After November's presidential vote, Catholics could cite ample evidence for their renewed political relevance while dispirited evangelicals were left wondering if they are destined to be yesterday's election news. Yet their roles in American spiritual life may be reversed.
New research shows that Catholics now report the lowest proportion of "strongly affiliated" followers among major American religious traditions, while the data indicates that evangelicals are increasingly devout and committed to their faith.
According to Philip Schwadel, a sociologist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, in the 1970s there was only a five-point difference between how strongly Catholics and evangelicals felt about their religion.
By 2010, he said, that "intensity gap" had grown to around 20 points, with some 56 percent of evangelicals describing themselves as "strongly affiliated" with their religion compared with 35 percent of Catholics. Even mainline Protestants reported a higher level of religious intensity than Catholics, at 39 percent.
"Sociologists have been writing about declines in mainline Protestantism for the last few decades," said Schwadel, who details his findings in an article to be published in the upcoming edition of the journalSociology of Religion. "The tremendous decline in Catholics' strength of affiliation, though, was somewhat surprising."
Exactly why these changes have been occurring is a matter of conjecture.
Schwadel noted that the decline in religious enthusiasm among Catholics began in the mid-1980s, and that coincided with the first revelations about the sexual abuse of children by clergy – a scandal that has haunted the church ...