Religion in America

Religion in America: change and continuity

Religion retains a strong hold on the American life, sometimes pulling it to extremes.

Bert B. Beach, Ph.D., is former director of the Public Affairs and Religious Liberty Department, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Silver Spring, Maryland, United States.

Take a look at the religious land scape of America, both its enormity and its diversity: nearly 500,000 churches, synagogues, temples, and mosques; no fewer than 2,000 denominations; and countless independent churches and parachurch movements. The United States has one Protestant church for every 500 adults.1

The Gallup organization uses a benchmark known as the Princeton Religious Index. This benchmark is based on eight key religious beliefs and practices: belief in God, religious preference, religious membership, worship attendance, confidence in church, confidence in clergy, importance of religion, and religion's ability to answer current problems. The index for the U.S. now stands at 656 (maximum possible = 1,000). The highest rate was in 1960 and the low est in the late 1980s. Since 1991 the rate has started moving up again.

Thomas A. Stewart argues in a Fortune magazine article that "what ever else it is, religion is big business. America has more clergy than Ford and Chrysler together have employees. If U.S. religion were a company, it would be No. 5 on the Fortune 500 list of the largest U.S. corporations, with some $50 billion of revenues, and this does not include an estimated $75 billion a year in volunteer work."2 This article will deal with certain characteristics, trends, and projections concerning religion in America.

Breadth v. depth

George Gallup makes a significant point about American religion. "Probing the religious and spiritual lives of Americans is an extraordinarily difficult task---there is no tougher assignment for survey researchers---but there is, many would agree, none more important. And this importance is likely to grow in the decades ahead as religion is increasingly shaped from the 'bottom up' rather than the 'top down'---from the people in the pews rather than by the church hierarchy." 3 Gallup further states, "We now know a great deal about the breadth of religion in America, but not about the depth. In many respects, the inner life is virtually unexplored terrain in terms of empirical studies." 4 Well has it been said, and Gallup agrees, that this century has concentrated on the "exploration of outer space" and the next should "be devoted to an exploration of inner space." 5


One of the most consistent aspects of America's religious life is its durability. In defiance of all the dramatic social changes, "the religious beliefs and practices of Americans today look very much like those of the 1930s and 1940s." 6 The percentage of church members and churchgoers today closely match the figures recorded in the 1930s. It must, however, be noted that this does not apply to all churches and denominations in the same way. Some are up and some are heading down. While the overall market of religion is not depressed, "market share has changed drastically." 7

Indeed, figures for 1991 show a growth in church membership. Two out of three adults (68 percent) claimed church membership (3 percent more than in 1990). Church attendance was also up, with 42 percent in 1991 versus 40 percent in 1990. In a typical week four out of 10 people attend church, though some recent research suggests that this figure may be on the high side. The highest attendance is among college graduates and middle-income Americans.

Religious individualism

Americans also remain highly in dependent in their religious interests. Religious liberty has enabled religion to flourish in the U.S. in many forms and has contributed to its vigor and vitality. It has also been a contributing factor to religious individualism. In fact, denominational switching is a common phenomenon in the United States. About one in four adults changes religious affiliation at least once. Protestants (especially smaller denominations) benefit from this switching. Despite this strong sense of religious liberty, American history also records religious intolerance and bigotry, greed and dishonesty on the part of some religious leaders, and rancor and acrimony among and within denominations.

Mainline Protestant decline

Mainline Protestant denominations (Episcopalians, Methodists, Luther ans, Presbyterians, United Church of Christ, and the Christian Church) are on the decline. Russell Chandler points out that mainline Protestant denominations have gone to the sidelines, and the Evangelicals (a term often associated with "born-again Christians") have moved to the front lines and have even grabbed the headlines8 The traditional Protestant majority has slipped from 67 percent in 1952 to 57 percent in 1987.

Among mainline Protestant churches, proportion of members under 30 is below the national average. Generally speaking, a church grows when it keeps its children and when it evangelizes. Gallup and Castelli point out that evangelism is "virtually in visible" in mainline Protestant denominations. Sunday schools for children have also had a decline of 55 percent between 1970 and 1990. How ever, recent evangelistic emphasis among these mainline denominations may help change the picture.

