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Faith in Flux in the United States

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By Father John Flynn, LC

ROME, MAY 3, 2009 ( Americans are prone to changing their church affiliation, according to a report released by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. The report, “Faith in Flux: Changes in Religious Affiliation in the U.S.,” was published April 27.

The study found that 28% of American adults have changed their religious affiliation from the one in which they were raised. The figure is higher, 44%, if changing from one Protestant denomination to another is counted.

The study was a follow-up to the “U.S. Religious Landscape Survey,” published in 2008. It was based on interviews with participants in the previous report.

The survey discovered that there is a notable difference between Catholics and Protestants when it comes to the factors causing a change. Almost 40% of Protestants said they changed denominations simply because of moving. An almost equal number attributed the change due to marrying someone from a different religious affiliation.

Two-thirds of Catholics, by contrast, say they left the Church due to no longer believing in some of its teachings. Nearly six-in-ten former Catholics who are now unaffiliated said they left due to dissatisfaction with Catholic teachings on abortion and homosexuality. About half cited concerns about Catholic teachings on birth control.

Just over 10% of American adults have left the Catholic Church after having been raised Catholic. This is notably greater than the number joining the Catholic Church. Only 2.6% of adults have become Catholic after having been raised something other than Catholic.

Age and instruction

The survey also found that age is a critical factor in changing religious allegiances. Most of those who left the faith they were brought up in did so before reaching 24 years of age. By the age of 36 a large majority reached their current religion, and very few change once they reach 50 years or more.

Another important factor is the level of religious formation and practice during the teen years. The survey found that ex-Catholics who are now unaffiliated are much less likely than lifelong Catholics to have attended Mass regularly or to have had very strong faith as teenagers.

Similarly, now unaffiliated former Protestants were less likely to have regularly attended services as children or teenagers. They also scored lower when it came to attending Sunday school or having had very strong religious faith as a child or a teenager.

The study also revealed that the category of people who are unaffiliated with any particular religion has grown more rapidly than any other religious group in recent decades. The Landscape Survey found that 16% of American adults say they are currently unaffiliated with any particular religion, compared with only 7% who were raised unaffiliated.

The unaffiliated are, however, very diverse. Moreover, approximately four-in-ten unaffiliated individuals say religion is somewhat important in their lives.

Christian America

The Pew study was published shortly after a controversial story on Christianity by Newsweek magazine. In its April 13 Easter issue Jon Meacham authored a feature article titled: “The End of Christian America.”

He cited data from the 2009 American Religious Identification Survey, according to which the number of Americans who claim no religious affiliation nearly doubled since 1990, going from 8% to 15%.

According to Meacham’s interpretation Christianity is now much less of a force in politics and culture. He also affirmed that this was “a good thing,” and even went so far as to claim that it was good for Christians in order to help them rediscover the benefits of separating Church and state.

At the same time Meacham did admit that Christianity is still strong in America and that it would be wrong to define it as “post-Christian.”

Meacham’s thesis, however, came in for sharp criticism from a number of commentators. In an April 12 article Washington Post columnist, E.J. Dionne, commented that in its history America has gone through several cycles of religious fervor and decline.

Dionne agreed that change is occurring, but maintained that this “will strengthen rather than weaken the Christian church over the long run.”

This is so, he continued, because in recent years evangelical Christians were the ones who most exerted cultural and political influence and the relative decline of their power opens up the possibility for other Christian groups to make an impact.

Decent shape

More polemically, L. Brent Bozell, penning an opinion article in the April 16 edition of the Wall Street Journal, turned the focus back on Newsweek itself. The number of Christians may well have decreased, but Bozell drew attention to the plummeting circulation of Newsweek, down 52% in just the last two years.

Bozell also reminded readers that prior to marking Easter by proclaiming the decline of Christianity, Newsweek celebrated last Christmas with another questionable article, making the case for same-sex marriage as being compatible with Christianity.

In an acerbic aside he commented that: “Christianity, in contrast to Newsweek, is in decent demographic shape.”

Stephen Prothero, chair of the Department of Religion at Boston University, returned to the Newsweek story in an opinion article published by USA Today on April 27.

Prothero also cited what President Barack Obama said in a speech given April 6 during a visit to Turkey. Obama said that the United States “does not consider itself a Christian nation or a Jewish nation or a Muslim nation” but “a nation of citizens who are bound by ideals and a set of values.”

Prothero observed that the rise in the number of Americans who profess no religion becomes less clear once some digging is done. He called the researchers of the American Religious Identification Survey and was told that when asked about God, 23% of the no religion category said they believed in a higher power and that 21% gave allegiance to a personal God.

Still spiritual

Prothero also cited the results of a similar survey carried out by Baylor University in 2006. They found that no less than 63% of Americans who claim no religious affiliation believe in God, and 36% said they prayed at least occasionally.

As well, a 2008 survey done by the Pew Forum discovered that 41% of those without religious affiliation nonetheless described religion as either very important or somewhat important in their lives.

So, Prothero concluded, Christianity in America is changing rather than declining. A greater number of people are reluctant to identify themselves with institutional religion, but they are still spiritually inclined.

While less alarming than the argument put forward by Newsweek, the trend away from organized religion is still a problem, as Pope Benedict XVI admitted in his trip to the United States just over a year ago.

In a question and answer session with American bishops last April 16 the Pontiff addressed the subject of religious faith being more a “pick and choose” approach.

The American people are, in fact, deeply religious, the Pope stressed, but an individualistic approach can reduce religion to its lowest common denominator, leaving it without much practical relevance when it comes to everyday life.

Dealing with this, Benedict XVI explained, requires connecting more the Gospel truths and the principles of natural law with what is the pursuit of authentic human good.

The Church needs to promote more that faith and reason are compatible and to present the Gospel as an attractive and true answer to human problems, the Pope concluded. The challenge, then, is to bring about this new beginning for Christianity.

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