Greater Acceptance, Persisting Antipathy: 50 Years of Religious Change

by Jerry Park, Joshua Tom, and Brita Andercheck,

The following is a re-post in honor of the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act.

Reprinted from Council on Contemporary Families February 2014 Civil Rights Symposium; the full proceedings, including a set of papers focused on religion and relationships, are available here

Catholic and Jewish Americans Since The Civil Rights Era

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 not only ushered in stronger federal protections for racial and ethnic minorities and women, but also for religious minorities. Antipathy toward Catholics and Jews in the US was a persistent and prevalent theme through much of American history. It was common for these groups to be labeled “un-American” and even categorized as “non-white.” Members of these religions were often discriminated against in hiring and in admission to institutions of higher learning (this was especially common for Jewish applicants) and excluded from many neighborhoods, clubs, and political positions. From the late 19th through the mid-20th century, organized hate groups, most notably the Ku Klux Klan, used the threat of violence to intimidate not only African-Americans but Jews and Catholics as well.

After World War II, these restrictions and prejudices eased somewhat. By 1955 the now-classic essay Protestant Catholic Jew could proclaim that although these three religions were the primary sources of identity in America, they were now “alternative ways of being an American” rather than two of them being seen as Un-American.

Still, anti-Semitism and anti-Catholicism persisted. In the 1960s, some commentators worried that President Kennedy, a Catholic, would take orders from the Pope. In the 1970s, President Richard Nixon was recorded making several anti-Semitic comments. And even today nativist hate groups continue to perpetuate centuries-old hostilities against Catholic and Jewish Americans. But the Civil Rights Act did give these minorities protection against outright exclusion and discrimination, and other religious minorities have also looked to it for security as the American religious landscape has diversified.

American Religious Belonging Today

Religion scholars consider the United States to be an anomaly on the modern religious scene. Compared to other nations at similar levels of modernization, the United States stands out as highly religious. For example, in Western Europe about three-quarters of the population profess a belief in a God or higher power (with this proportion significantly lower in some individual nations). In America, by contrast, 90 percent of adults profess such a belief. These American numbers have remained fairly stable, with only small long-term declines, over the past fifty years.

However, one major measure of religiosity has changed significantly over that time period: religious belonging, or identifying with a particular religion rather than simply holding religious beliefs.

Currently 80 percent of the U.S. adult population identifies as belonging to one of the 3,500 groups that make up the American religious landscape. Religion scholars categorize these groups in different ways, but one of the most popular classifications divides them into six major American religious traditions: Evangelical Protestants, Mainline Protestants, Black Protestants, Catholics, Jews, and Other Religions. Twenty percent of Americans fall into a seventh category, which sociologists call the ‘religious Nones’ – those who identify with no religious tradition even if they do believe in God or a higher being.

The distribution of Americans among these various groups has fluctuated and changed over the past 50 years. Figure 1 shows these trends in affiliation from 1957-1971 using Gallup polling data and from 1972-2012 using data from the General Social Survey (GSS).

Gallup data
Gallup data
GSS Data
GSS Data

We draw attention to six specific trends:

  • The Protestant share of the American population has shrunk from more than 70 percent of the population in the late 1950s to less than 50 percent today. This is primarily due to the precipitous decline of Mainline Protestants (e.g. Methodists, Lutheran and Episcopalians), from more than 30 percent of the U.S. population in the 1970’s to around 15 percent today.
  • Evangelical Protestants (e.g. Baptists, Pentecostals) have increased their representation in the population from less than a quarter of the population in the 1960s to 31 percent in the early 1990s. However, this was the period of their peak membership. Contrary to popular impression, their share of the religious market has since declined to 24 percent.
  • Catholics have sustained their share of the religious market, remaining at approximately 25 percent throughout the latter half of the 20th century. But this is primarily due to the influx of Latino immigrants to the United States. The share of native born (primarily white) Catholics has declined.
  • Despite the large percentage of Americans who profess a belief in a higher power, there has been a recent meteoric rise of the religious Nones, from about 3 percent of the population in the mid-20th century, to 10 percent in 2000, to 20 percent today. One in every 5 Americans does not identify with a particular religious tradition.
  • The proportion of Americans who identify with “Other” religious traditions has doubled, an increase that is closely tied to the increased immigration of Asian populations who brought non-western religions (e.g. Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam) with them. While still a small proportion of the overall population, they contribute greatly to the increased religious diversity of the American religious landscape. In 20 states,scattered in the Midwest and South, Islam is the largest non-Christian religion. Judaism is the largest non-Christian religion in 15 states, mostly in the Northeast, and Buddhism is the largest religion in 13 western states. In Delaware and Arizona, Hinduism is the largest non-Christian religion, while in South Carolina it is the Baha’i. For more details visit here.