Rise of Evangelicals

A 1990 survey of the 500 fastest-growing Protestant churches in the United States indicates that 89 percent of them were evangelical (nonmainline).9 Evangelicals are usually associated with fundamentalists, charismatics, and Pentecostals. The Assemblies of God (the largest Pentecostal group) has quadrupled in size since 1965. The Southern Baptist Convention (the largest Protestant denomination) has had steady growth despite internal wrangling between so-called fundamentalists and moderates.

Few priests but many parishioners

The Roman Catholic Church is faced with a different challenge: fewer priests and more parishioners. Between 1970 and 1990 the number of priests went down from 59,000 to 53,500. At the same time the Catholic population increased by 7 million, currently forming about 25 percent of the country's population. Nearly a third of its membership is Hispanic, although Hispanics are joining Protestant churches at the rate of about 60,000 a year. Another problem for the Catholic Church, according to Gallup, is a decline in attendance at Mass, from 74 percent in 1958 to 48 percent in 1988.

Islamic growth and Jewish status quo

A recent development in the American religious scene is the growth of Islam, most of the members African-Americans. Islam now rivals Judaism as the largest minority religion in the United States. Jews have remained at about 2 percent since 1970. The Jews are concerned with the growth of Islam, the low Jewish birth and conversion rates, the high rates of marriage to non-Jews, and the low attendance at their religious services. Divisions between the four branches of Judaism (Orthodox, Conservative, Reformed, Reconstructionist) are also a source of concern.

Mormon growth

In 1989 there were 4.2 mil lion Mormons in the United States, concentrated mostly in Utah, California, and Idaho. Barna expects the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to reach 10 million members by the year 2000. 10

Segregated churches and inclusive society

America is less a melting pot than a salad bowl, with the ingredients keeping their own identity and taste. Racism is still a dominant issue, with the danger of increased tension be tween minorities (Cubans versus Haitians, Blacks versus Hispanics) be coming real.

The seven largest Black denominations claim about 80 percent of the 24 million Black Christians. Of this, 77 percent are Protestant, mostly Baptist, Methodist, and Pentecostal. Gallup and Barna indicate that Blacks tend to be more evangelical and traditional, also praying and studying the Bible more. One weak spot is the apparent trend of fewer Blacks entering the ministry. Many Black leaders are not pushing for integration of churches, but advocate an inclusive society that values diversity without conformity.

Church-state issues

Church-state relations are becoming increasingly important. The Supreme Court has vigorously supported the rights of religious minorities, but recently there seems to have been a change. For example, in order to restrict the free exercise of religion, the state was expected to show a "compelling interest" to do so, and even then the state had to use the least restrictive means possible. However, according to the 1990 Oregon v. Smith Supreme Court decision, the state no longer needed to show a compelling interest. All that was necessary was that the law be applicable to everybody and not single out any one religion. This was, of course, bad news for religious minorities, because the majority is usu ally quite able to look after itself through the political/representative process. Fortunately, in November 1993 the Freedom Restoration Act became law and restored by congressional fiat the "compelling interest" protection.

In the future, churches will come under pressure to comply with nondiscrimination laws, those dealing with gender, sexual orientation, race, and even religion, especially laws regarding employment. Questions will also be raised regarding preferential tax treatment of churches as tax-exempt charitable organizations, regarding religious chaplaincies, and parsonage allowance for ministers allowing tax deduction. Also, churches will increasingly face lawsuits dealing with clergy malpractice and sex abuse.

Christian Right

The Christian Right is another important issue in the American religious scene. A large number of Christians feels that America should be a "Christian nation," and greater Christian influence should be felt in the so-called religiously "naked public square" (to use Richard Neuhaus's phrase). Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority had considerable political influence in the early 1980s. Now we have the "Christian Coalition," a grassroots organization, sophisticated in methodology and concentrating on local politics, trying to control school boards, public library boards or committees, etc. Its influence was keenly felt at the 1992 Republican Convention, especially in the formulation of the Republican platform (abortion, family values, etc.). A more extreme group is the "Coalition on Revival," with reconstructionists like R. J. Rushdoony wanting to establish in America a sort of the kingdom of God with Old Testament theocratic aspects.

Concern regarding two extremes

Many Americans are concerned regarding two extremes: Fundamentalism/Christian Right and secular humanism. About half of American adults are concerned about religious fundamentalism. About a third are concerned about secular humanism with its emphasis on moral relativism, and thus the denial of moral/ religious absolutes.

