant churches about 7 percent.
Protestants are not the only people of faith on the move. Catholics are also losing members. Roughly one third of people in America raised Catholic no longer claim that faith as their own. Roughly 10 percent of all Americans are former Catholics. Interestingly, the losses in the Catholic Church are being offset by another form of movement–immigration.
Overall, the snapshot of American faith looks something like this: Christians, 78 percent; other faith traditions, 5 percent. Of the more free spirited in our midst, secular and religious unaffiliated both come in at about 6 percent each.
Jews represent a little less than 2 percent of the population, with Buddhists, Muslims and Hindus combining for just over 1.5 percent.
One idea the study refutes fairly convincingly is the notion that America is becoming a secular nation. Mouw told the Times, “There is much spirituality out there among the unaffiliated. I find this to be an exciting challenge.”
The considerable mobility of these affiliated and even re-affiliated pilgrims certainly poses a challenge to religious institutions that historically depend on more durable commitments for their survival. Or as the saying goes: It’s hard to build a plane and fly it at the same time.
For the Alabama contingent, it is interesting to note how closely our numbers track with the national picture. Based on a USA Today survey, in Alabama about 88 percent claim some Christian affiliation, Jews and Mormons about 1 percent each. Muslim, Buddhists and others comprise about 4 percent.
Only 6 about percent of folk in our state claim no religious affiliation at all–Alabama and Auburn loyalties notwithstanding.
James L. Evans is pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.