According to the Pew Research Centers, “the percentage of US adults who say they are Jewish when asked about their religion has declined by about half since the late 1950s.” It is currently is a little less than two percent.

Religion and Socio-Economic Status

Religious groups differ not only in their beliefs but in their place in the socioeconomic and educational hierarchy.

Religious groups differ not only in their beliefs but in their place in the socioeconomic and educational hierarchy. Some groups have been upwardly mobile during this time period while others have experienced more limited progress.

  • In the 19th century, white Catholics, especially Irish immigrants, were over-represented among the poor. But in the 20th century, especially since the 1960s, white Catholics have experienced unprecedented upward mobility. They now closely resemble Mainline Protestants on socioeconomic measures, with a median net worth of $156,000 compared to Mainline Protestant’s $146,000. Latino Catholics, by contrast, have a net worth of $51,500, substantially below their white Catholic counterparts. White Catholics have also spent more time in school (14 years on average) than their Latino counterparts (12.5 years).
  • Jews have the highest median net worth of any U.S. religious tradition, at $423,500, Black Protestants have the lowest, at around $22,800. On average, Jews have 16 years of education while Black Protestants have 12.7 years of education.
  • Evangelical Protestants remain near the bottom of the economic ladder with a median net worth of $82,400. They average 13.2 years of education, above Latino Catholics but below the national average.
  • The Non-Affiliated (or religious Nones) are also below the U.S. median net worth and median education level, with a median of only 12.7 years of education. Less than 10 percent of this group holds an advanced degree. Only Black Protestants and Hispanic Catholics have lower levels of educational attainment than “Nones.” 

Religion and Union Formation and Dissolution

Religion is popularly thought of as a social institution that encourages marriage and family growth, and conservative religious traditions are especially supportive of “traditional” family forms and values. But there are some interesting and not always predictable variations among and within different religious groups.

  • Cohabitation is now the most common path toward marriage, and it is on the rise among religious groups as well. But non–affiliated young people are the most likely group to cohabit. Overall Catholics are the least likely to cohabit. Across all religious traditions, teens who attend religious worship services more often and say that religion is more important to them are less likely to cohabit than less observant teens.
  • Overall, couples who have higher levels of religious service attendance, especially if the couple attends together, have lower rates of divorce. But there are big variations among religious groups. White Catholics and Mainline Protestants are less likely than the average American to be divorced, with 12.4 percent and 12.5 percent of their populations being currently divorced, respectively, compared to an overall average of 14.2 of Americans currently divorced.
  • But white Conservative Protestants and Black Protestants are more likely than the average American to be divorced, with 17.2 percent and 15.7 percent of their populations being currently divorced, respectively. Indeed, Evangelical Protestants are more likely to be divorced than Americans who claim no religion.

Thus the common conservative argument that strong religion leads to strong families does not hold up. Some have argued that evangelical Protestantism (the typical example of “strong religion”) is correlated with low socioeconomic status, and that this explains the increased risk of divorce. However, new research by Jennifer Glass and Philip Levchak suggests that evangelical Protestants’ cultural encouragement of early marriage and discouragement of birth control and higher education attainment explain the higher divorce rate in counties with a larger proportion of evangelical Protestants. In fact, living in such counties increases the likelihood of divorce for all couples, regardless of whether they themselves are evangelicals.

Religion and Fertility

The most dependable way for religious groups to maintain or grow their membership is through sexual reproduction. Differences in fertility rates among religious groups are a large part of this story.