Some emerging trends

Gallup identifies some of the emerging trends in religion in the U.S.11

1. Beliefs. Virtually all Americans say they believe in God, or at least a universal spirit. Most believe in a personal God who watches over and judges people. A substantial majority believes that they will be called be fore God at judgment day to answer for their sins. Most believe in a living, indwelling Christ and in His second coming. The vast majority of Americans accept the Bible as the inspired Word of God.

2. Religious experience. One-third of Americans consistently claim to have had a profound religious experience, either sud den or gradual, that has changed their lives.

3. Religious practice. Americans find meaning in prayer. A consistent 40 percent attend church or synagogue every week and 70 percent say they are church members. One third watch some religious TV each week.

4. Religion as an institution. Of the key institutions that elicit respect in society, the church rates near the top. The clergy is held in high esteem, equal to doctors. Three fourths of Americans say that religion is very important to them now or was so at an earlier point in their lives. Fifty-six percent claim to be current members or to have attended services during the past six months.

However, Gallup points out that if one digs a little deeper, one be comes less impressed with the sincerity of the faith claimed by Americans. Americans pray, but often in a desultory fashion. The God in whom they believe is often only an affirming one, not a demanding one.

Americans revere the Bible but don't read it. The proof is the sorry state of biblical literacy in the United States. The lack of understanding of one's own religious traditions can result in large numbers of Americans being uprooted from their faith and, therefore, rather easy prey for movements that glorify self. Gallup concludes that while religion is important in the lives of Americans, it does not have primacy. In selecting 19 social values, "following God's will" is far down the list among the public's choices of the most important, and well behind "happiness" and "satisfaction."

Five gaps condition religion

Gallup uses five gaps to describe the religious condition of Americans today. 12 First, the obvious gap in the vertical relationship with God. Second, the gap on the horizontal level between humans, with separateness being a basic problem in American society. Third, the ethical gap, the difference between the way people think and the way they actually do. While religion is highly popular in the U.S., it does not change peoples' lives to the degree one would expect from the level of professed faith. Fourth, the knowledge gap between stated faith and the lack of the most basic knowledge about that faith. Fifth, the gap between believers and belongers, involving a decoupling of belief and practice.

Decoupling of faith and church

Millions claim to be Christians, but they do not participate actively in the congregational lives of their churches. This tends to lead toward the privatization of faith. It's true that Americans have traditionally exhibited an independent attitude toward religion, but recent Gallup surveys note a different emphasis: the "decoupling" of faith and church. This trend may have serious implications for organized religion. It can easily hurt the church's ability to raise funds, recruit staff and volunteers, and influence public policy. For example, in 1987, Gallup's survey indicated that 77 percent of American Catholics said they were more likely to follow their own conscience in making moral decisions, while only 14 percent said they would follow the pope.13

Growth projections

What about the future of the church? One way to estimate the future growth of a church group is to consider its retention program for its young members and its evangelism for others. While Catholics score low on evangelization, they have a significant proportion of per sons under 30. Combined with the expected increase in immigration of Hispanics, Catholics are likely to continue increasing in proportion with the population. Baptists under 30 amount to 1 percent higher than the national average, and they rank high in evangelism. There fore, they are also likely to increase their growth percentage. The same with the Mormons. Their under-30 group is above national average, and they rank high in evangelization.

The proportion of those under 30 without any religious affiliation is substantially higher than the national average. But the unaffiliated do not "evangelize." In recent years, the religiously unaffiliated have steadily increased and are likely to continue to do so. Evangelicals are just about at the national average in their share of people under 30, but they are very active in evangelism. This group is likely to increase. The proportion of members of mainline Protestant de nominations that is under 30 is well below the national average. These churches are also low in evangelism. Hence Gallup assumes that their pro portion of the population will continue to decline. Jews do not evangelize and their under-30 group ranks below the national average, and so they too are likely to decrease.

Syncretistic tendencies

Syncretistic tendencies are noted in the American religious scene. 14 Afloat are synthetic faiths, emphasizing ecology, self-help, transformational psychology, astrology, occult ism, New Age movement, holistic health and healing, science and mysticism. Even though the number of Americans who belong to non-Western religions is very small, perhaps less than 1 percent of the population, the group is growing. 15

However, the growth of syncretistic cocktail religion, or what Chandler calls "spirituality, cafeteria style," should cause concern to committed Christians. Hitherto because of the struggle between political ideologies of democratic liberalism and totalitarian Communism, the battle between competing religious worldviews has been largely obscured. But now as we face the twenty-first century, the struggle for control of human minds and hearts will escalate between believers in a personal God with moral standards, and those advocating either secular humanism or New Age universal mind mysticism with at best relative moral criteria.

