Religiosity of 116th Congress both does and does not reflect changes in American religion

Comparing the religious makeup of the newest Congress to previous Congresses shows several interesting patterns:

http://www.pewforum.org/2019/01/03/faith-on-the-hill-116/

A few patterns to note:

  1. The number of Protestants has dropped dramatically – roughly a loss of 100 from sixty years ago – even as the percent of Protestants in Congress (54%) continues to be higher than the percent of Protestants in the U.S. population (48%).
  2. The number of Catholics in Congress increased from the 1960s into the late 1970s and early 1980s and then has stayed relatively stable. There are more Catholics in Congress (30%) than in the U.S. population as a whole (21%).
  3. The number of religious others is still low and hasn’t changed much over time.
  4. As noted in the summary of the findings:

But by far the largest difference between the U.S. public and Congress is in the share who are unaffiliated with a religious group. In the general public, 23% say they are atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular.” In Congress, just one person – Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., who was recently elected to the Senate after three terms in the House – says she is religiously unaffiliated, making the share of “nones” in Congress 0.2%.

When asked about their religious affiliation, a growing number of members of Congress decline to specify (categorized as “don’t know/refused”). This group – all Democrats – numbers 18, or 3% of Congress, up from 10 members (2%) in the 115th Congress. Their reasons for this decision may vary. But one member in this category, Rep. Jared Huffman, D-Calif., announced in 2017 that he identifies as a humanist and says he is not sure God exists. Huffman remains categorized as “don’t know/refused” because he declined to state his religious identity in the CQ Roll Call questionnaire used to collect data for this report.3

In summary, Congress is overwhelmingly religious and Christian. While America as a whole is still solidly majority religious and Christian, Congress is even more so. This seems to suggest Americans still like to elect people who have a faith affiliation even if there is less information on the actual beliefs and practices of the Representatives and Senators (this data “does not attempt to measure their religious beliefs or practices. “).

A need to better understand why more education doesn’t lead to less religiosity among American Christians

A new Pew report looks at the relationship between education and religiosity:

On one hand, among U.S. adults overall, higher levels of education are linked with lower levels of religious commitment by some measures, such as belief in God, how often people pray and how important they say religion is to them. On the other
hand, Americans with college degrees report attending religious services as often as Americans with less education.
Moreover, the majority of American adults (71%) identify as Christians. And among Christians, those with higher levels of education appear to be just as religious as those with less schooling, on average. In fact, highly educated Christians are more likely than less-educated Christians to say they are weekly churchgoers.
There is a two part process with this data. First, it has to be collected, analyzed, and reported. On the face, it seems to contradict some long-held ideas within sociology and other fields that increasing levels of education would reduce religiosity. Second, however, is perhaps the tougher task of interpretation. Why is this the case among Christians and not other groups? What about the differences between Christian traditions? How exactly is religion linked to education – does the education reinforce religiosity or are they separate spheres for Christians (among other possibilities)? Data is indeed helpful but proper explanation can often take much longer.

Can Americans elect a non-Christian president?

On President’s Day, Pew Research highlighted the religious faith of America’s presidents:

With the exception of Democrat Bernie Sanders (who is Jewish), all of the presidential hopefuls are Christians and most are Protestants.

In addition, all of the current presidential candidates have spoken openly about the importance of faith in their lives (again, with the exception of Sanders, who describes himself as “not particularly religious”). Our recent survey shows that many Americans care about their leaders’ faith. For instance, half of all American adults say that it’s important for a president to share their religious beliefs. And more people now say there is “too little” religious discussion by their political leaders (40%) than say there is “too much” (27%).

Historically, about a quarter of the presidents – including some of the nation’s most famous leaders, like George Washington, James Madison and Franklin Roosevelt – were members of the Episcopal Church, the American successor to the Church of England.

The next largest group of presidents were affiliated with the Presbyterian Church, which has roots in Scotland. Andrew Jackson, Woodrow Wilson and Ronald Reagan, all of whom had Scots-Irish ancestry, were among the commanders in chief who belonged to the denomination.