  • On average, women from Evangelical Protestant traditions have one more child over their lifetime than their mainline Protestant counterparts. In fact, it is estimated that the fertility practices of evangelical women explain more than 75 percent of the growth these groups have experienced over time.
  • Fertility rates among religious groups vary considerably, generally correlating with their social fortunes over time. Lower SES religious groups (who also more highly value and encourage childbearing) tend to have higher fertility rates. As groups become upwardly mobile, increasing in educational and income attainment, fertility tends to decline. For example, fertility among American White Catholics has dropped slightly below replacement rates (approximately 2.1 children per woman is considered replacement fertility) as they became upwardly mobile. But the rapid growth of new immigrant (post 1964) Latino Catholics has offset this decline. Today, Latino Catholics have fertility rates above replacement, upholding the Catholic share of the American adult population at a steady twenty-five percent. It is possible that these fertility rates will fall as immigrants live longer in the U.S.

Religious Switching

The ability of religions to retain the affiliation of individuals as they age is another key to maintaining or growing their share of the United States population. Nearly three-quarters of American adults have the same religious affiliation as their parents, but this means that more than a quarter of American adults have left the religious tradition in which they were raised.

  • The most common path for young adults leading away from the religion of their childhood is non-affiliation. This is starkly illustrated by the divergent fortunes of the Mainline Protestants and religious Nones, whose trend lines pass each other somewhere around 2004 (see Figure 1). Overall, Catholics and Evangelical Protestants are somewhat better at retention than Mainline Protestants, who see a third of each generation leave the tradition.
  • Latino Catholics are twice as likely as White Catholics to remain Catholic as they age, another way in which this subpopulation has upheld the Catholic share of the American religious market.
  • In the past it was common for young people who grew up with no religious affiliation to join a religious tradition as they transitioned into adulthood. Today, by contrast, most youths raised as religious Nones remain so as they age.
  • No matter what the religious tradition, the greatest predictor of whether a person switches at some point in the life is whether or not their parents match each other religiously. This leads to another dimension of religion and family: the marriage of individuals of different religious faiths, described in the McClendon’s “Interfaith Marriage and Romantic Unions in the United States” briefing report in this Council on Contemporary Families Civil Rights Symposium.

Conclusion

Since the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, religious minorities, particularly Catholic and Jewish Americans, have gained greater acceptance as part of the American religious mainstream. At the same time, America’s religious landscape, like its racial-ethnic one, has diversified over the past half century. The many varieties of Protestants are part of an ever-expanding religious mosaic that includes Jews, Catholics and a growing presence of Buddhists, Hindus, Jains, Mormons, Muslims and Sikhs, along with increasing numbers of individuals whose spiritual beliefs are not anchored in any particular religious affiliation. Americans have certainly become more tolerant of a wide range of beliefs, but in this diverse environment the Civil Rights Act remains an important source of protection for religious (and non-religious) minorities.

References:

Chaves, Mark. 2011. American Religion: Contemporary Trends. Princeton University Press.

Chokshi, Niraj 2013. “Religion in America’s States and Counties in 6 Maps.” The Washington Post.http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/govbeat/wp/2013/12/12/religion-in-americas-states-and-counties-in-6-maps/

European Commision. 2010. “Special Eurobaromter: Biotechnology Report.”http://ec.europa.eu/public_opinion/archives/ebs/ebs_341_en.pdf

Glass, Jennifer and Philip Levchak 2014. “Red States, Blue States, and Divorce: Understanding Regional Variation in Divorce Rates.” American Journal of Sociology.  Summary: http://www.contemporaryfamilies.org/impact-of-conservative-protestantism-on-regional-divorce-rates/

Hout, Michael, Andrew Greeley, and Melissa J. Wilde. 2001. “The Demographic Imperative in Religious Change in the United States.” American Journal of Sociology 107(2):468–500.

Keister, Lisa A. 2011. Faith and Money: How Religion Contributes to Wealth and Poverty. Cambridge University Press.

Mahoney, Annette. 2010. “Religion in Families, 1999–2009: A Relational Spirituality Framework.” Journal of Marriage and Family 72(4):805–27.

Steensland, Brian et al. 2000. “The Measure of American Religion: Toward Improving the State of the Art.” Social Forces 79(1):291–318. 