Future belongs to the laity

Seminary enrollment has been on the decline recently. This is understandable, since most seminaries are affiliated with the declining mainline churches. However, as Stewart rightly points out, this "clerical downsizing is a stunning opportunity to stream line bureaucracy and increase the role of lay members." 16 The future of the church belongs to the laity. A special survey 17 conducted by Gallup and Castelli asked who should have the greater influence in determining the future of religion in America: the clergy or the people who attend services? By a 6-1 margin, the respondents indicated that the laity should have the greater influence. These findings show rather overwhelming sup port for a greater lay role in church leadership in the coming decade. For this reason, Gallup asks that the 1990s be appropriately labeled "The Decade of the Laity."

Four strategies—with God as the center

Christians will soon celebrate the 2000th anniversary of Christ's birth. Some ask, "Will there be anything to celebrate?" After a comprehensive survey sociologist Robert Bella concluded that Americans have two overriding goals in life: personal success and vivid personal feelings. Has America turned her back on God and chosen her own gods? One could well argue that we live in an addicted society---addicted not only to chemicals but to possessions, to success, to wealth, and to an easy, self-indulgent lifestyle.

But there is hope. George Gallup points to four strategies, essential for a vibrant church. 18 These were first articulated in Christianity Today. First, zeal for sharing faith and hope regarding God's redemptive love in Christ, through neighborhood evangelism, or global mission. Second, a reclaiming by the church of its long tradition of providing refuge to the needy and oppressed. Third, a need for Christians to recover their identity as a "peculiar people," thus resisting the currents that drift toward materialism, secularism, and fuzzy new ageism. Fourth, the need for "prayer" to receive God's unchanging resources generated through worship and Bible study. We will then no longer suffer from the delusion of being at the center of the universe either individually or nationally. In stead, we will joyfully celebrate God as the center of all things.

1. George Barna, The Frog in the Kettle: What Christians Need to Know About Life in the Year 2000 (Ventura, Calif.: Regal Books, 1990), p. 130.

2. Thomas A. Stewart, "Turning Around the Lord's Business," Fortune, Sept. 25, 1989, p. 116.

3. George Gallup, Jr., Religion in America 1990 (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Religion Re search Center, 1990), p. 4.

4. Ibid., p. 5.

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid.

7. Stewart, p. 116.

8. Russell Chandler, Racing Toward 2001: The Forces Shaping America's Religious Future (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1992), p. 159.

9. See Chandler, p. 159.

10. Barna, p. 141.

11. Gallup, pp. 6, 7.

12. Ibid., p. 8.

13. Ibid., p. 9.

14. Chandler, pp. 195-198.

15. Gallup, p. 10.

16. Stewart, p. 120.

17. George Gallup and Jim Castelli, The People's Religion: American Faith in the '90s (New York: Macmillan Pub. Co., 1989).

18. Gallup, Religion in America, p. 12.

Ministry reserves the right to approve, disapprove, and delete comments at our discretion and will not be able to respond to inquiries about these comments. Please ensure that your words are respectful, courteous, and relevant.

comments powered by Disqus

Bert B. Beach, Ph.D., is former director of the Public Affairs and Religious Liberty Department, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Silver Spring, Maryland, United States.

May 1994

Download PDF
Ministry Cover

More Articles In This Issue

Counterfeits of community

Religion itself has failed to foster a spirit of community

The art of expository preaching

Four steps to make your sermon speak the Word to the life of the believer.

Setting goals

The issue never should be whether our churches should have goals but rather how we use them.

Looking unto Jesus

Three words only, but they contain the secret of life.

Before I knew you

From the moment I found out I was going to be a mother, my ministry became even more fulfilling.

Let's preach the distinctives

Adventist preaching finds its distinctiveness in the context of the everlasting gospel of Jesus Christ.

View All Issue Contents

Digital delivery

If you're a print subscriber, we'll complement your print copy of Ministry with an electronic version.

Sign up
Advertisement - SermonView - Medium Rect (300x250)

Recent issues

See All