Protestants have dominated the office yet just two denominations – Episcopalians and Presbyterians – have supplied nearly half (19 out of 43) of the presidents. Arguably, Americans might not care exactly what denomination or particular doctrinal beliefs a president has as long as they identify as a Christian. This may be part of American civil religion where particularities are not encouraged but a general Christian faith is helpful.

In a continuing trend, a sizable number of Americans say they are unwilling to vote for atheists for president though more younger voters are open to it:

As the 2016 presidential election field takes shape, more than nine in 10 Americans say they would vote for a qualified presidential candidate who is Catholic, a woman, black, Hispanic or Jewish. Less than half of Americans would vote for a candidate who is a socialist…

Among religious identities, while the large majority of Americans would vote for a Catholic or Jewish presidential candidate, smaller majorities say they would vote for a candidate who is Mormon (81%), an evangelical Christian (73%), Muslim (60%) or an atheist (58%)…

At least two-thirds of adults younger than 30 say they are willing to vote for a candidate with any of the characteristics included in the survey.

How this influences the 2016 election remains to be seen.

Religious change: Americans identifying as Christian drops to 70.6%

New data from Pew Research shows a drop in how many American adults identify as Christians:

The Christian share of the U.S. population is declining, while the number of U.S. adults who do not identify with any organized religion is growing, according to an extensive new survey by the Pew Research Center. Moreover, these changes are taking place across the religious landscape, affecting all regions of the country and many demographic groups. While the drop in Christian affiliation is particularly pronounced among young adults, it is occurring among Americans of all ages. The same trends are seen among whites, blacks and Latinos; among both college graduates and adults with only a high school education; and among women as well as men.

To be sure, the United States remains home to more Christians than any other country in the world, and a large majority of Americans – roughly seven-in-ten – continue to identify with some branch of the Christian faith.1 But the major new survey of more than 35,000 Americans by the Pew Research Center finds that the percentage of adults (ages 18 and older) who describe themselves as Christians has dropped by nearly eight percentage points in just seven years, from 78.4% in an equally massive Pew Research survey in 2007 to 70.6% in 2014. Over the same period, the percentage of Americans who are religiously unaffiliated – describing themselves as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular” – has jumped more than six points, from 16.1% to 22.8%. And the share of Americans who identify with non-Christian faiths also has inched up, rising 1.2 percentage points, from 4.7% in 2007 to 5.9% in 2014. Growth has been especially great among Muslims and Hindus, albeit from a very low base.

Changing U.S. Religious Landscape

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

While the drop in religious affiliation will get a lot of attention, this report has other interesting information: American Christians have become more non-white; religious intermarriage is up; Black Protestants have been stable while Evangelical Christians are growing whereas Catholics and Mainline Protestants have lost large numbers; and non-Christian groups have grown but are still quite small.

Sociologist: China to have the most Christians in the world by 2030

In another indicator of the shift of Christianity from the West, one sociologist predicts China will be home to the largest number of Christians by 2030:

“By my calculations China is destined to become the largest Christian country in the world very soon,” said Fenggang Yang, a professor of sociology at Purdue University and author of Religion in China: Survival and Revival under Communist Rule…China’s Protestant community, which had just one million members in 1949, has already overtaken those of countries more commonly associated with an evangelical boom. In 2010 there were more than 58 million Protestants in China compared to 40 million in Brazil and 36 million in South Africa, according to the Pew Research Centre’s Forum on Religion and Public Life.

Prof Yang, a leading expert on religion in China, believes that number will swell to around 160 million by 2025. That would likely put China ahead even of the United States, which had around 159 million Protestants in 2010 but whose congregations are in decline.

By 2030, China’s total Christian population, including Catholics, would exceed 247 million, placing it above Mexico, Brazil and the United States as the largest Christian congregation in the world, he predicted.

This could lead to a lot of change in China – and change in the United States where many Christians see China as a less-than-Christian country as well as consider their own country to be a (the?) leading Christian nation. Of course, there is some time before this prediction can be assessed and a lot could happen between now and then…

Is it okay to be a Christian and quiet suburbanite?