July 2, 2014 marked the 50th anniversary of the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In February 2014, CCF convened an online Civil Rights Symposium. To read or download the entire symposium, visit here

Contesting the Good News

This summer, I have the opportunity to travel to Brazil with Calvin College’s Nagel Institute, for a seminar focused on understanding how Pentecostals are interacting with and shaping globalization forces.  This question of how religious actors around the world understand and conceive of economic life—and in particular, aspects of increasing economic liberalization—is a central focus of my research.

I’ve recently finished Jill DeTemple’s 2012 book, Cement, Earthworms, and Cheese Factories: Religion and Community Development in Rural Ecuador (University of Notre Dame Press).  It’s one of the most recent books to look at a question that is growing in importance to a number of development scholars: How religion and development are intertwined and interconnected.

In discussing  historical trajectory of development, she makes a convincing argument that many of the colonizing impulses behind ‘economic development’ and Christian proselytization in the West are similar.

 Progress in its broadest sense—spiritual, cultural, technological—became the optimal way to achieve salvation’s ends (28).

Spreading the Gospel–the Good News–is a term some might use to talk about the message of God’s salvation in Christ, or the message of growth and progress for the world.  For some, mantras of growth and economic development are the true message that must be shared for the world to succeed today.

I’ve written on this question of the aims of development before. DeTemple’s work focuses more on the ways that religious and development goals get intertwined in specific places and contexts, and the lack of distinct boundaries between the two. But in telling the stories of communities, she shows that many times the goals and assumptions of development workers and ‘those being developed’ are not the same. The ends of development are re imagined.

One of the foundational aspects of development for many in the industry is economic growth (which I recently addressed).  So how are religious actors engaging with this largely uncontested belief?  In my book manuscript, I focus on how religious actors discuss and frame free trade and economic globalization.  What’s fascinating to me is the way that across a number of Christian traditions, religious voices continue to raise questions about the real goals of development and growth, almost universally critiquing our emphasis on economic individualism and a lack of concern about responsibility and relationship with neighbor.  And just as fascinating to me is that even as there seems to be much agreement among religious leaders, these voices are largely muted in public economic debates.

In understanding how Pentecostals in Brazil are engaging with globalization, I look forward to seeing the ways that actors on the ground—those engaging with poverty reduction and interacting with development programs—are part of a larger religious conversation about the value of growth and development.  As I continue to engage further in dialogues on religion and development, I’d love to hear other examples you may have of how religious actors are challenging global values and structures of current globalization paradigms in their micro-level efforts.

When Growth is Bad

The Hastert Center for Economics, Government, And Public Policy  at Wheaton College hosted an event last Thursday on the morality of economic growth, co-sponsored by the American Enterprise Institute.  The central speaker, Dr. Smith of Gordon College, argued that economic growth should be a moral imperative for Christians, especially if we are concerned about poverty.

As a person engaged in economic sociology (and a respondent at the event), I appreciated the fact this conversation was taking place. We need more dialogue on the moral character of market life. What does it mean to live ethical economic lives—as individuals, communities, and societies?

However, in a world where it seems that governments and policy-makers often just assume that growth is good, I’d like to suggest that growth in itself is not good. I recognize the great strides we have made in lowering infant mortality (and the rise in other development indicators) in the last two centuries. However, I think we should ask, “When is growth good?” or “How do we promote ethical economic growth?”

Some reasons why I think growth is sometimes not good:

1.Poverty and inequality are related.  Many people will focus on absolute poverty as the central issue.  Clearly, issues of absolute poverty are important.  As Christians, we should be invested in anti-poverty efforts that ensure people have enough to eat and a place to live.  But relative poverty is also important—a concept that considers one’s wealth and resources in relationship to others in society.  Relative poverty can negatively impact one’s social networks, employment, educational opportunities, and political involvement. Growing inequality is often linked with increased social isolation (that is, the poor living with the poor, and the wealthy with the wealthy).   In a world where the wealthy have more than enough, ethical growth must be measured in terms of how the poor fare—not only in absolute terms, but also relative to the wealthy.

