Religious Switching: An Exceptional American Phenomenon

While sorting through my own mixed reactions to the latest big Pew survey on American religion, I stumbled on an essay by Emma Green at the Atlantic that hit one of the themes which probably won’t get too much attention in the predictable brouhaha about the rise of unbelief and the continuing decline of mainline Protestantism:

[T]he survey actually reveals something more complex than a slow and steady march toward secularization. Those who didn’t identify with any particular religion were asked a follow-up question: “How important is religion in your life?” The answers reveal that this group might be churchless, but it’s not wholly faithless: 44 percent said religion is “very” or “somewhat” important to them, while 56 percent said religion isn’t important to them, according to Greg Smith, Pew’s associate director of research. This is a slight drop compared to findings from a similar survey taken in 2007: That year, 48 percent of the “nones” said religion was important to them, while 52 percent said it wasn’t. Even taking this decline into account, there’s a pretty significant group of Americans who don’t identify with a particular denomination or congregation, but who still care about religion to some degree. That’s not the pattern of a Godless nation; it’s the pattern of people finding God on their own terms.

And that holds true even among many of those who do identify with a particular faith. The survey gives at least a partial look at what the researchers call “religious switching”: People converting to other faiths, joining new kinds of churches, or ditching religion altogether. If you count switches among the major traditions in Protestantism (mainline, evangelical, and historically black congregations), roughly 42 percent of Americans no longer consider themselves part of the religion in which they were raised. The researchers point out that this estimate is probably on the low side; many people leave their childhood religions, only to return to them later in life. If those decisions were measured, the estimates of “religious switching” would likely be even higher.

This isn’t terribly surprising given the vast plurality of religious options Americans have always had, complicated by the struggle of particular denominations to keep up with the populations they once served. A few generations ago most Americans didn’t move much except for those massive migrations that brought people without land or suffering from persecution across oceans and continents (or, in the case of the Great Migration of African-Americans out of Dixie, people struggling with both problems). Ethnic identities long kept certain communities in certain religious denominations and sub-denominations, and religion in many places was an important signifier of social and economic status (viz., W.J. Cash’s description of most white southerners as belonging to a hierarchy in which Episcopalians were the economic and educational elite, followed by the gentry who tended to be Presbyterian, the broad middle classes who were Methodist or Baptist and the lumpen-proletariat attracted to pentecostal churches).

The many millions of Americans who have in recent generations been uprooted from their traditional locales and moved into anodyne suburbs and exurbs, often marrying and working with people from different religious backgrounds, have enjoyed a freedom from how they were raised religiously (or irreligiously) that remains alien in much of the rest of the world. If you want a true as opposed to a bogus example of “American exceptionalism,” this could be it. And it means Americans are less likely to identify their religious beliefs with a particular theological tradition, and more likely to affiliate or unaffiliate for reasons of convenience or the services a particular house of worship offers or fails to offer.

That’s been a large part of the well-known Protestant story of mega-churches, which are less likely than they were pretty recently to be attached to conservative denominations, and are often difficult to typecast in terms of where they belong on the theological spectrum. But there are a thousand other interesting religious “stories” in this country that are hard to aggregate in data.

Perhaps, as many progressives hope, the U.S. is irreversibly on the road to European-style secularism, in which religious belief is an exotic and slightly disreputable phenomenon. As a believer myself, I’m okay with that possibility; there’s no particular reason to think the divine will is limited to working exclusively through people who call it by a particular or indeed by any name. And I also think a lot of what people regard as religious sentiment is churchified secularism anyway (e.g., the attachment of conservative evangelicals to the family structure and sexual mores of the past). But the most likely religious trends in this country will probably characterized by subterranean twists and turns that we will not recognize until they are upon us.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.