One blogger suggests the “missional” or “radical Christianity” movements go too far in suggesting one cannot be a normal suburbanite and Christian:

I continue to be amazed by the number of youth and young adults who are stressed and burnt out from the regular shaming and feelings of inadequacy if they happen to not be doing something unique and special. Today’s millennial generation is being fed the message that if they don’t do something extraordinary in this life they are wasting their gifts and potential. The sad result is that many young adults feel ashamed if they “settle” into ordinary jobs, get married early and start families, live in small towns, or as 1 Thessalonians 4:11 says, “aspire to live quietly, and to mind [their] affairs, and to work with [their] hands.” For too many millennials their greatest fear in this life is being an ordinary person with a non-glamorous job, living in the suburbs, and having nothing spectacular to boast about…

In the 1970s and 1980s, the children and older grandchildren of the builder generation (born between 1901 and 1920) sorted themselves and headed to the suburbs to raise their children in safety, comfort, and material ease. And now millennials (born between 1977 and 1995), taking a cue from their baby boomer parents (born between 1946 and 1964) to despise the contexts that provided them advantages, have a disdain for America’s suburbs. This despising of suburban life has been inadvertently encouraged by well-intentioned religious leaders inviting people to move to neglected cities to make a difference, because, after all, the Apostle Paul did his work primarily in cities, cities are important, and cities are the final destination of the Kingdom of God. They were told that God loves cities and they should, too. The unfortunate message became that you cannot live a meaningful Christian life in the suburbs.

There are many churches that are committed to being what is called missional. This term is used to describe a church community where people see themselves as missionaries in local communities. A missional church has been defined, as “a theologically formed, Gospel-centered, Spirit-empowered, united community of believers who seek to faithfully incarnate the purposes of Christ for the glory of God,” says Scott Thomas of the Acts 29 Network. The problem is that this push for local missionaries coincided with the narcissism epidemic we are facing in America, especially with the millennial generation. As a result, living out one’s faith became narrowly celebratory only when done in a unique and special way, a “missional” way. Getting married and having children early, getting a job, saving and investing, being a good citizen, loving one’s neighbor, and the like, no longer qualify as virtuous. One has to be involved in arts and social justice activities—even if justice is pursued without sound economics or social teaching. I actually know of a couple who were being so “missional” they decided to not procreate for the sake of taking care of orphans.

To make matters worse, some religious leaders have added a new category to Christianity called “radical Christianity” in an effort to trade-off suburban Christianity for mission. This movement is based on a book by David Platt and is fashioned around “an idea that we were created for far more than a nice, comfortable Christian spin on the American dream. An idea that we were created to follow One who demands radical risk and promises radical reward.” Again, this was a well-intentioned attempt to address lukewarm Christians in the suburbs, but because it is primarily reactionary and does not provide a positive construction for the good life from God’s perspective, it misses “radical” ideas in Jesus’ own teachings like “love.”

As a suburban scholar, I’d like to point out there are a number of interesting things going on in this argument.

First, it makes some sweeping generalizations. Is this true of all “missional” or “radical” Christians? If I remember correctly, Platt argued that Christians don’t necessarily have to leave their suburban settings though they should change their focus. Similarly, making broad claims about generations is a difficult task. On the whole, a majority of Americans live in the suburbs (and they didn’t necessarily choose it – there was a whole lot of public policy that helped pushed them there) though there are rumblings that millennials and younger adults are interested in more urban spaces, whether they are in denser suburbs or cities.