2. Value creation matters.  While the ends of growth are important, the means by which growth is received and earned is also important.  How is economic growth achieved?  Is it through individuals having more creative power to exercise?  Is it through business being able to get more out of workers and manage the process more effectively?  In an economic marketplace where businesses have more power than individuals, and the poor are at the bottom of commodity chain processes, ethical growth demands attention to increasing the capacity of the poor to be involved in more active and significant ways in the economy. It should increase the potential of those at the bottom to be involved in value-creation activities.

3. Relationships are central.  The rise of a free-market system is connected in some ways to a more depersonalized market.  Most of us do not know the people that we are involved with in economic transactions.  But this does not mean those relationships do not exist.  Many assessing economic growth center on the individual as the basic unit of analysis, and maximizing individual (or the sum of individual) well-being as the end goal.  But as Christians, why should we assume the individual is the central variable of analysis?  In my study of religious communities engaging in debates over international trade, I find that they all prioritize right relationships and community as a central goal of economic life.  What would it mean to demand ethical and life-affirming relationships as a basis for market transactions?

Although economic issues are often considered distinct from moral issues, many voices (religious and otherwise) are challenging this assumption.  As a sociologist, I recognize that markets are social constructions, and values are embedded within them.  As a Christian, I want to live in right relationships (with others, with God, with the earth).  For me, this means asking how engage in more ethical relationships within a depersonalized market, and how to promote policies that prioritize (more) healthy relationships within the marketplace.

 

 

Democrats: Losing their Religion

It’s election week, and we’re inundated with polls, predictions, and predilections, so I’ll keep this short. While I was crunching NFSS data for an unrelated set of analyses, I stopped to dwell on an interesting survey question on perceived change in religiousness. We asked the 2,988 respondents:

Compared to today, were you more or less active in organized religion when you were growing up?

Given that we’re talking to 18-39-year-olds, and that young adulthood can often exhibit a notable decline in religiousness—something I’ve written about more extensively here and here—and that former US senator and presidential candidate Rick Santorum misinterpreted here, it’s of course not at all surprising to see that most respondents said they were less active in organized religion now than when they were growing up. Fully 53 percent said that, whereas 34 percent said they were “about the same” and 13 percent reported being “more active” than when they were younger. But what aggravates these numbers in either direction?

My first guess is that age and marriage are apt to boost religiosity in some who had been flagging, while sexual “deviance” (from religious expectations about it) can cause it to lag some. Keep in mind, of course, that the question begs an unknown answer about just how religious respondents were when they were “growing up,” so a “more active” or a “less active” response is connected to a level known to them, but not to us. So be it. It’s still illuminating: only 8 percent of the youngest group (18-23-year-olds) reported becoming more religiously active, compared with 13 and 18 percent of the older two groups (24-32 and 33-39-year-olds, respectively). Makes sense.

Both married and divorced respondents reported comparable levels of growing religiousness, at 18-19 percent, while 63 percent of cohabiters said they had become less religious.

The most dramatic shifts, however, appear around personal politics. Political affiliation—a one measure, 1-5 scale of just how politically conservative or liberal our respondents consider themselves—takes the cake for shifting the bar on perceived growth or decline in organized religious involvement. Only 23 percent of respondents who said they were “very conservative” politically reported being less active in organized religion today, while 31 percent said they were more active than as a youth. Keep in mind that’s compared with 53 and 13 percent of the total population, respectively.

It’s a linear association, too: 48 percent of just plain “conservative” respondents reported being less active religiously, compared with 52 percent of moderates, 62 percent of those who said they were “liberal” and 76 percent of those who self-identified as “very liberal.” That’s quite a span–from 23 percent (among the most conservative) to 76 percent (among the most liberal).

The Democrats truly are losing their religion. Or perhaps these are persons who lost their religion and then decided the Democratic Party seemed most in line with their sentiments. There is probably plenty of both types.

This is not new news, I know. See here. But it’s heartwarming and confirming to me to see the NFSS data continue to make rational sense in so many domains of research questions, even while critics remain convinced that I got the basic story wrong in the July Social Science Research article on the adult children of parents who’ve had same-sex relationships. (I didn’t.)

Happy voting…

 

 


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