Latest Research: Conservative Denominations Joining Mainline In Decline

America’s Changing Religious Identity 2016:
A Research Review

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By Ken Howard

The Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) has just published their findings from the 2016 American Values Atlas in a study entitled America’s Changing Religious Identity.  Their findings add further confirmation those of our research, The Religion Singularity, published in the International Journal of Religion and Spirituality in Society in July, which projects that institutional Christianity will become unsustainable in its current forms before the end of this century.

Of particular significance is the finding that, despite decades insistence to the contrary by their proponents, theologically conservative denominations and congregations are not immune to the decline that has affected mainline liberal denominations after all, but rather are making up for lost time, matching or exceeding the current rate of shrinkage of their mainline brethren and sistren. In fact, it may even be worse for them than it looks, as millennials are abandoning conservative evangelical congregations at a rate faster than they are leaving other segments of institutional Christianity.

Also consistent with our findings in The Religion Singularity is the fact that “religiously unaffiliated” is one of the fastest growing and “religious” groups in America, growing at such a rate that they could become a significant majority of the U.S. population in less than 15 years (our projection based on PPRI statistics). Meanwhile, religiously unaffiliated is increasing as a portion of each new generation. More than a third (36%) of Americans 18-30 are religiously unaffiliated, compared to less than a tenth of those 80 or older.

Another finding of significance is how syncretized religious and political affiliation have become, with the two becoming so overlapped that political affiliation is fast becoming a predictor of religious affiliation and theological leanings.  For example, if a person politically identifies as Republican, there is a 73% chance they will be a white conservative Christian, where white Christians make up only 29% of Democrats (14% of Democrats under 30).

Findings like these, Pew Research’s America’s Changing Religious Landscape (2015), and our own research, The Religion Singularity (International Journal of Religion and Spirituality in Society, 2017), are often greeted with a combination of fatalism (“We’re all gonna die”) and denial (“My church is growing, so this can’t be true”). But we see them as a vision-clearing wake-up call and a opportunity to rethink the way we do church so that, while we may see the end of institutional Christianity in this century, we can develop a Christ-following movement of faith-based communities from its remains.

Other findings include:

White Christians now account for fewer than half of the public. As of 2016, only 43% of Americans identified as white and Christian, and 30% as white and Protestant, compared to 1976, when 81% identified as white and Christian, and a 55% were white Protestants.

Non-Christian religious groups are growing, but are still below a tenth of the U.S. population.  Jewish affiliation is claimed by 2% of Americans. Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam are each claimed by 1% of the public. Taken together all others make up 1% of the American population.

White evangelical Protestants are among the oldest and fastest aging religious groups. Just over 60% of white evangelical Protestants and white Catholics, and just under 60% of white mainline Protestants (59%) are at least 50 years old.

Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and Non-Affliated are among the youngest religious groups, each with more than one-third of the members under 30.

The Roman Catholic Church is rapidly becoming a non-Anglo denomination, with Hispanic/Latino persons comprising just under half of the denominational membership and with just over half of Hispanic/Latino Roman Catholics being under 30.

Most religiously unaffiliated are secular, comprising 58% of that category. Agnostics and atheists make up 27% of the religiously affiliated with 16% identifying as a non-affiliated “religious person.”

Religiously unaffiliated are the largest “religious” group in 20 states, mostly in the Western U.S., including Vermont (41%), Oregon (36%), Washington (35%), Hawaii (34%), Colorado (33%), and New Hampshire (33%).

The least religiously diverse state is Mississippi. It is also the most Protestant and Baptist. The most diverse state is New York. The most Roman Catholic state is Rhode Island.

Unitarian-Universalists, Hindus, and Jews are the most educated religious groups in the U.S. Unitarian-Universalists hold the most post-graduate degrees (43%), followed by Hindus (38%), and Jews (34%). Muslims outnumber white evangelical Protestants in four-year college degree (33% vs. 25%, respectively).

Almost half of LGBT Americans are religiously unaffiliated, with 46% of Americans who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT) identifying as religiously unaffiliated, compared to 24% of the U.S. overall.