The more competition, the better for American religion.
Major immigration from Asia, the growth into the thousands of religious movements within and outside the church and an active and influential secular community have not stopped the growth of the nation’s largest faith- Christianity.
Instead, the expanding religion marketplace, aided by increasing legal and social acceptance of new religious movements, is proving to be a win-win situation for all faiths, according to J. Gordon Melton, founding director of the Institute for the Study of American Religion in Santa Barbara, Calif.
In other words, the success of one faith is not dependent on the decline of another. As the population expands, most religious groups have been able to grow simultaneously, he says in a paper for the Association of Religion Data Archives on “American Religion‘s Mega-Trends: Gleanings from 40 Years of Research.”
Some analysts have pointed to the existence of a substantial group of Americans who state no religious preference — at or around 15 percent in recent large studies – as evidence of the growing rejection of religion in American culture.
But some historical perspective is in order, says the author of the major reference work, “Melton’s Encyclopedia of American Religions,” which covers more than 2,300 groups in its eighth edition.
“The single most significant trend in American religion from 1900 to the present has been the steady and spectacular decline in the percentage of religiously unaffiliated people in the American population,” he writes in his ARDA paper. “In 1900, the religiously unaffiliated included some 65 percent of the population. That figure has now dropped to around 15 percent.”
The good new days for American religion
The percentages were almost reversed at the country’s founding.
At the end of the American Revolution, when the churches were disestablished and many ministers had returned to England, just 10 percent to 15 percent of the population remained formally associated with churches, Melton says.
Since the Second Great Awakening that developed around the early 19th century, two factors, evangelism and immigration – have led to the growth of American religion.
By the beginning of the 20th century, church membership reached 30 percent to 35 percent of a population that had grown from 4 million to 75 million, according to Melton. During the Second World War, Christian churches reported a combined membership of 50 percent of the population, a figure that would rise to 70 percent in the following two decades.
In 1965, immigration restrictions were lifted as the U.S. sought support for its intervention in Southeast Asia. Large numbers of immigrants from outside Europe helped several major faiths including Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism establish a presence in the United States.
Melton also notes the period also produced what was called the New Age movement and the flowering of new Christian groups. In a more mobile society, where families may move several times, religion switching is also on the rise.
Yet, Christianity also has grown. About three-quarters of Americans today are members of Christian groups, Melton says.
“Given the projected population growth and current immigration policies, the continued growth of religion seems to be the story that will dominate in the religious community,” Melton observes. “Those groups that continue to lose members will be the exception, and their losses in such a context a matter for continued serious reflection.”
Winners and losers
Affiliation for many people means “something less” and requires a lower level of expectation and conformity than it did in other periods of the nation’s history, Amanda Porterfield, a historian of American religion at Florida State University, says.
Still, she agrees with Melton that “religion is thriving” in an expanding marketplace. Evangelical Christians in particular have always shown a great sense of urgency in responding to perceived threats from the outside.
Whether it is true, she says, it is “just essential to the evangelical rhetoric to say religion is in decline.”
Yet not all religious boats are rising. Even if the overall numbers for individual faiths are growing, there are winners and losers in the increasingly competitive marketplace.
Among the success stories, the Pentecostal movement founded at the turn of the 20th century now has three groups among the 23 largest churches in the United States, Melton says.
Groups such as the Southern Baptist Convention and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which have aggressively expanded into new geographic territories, also have experienced substantial growth, Melton notes.
Other groups, benefiting from immigration but challenged by a plethora of energetic competitors, have experienced mixed results.
For example, the Catholic Church in the U.S., which has grown from 47 million to 68 million members since 1965, can attribute much of the increase to the growing Latino population. But Latino immigrants also are finding spiritual and non-spiritual homes elsewhere.
A study by Trinity College researchers using data from the American Religious Identification Survey found the percentage of U.S. Latino adults identifying with Catholicism decreased from 66 percent in 1990 to 60 percent in 2008.
The biggest loser in American religion has been mainline Protestantism, which has lost millions of members since the mid-1960s even as the U.S. population grew by more than 75 million people.
“They’re suffering from a certain amount of lethargy,” Melton said in an interview. “The mainline has gone a couple of generations now without doing significant evangelism.”
There were fewer than 20 religious communities at the nation’s founding. Today, there are more than 2,000 religious communities competing for members.
This is no time to be on the sidelines.
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