On May 17, the New York Times‘ headline read “WhitesAccountforUnderHalfofBirthsinU.S.; TippingPointReached; ImplicationsforPolitics, theEconomyandaNationsIdentity.”
On the same day The Wall Street Journal underscored this “birth” theme: “Minority Births Are New Majority.” Insert the word “Religion” next to “Politics,” “Economy,” and “Identity” in the Times headline and you will have the mix which excites, troubles and provides new agendas.

Why “Religion?” In an academic presidentialaddress 40 years ago, I spoke about the overlooked but obvious, that “ethnicity” is “the skeleton of religion in America.”

Since then ethnicity has become so preoccupying that it could be seen as the exoskeleton, the external element which gives shape to it all.

There is no place to hide. The Journal study spoke of change in Schuyler and Columbus, Nebraska.

Schuyler, the last time I looked, as recently as 1990, was 4 percent Hispanic. By 2000 it was 41 percent, and the town survives because of Mexican residents.

Births in Columbus, says the same source, are between 50 percent and 60 percent Hispanic.

This caught my eye, because Columbus was home to the Marty (and in-laws) immigrants 150 years ago, and they, Swiss and Germans, kept learning about “peoplehood” in their counties.

As a child in the 1930s, I was pointed to “Polander” hill, where Polish immigrants farmed, or heard of “Bohemian Bands” which played at weddings.

But blacks and all but a few Jews were miles away in Omaha, and Mexicans, to say nothing of Asians, were far, far away. Now these “ethnicities” leave “our kind” in the minority.

People with demographic interests and knowledge contribute to both therapy and strategy among older-stock churches.

Therapy, because they see their natural old-line European stock dwindling and that dwindling makes them aware that this contributes to some of the decline of “the mainline” of Protestantism. Also, of the non-Hispanic (still) two-thirds of American Catholics, whose membership and attendance numbers dwindle as well.

Note: demography is not the sole agent of relative decline. Failure to be able to attract younger generations; pop-culture denigration of serious faith; the taking for granted of habitual members by aging participants, wearying conflicts within denominations, which turn people off – all these contribute to morale problems.

Awareness of the contribution of the shifts in ethnic populations can be therapeutic among those who, as self-accusers, think that all decline or hard times must be their fault.

Strategy also plays in here. Congregations and larger units in denominations and non-denominations who use the knowledge that comes with recognition of the “new minority” status are, at their best, busy adapting.

They know that vast numbers of the parents of the newborn are indifferent, non-affiliated or “ex-members” who do not find the institutions of the faith speaking to their needs.

Some leaders use the signals to engage in reform and reformulation of worship, evangelism and social service.

Some take lessons from “poor world” Christianity on other continents, where the numbers of the faithful grow rapidly.

Overcoming ethnic prejudices, reaching out hospitably, relying on the drama of the messages that were effective in other generations, no matter what the ethnic boundaries, will keep the aware folk busy, whether in the minority or not.

Martin E. Marty is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus at the University of Chicago. His column first appeared in Sightings.

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