Second, the argument makes some interesting claims about narcissism and what is really the good/virtuous life. The charge of narcissism among millennials and emerging adults in America today is a common one. There may be some truth to this. (However, I wonder if there is also some golden age mythologizing going on here – are those in the builder generations the paragons of virtue here?) But, is narcissism completely limited by geography? How are participating in the arts and pursuing social justice necessarily narcissistic activities? What qualifies as a non-narcissistic action? Critics of the suburbs have argued for decades that the suburbs are built to be all about the individual: suburbs promote private spaces to the neglect of public spaces, individualism over community life. Are these values, “Getting married and having children early, getting a job, saving and investing, being a good citizen, loving one’s neighbor, and the like, no longer qualify as virtuous,” necessarily Christian values? They may be general suburban or traditional American ideals but they don’t necessarily match up with Christian lives throughout the centuries or around the world.

Third, I think there is merit to the idea that suburbs can be home to Christians just as much as cities. However, this radical approach might be linked to cities because evangelicals do have a long history of anti-urban bias. This is due to multiple factors including thinking that cities are more evil, corrupting, and dangerous (this dates back to Christians like William Wilberforce in the late 1700s wanting to escape a changing London – see Robert Fishman’s Bourgeois, viewing cities as less friendly toward families (a primary conservative Christian focus), and a history of racialized actions and prejudice which is tied to white flight from the cities after World War II and residentially segregated suburbs today. Thus, the suburbs can often be a safe, comfortable space for evangelicals and people challenging this can make a pointed and needed contrast to cities. Christians could argue that the faithful need to be in both places without saying it is an either/or proposition and that living the easy life in a suburb or city is the way to go.

Fourth, there is a difference between feeling shamed and being confronted with helpful or unpleasant truths. I wonder if this is similar to the feelings of shame some white evangelicals express when confronted with the problem of race in the United States today. I don’t think authors like Platt or Chan are suggesting people should be shamed; they are more likely to suggest relatively well-off suburbanites acknowledge their blessings and advantages and then go to work in following and obeying God. It is not about feeling guilty but rather living a life that properly acknowledges and utilizes one’s relative privilege and status.

On the whole, this argument demonstrates how the categories, ideas, and values of American, suburban, and conservative/evangelical Christian can become intertwined. They are not easy to sort out and it is not as simple as suggesting cities are inherently good or evil or arguing the same about suburbs.

“This [car] is bound for glory…”

Megan Garber of the Atlantic explains the car-centric origins of Robert Schuller’s Crystal Cathedral:

The efficiencies of the [Orange Drive-In Theatre where Rev. Schuller first held services in 1955 in Orange County, CA] were obvious: For cinematic purposes, the drive-in was useful only in the darkness, which meant that it could play an effortlessly dual role, theater by night and church by day. The architecture and technological system built for entertainment could be repurposed, hacked even, to deliver a religious ceremony for the golden age of the car. An early advertisement announced the new ministry’s appeal: “The Orange Church meets in the Orange Drive-In Theater where even the handicapped, hard of hearing, aged and infirm can see and hear the entire service without leaving their family car….”

The Schullers, and their contemporary entrepreneurs of religiosity, had happened into an idea that made particular cultural sense at its particular cultural moment: In the mid-1950s, Americans found themselves in the honeymoon stages of their romances with both the automobile and the television. And they found themselves seeking forms of fellowship that mirrored the community and individuality that those technologies encouraged….It was, with its peculiar yet practical combination of openness and enclosure, an improvised idea that happened to fit its time. The Schullers’ motto? “Come as you are in the family car.”

As the article goes on to note, Schuller eventually moved out of the drive-in and into his Crystal Cathedral, which has been “in the news most recently for its financial troubles — culminating in bankruptcy, a controversial shift in the the church’s leadership structure, and, finally, the sale of the Cathedral itself to a neighboring (Catholic) diocese.”  I guess things went a little off the rails at some point.

More seriously, however, I find Schuller’s integration of the automobile into Christian liturgy fascinating (and more than a little disturbing).  Megan’s article makes it clear that, by and large, Schuller’s drive-in congregants remained in their cars throughout services (“Church rubrics, the guidebooks for services, included instructions not only about when to sing, speak, and stay silent, but also for mounting the speakers onto car windows”).  It’s hard to understand how attendees could have Christian communion–in either the literal or general sense–by themselves from the walled-off comfort of their own cars.