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.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Congregational Library

Yesterday, on October 11, I had the honor to talk about The Mainline at the Congregational Library in Boston (  Back when I was just starting work on the book (and wrapping up work on my Prohibition book), I had received a travel and research grant to come to the Library and see what I could find on both projects in their archives.  Let me say that as an American Historian, few places rival Boston when it comes to history, travel, and research.  And for both projects, the Congregation Library was a treasure trove.  So, it was wonderful to get to go back and discuss my findings with the folks who had helped make it all possible.

I got to the library early to do a little reading on the Beechers (which my Butler classes this semester will appreciate as we move along, and which will help as I work on my next project to boot).  The staff was top notch as always.  And it was nice to see my book on display at the front desk (and being watched over by Jonathon Edwards himself no less!). 

In the conference room where the brown bag discussion took place, just off of the reading room, there were other pictures and artifacts.  While his father's portrait commands a place of honor in the reading room, in the conference room I had Henry Ward Beecher (who got his pastoral start in Indiana) keeping an eye on me.  In some respects all those portraits, many of people who are discussed in the Mainline book was comforting, as we waited for people to arrive.

All told, there were about 20 in attendance.  Many of them were ministers in the United Church of Christ, others were board members or friends of the Library.  I even had an attendee from Japan (the Rev. Yukimasa Ohmae), whose church in Kobe has special ties to Boston's Congregational past.  Over the course of our time together I sketched both the book and why I had written it, and we then got into a wonderful discussion about the future of Mainline Protestantism, ranging from my arguments in the book, to the use of political labels to discuss spiritual matters, the importance of culture/experience to religious consumerism, to the findings of the recent Pew Study on Religious Affiliation (which may very well be the subject of a future blog post, once I get a chance to read deeper into it).

Simply put, though it was a whirlwind trip, it could not have gone better.  I had a great time, the talk/discussion went perfectly, and I can only hope that the guests enjoyed it as much as I did!  I can also only hope to have other such opportunities in the months ahead.

Above is Park Street Church (, which sits at "the bottom" of the hill that makes up Boston Common, about a block from both the Massachusetts statehouse and a block from the Congregational Library.  It plays an important role in the story I tell in the Mainline, and so I couldn't resist taking a picture of it all lit up by the morning sun.