Religious life in the U.S. has diversified amid an overall decline in religious affiliation.

This was one of the key findings from a report published in mid-January by Duke University’s National Congregations Survey (NCS) that seeks to provide insight on communal religious life. This release follows an introduction to the survey published in mid-October 2020.

“There are many other surveys that explore America’s religious landscape. But most other surveys ask people about their own individual religious beliefs and practices. The NCS, by contrast, examines what people do together in congregations,” the report said.

“What communities of faith do together tells us something important about the state of American religion, whatever the specific beliefs and practices of individuals in those communities. … Overall, the NCS provides a portrait of a broad and varied cross-section of American religious life, and it allows us to offer grounded observations about the state of congregational life.”

The data for this latest report was collected in 2018 and 2019, and it is the fourth such survey since NCS launched in 1998. All told, information has been gathered from more than 5,000 houses of faith in the U.S.

Diversification of religious life has been a major trend observed across the four surveys, with the latest data revealing that the combined number of synagogues, mosques and Buddhist or Hindu temples has surpassed the number of Catholic parishes.

“The distribution of congregations across major religious groups has not changed dramatically since 1998, but one trend stands out: more non-Christian congregations. The proportion of non-Christian congregations nearly doubled between 1998 and 2018-19, from 5% of all religious congregations in 1998 to 9% in 2018-19,” the report said. “The big increase in Buddhist temples in the 2018-19 data (to 3% of all congregations) may be a statistical anomaly, but overall, it is clear that the American religious landscape continues to diversify.”

Female leadership has increased slightly in recent decades, with 14% of all surveyed houses of faith led by solo or senior clergywomen in the 2018-2019 survey. Female clergy in a solo or senior clergy role were most common in mainline Protestant churches (30%), followed by non-Orthodox Jewish synagogues (27%) and Black Protestant churches (16%). Only 3% of evangelical churches and 2% of Catholic parishes had female clergy in such positions.

Acceptance of LGBTQIA+ persons into congregational life has increased in recent years, with 54% of all houses of faith allowing them to be full members (up from 37% in 2006) and 30% allowing them to hold any volunteer leadership position (up from 18%).

However, this overall increase masks notable differences between faith traditions in this and other areas related to overall diversification trend.

“For example, while every religious tradition has shown increases between 2006 and 2018- 19 in their acceptance of gays and lesbians as full-fledged members of their congregation, Catholic parishes are less likely to express acceptance of gay and lesbian lay leaders in 2018-19 (26%) than they were in 2006 (39%),” the report said.

Another example is the difference between white mainline Protestant churches, most of which allow women to serve in any capacity, and both white evangelical churches, most of which do not allow women to serve on a governing board, and Catholic parishes, all of which restrict women from the priesthood.

Though the total number of people who affiliate with a religious tradition has declined since 1998, those who continued to identify with a faith tradition comprise a vibrant community of faith.

As NCS director Mark Chaves noted in comments to Deseret News, “Even though decline is happening, religion remains, by world standards, very vibrant in the U.S.”

This is particularly true of non-Christian traditions that have seen growth during a period in which Christian affiliation – particularly among white Protestants – has experienced an overall decline.

Yet, even within Christianity, there are signs of life, as white evangelicals and Black Protestants have had significantly more churches launched in the past decade than either Catholic or mainline Protestants.

This reveals a vibrancy among some Christian traditions – what the report describes as “a culture of church planting and religious entrepreneurship” – and it also has contributed to increasing diversity.

And despite the overall downward trend in Christian affiliation, the NCS survey found that a majority of U.S. houses of faith are Christian: 43% white evangelical Christian; 21% white mainline Protestant; 21% Black Protestant; 6% Catholic.

Other faith traditions comprise the remaining 9% of U.S. houses of faith: 3.2% Jewish, 3.1% Buddhist; 0.7% Hindu; 0.6% Muslim; 1.4% other non-Christian tradition.

The full report is available here. The data tables are available here.

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