Thursday, October 18, 2012

Chewing on Pew

Last week, as I was preparing to talk about The Mainline in Boston, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life issued a report that not only garnered headlines but also helped reshape my presentation and subsequent Q and A time.  As someone who was about to engage the public, I quickly scanned the report.  But as an historian, I also wanted to read the report in depth before I bought into the hysterics that the headlines seemed to be generating (one way or another) in certain denominational quarters.

So first, here are the two major "headline" inducing findings from this most recent report (which you can read here:

1.  The United States is no longer a Protestant majority nation when it comes to religious affiliation.
2.  To borrow from the report itself, "'Nones' are on the rise: one-in-five adults have no religious affiliation."

So, let's take a look at these two points, both in their way, bombshells.  But both also with some potential problems if you don't take the time to dig into the numbers and/or depending on how you interpret both the raw numbers and their implications.

First, is the United States no long a Protestant majority nation?  According to the Pew study, while the U.S. remains a decidedly Christian nation (73%), the vast majority of which are comprised of Protestants, that number has fallen to 48% of the whole (Catholics constitute about 22% of the population according to Pew).  So, working from the numbers, the report is accurate.  But, how did Pew researchers arrive at the number?  They break Protestants into three broad sub-groups (white evangelical, white mainline, and black Protestant), and while in other reports on their homepage you can find further breakdown of those groups (imperfectly one would suspect based on the combination of phone surveys and denominational membership numbers that are compiled from official sources), and taken together, those numbers give us the 48% figure.

All fine and good, but let's dig a bit deeper here.  The survey's overall margin of error seems to be just over 2%.  If that is the case, then Protestants may still cling to majority status.  But the bigger issue for me is how the numbers are compiled.  First, and perhaps I missed it, but there seems to be little room in the report for non-denominational Protestants, which one could argue, might be the most under reported, under studied, religious group in America.  Did Pew consider these Christians in their findings?  Are they aggregated in with the white evangelicals -- which can be problematic, since there are also black evangelical non-denominational churches as well.  Likewise, where/how does Pew calculate and label Pentecostal churches and denominations-- who are Protestant (largely) but don't out of hand fit under either of the big three labels conclusively?  In short, there is more to dig into here than the headline, and even the report, may at first indicate.

But the major revelation and headline getter didn't revolve around the status of Protestants.  Rather it was about the rise of unaffiliated Americans.  Pew's report, the subsequent headlines, and much of the discussion since has revolved around the roughly 20% of all Americans who now are labeled as having no particular religious affiliation.  As the report notes, this figure has increased in the last decade, and as the Pew study further relates, there seems to be a host of cultural reasons for this (including a growing acceptance to the idea that it is fine to say publicly that you don't belong/go to a church/synagogue on a regular basis, if at all).

While these cultural reasons are the basis for reflection and discussion, once again perhaps we should dig into the report.  According to Pew, that 20% unaffiliated can be broken down in the following manner:

6% atheist or agnostic
14% unaffiliated.

And it is with the unaffiliated that I want to spend a little time.  According to Pew, these people are not "seekers" -- that is, at this time, they don't really want to find a church (or any other formal religious) home.  They tend (although not conclusively so) to be politically more liberal on social issues (prompting some to theorize that they may be a response to the rise in the 1980s and 1990s of the Religious Right).  But from a demographic stand point, they also tend to be single, white, men.

Yet, if we dig deeper into the study we find some interesting things about these "nones." 68% of them say they believe in God.  37% of them describe themselves as "spiritual" but not "religious."  And 21% say that they pray daily.  In other words, unlike perhaps many atheists and some agnostics, they are not anti-religion, even if they might be skeptical of organized religion.

What does this mean for the Mainline (whether that of the Seven Sisters or the emerging one I argue for in my book)?  As an historian, I am more interested in the unaffiliated than on the notion of Protestant minority status, though the two may very well be more linked than the 80 pages of the Pew report indicate at first read.  Are these "nones" one of the reasons for the decline of the old Mainline?  Where are they dis-affiliating themselves from -- were they raised in -- a Protestant church, but no longer are?  If so, where and why?  What is it about Christianity (Protestant or Catholic) in America over the past few decades that has led, apparently, to an exodus of sorts of single, white, men?  What can and should the Church be doing to reach out to them?  Is this, in some ways, similar to the crisis in the early twentieth century that gripped American Protestantism and which led to the "muscular Christianity" movement?  What parallels and lessons can be drawn from that time to this one (even if we don't have a Pew study to compare it to)?

In short, I'm going to continue to chew on Pew, mull it over, and see where it takes me.  And I hope you will join me in getting beyond the headlines and digging a bit deeper to see where it takes us.

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