The Problem with Counting Christians
The new U.S. Religious Landscape Survey from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life renders familiar territory remarkable. This poll of more than 35,000 American adults has produced a map of population centers (major religious traditions), the boundaries that separate them, and the thoroughfares that connect them. Among the highlights of the latest findings:
- Close to half (44 percent) of all Americans have changed religions or denominations at least once in their lifetimes.
- Protestants now make up just 51 percent of the population, though the total Christian population remains as high as 78 percent.
- Some 16 percent of American adults describe themselves as religiously "unaffiliated," more than twice the percentage who say they had no religious upbringing.
- In addition to contributing to religious diversity, immigration also augments the country's church rolls, as 46 percent of foreign-born adults claim Catholic identity and 24 percent claim Protestant identity.
The survey's topline summary describes this scene as "both very diverse and extremely fluid," which is an apt assessment as long as one remembers that the subject examined is a landscape and not, say, a moving crowd in an airport. For all of the often quite illuminating attention they get, non-Christian religions still constitute only about 5 percent of the American population. All religious groups are gaining and losing members in a very competitive environment, but the overall percentages remain fairly stable year to year and even decade to decade. Contrary to some solicitations for home missions, America is not going to become a minority Christian country anytime soon.
Why Evangelical United Methodists Don't Count
The Pew report contains much useful information for pastors, educators, and any Americans who wish to better understand the land in which they live. Zooming in on this map, though, accentuates some peculiarities of its provenance. When social scientists map religion, they usually rely on self-identification to classify respondents. The main category of classification for Christians is denomination. But how well does a denominational label locate someone within America's diverse and fluid religious culture?
Classification by denomination runs into real thickets in the large "Protestant" territory on the Pew map. This survey divides American Protestant churches into three categories: evangelical, mainline, and historically black. These encompass 26.3, 18.1, and 6.9 percent of the adult population, respectively. The necessity of separating out the black churches could be debated (are they significantly more distinctive than, say, Pentecostal churches or Hispanic Catholic churches?), but the much larger problem involves the other two categories. Simply put, "evangelical" and "mainline" identities do not break cleanly along denominational lines, and they never have.
The two labels present different difficulties. With "evangelical," the most problematic slippage occurs between self-identification and what could be called actual adherence. Broadly speaking, evangelicals care less about one's church affiliation than about one's beliefs (about Atonement, the inspiration of Scripture, and so forth) and behaviors (such as church attendance, daily devotions, and various measures of morality). Put differently, many evangelicals would not count as co-religionist persons who check the Southern Baptist or Church of Christ box on a survey, but could neither articulate nor affirm the Four Spiritual Laws. A self-identification survey cannot measure depth of commitment, but in the case of evangelicals, depth is a critical element of the identity as insiders understand it.