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Faith Swapping: Religion in America
by Dr. Binoy Kampmark
2008-04-23 09:17:52
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American are not only changing jobs, changing locations, changing spouses, but they’re also changing religions on a regular basis.
Luis E. Figo, Director of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 26 February 2008.


An online Library of Congress exhibition makes the observation that ‘a religious people rose in rebellion against Great Britain in 1776’. Religion, a section of that same exhibition continues, offered ‘a moral sanction for opposition to the British – an assurance to the average American that revolution was justified in the sight of God.’

In more recent years, the intensity of the debate on religion in American life has hardly diminished. To an incoming board member of the conservative Heritage Foundation, William E Simon Jr., the United States of 2000 was confused about answering a key question: ‘Does America really need religion?’ (26 September 2000).

Intoning in that familiar doomsday vein of moral atrophy, Simon suggested that America’s religious centre was not holding. The nation was prospering, but it was also in spiritual decline. The concerns of the Heritage Foundation were answered by a barely victorious George W. Bush, Jr., who won (some claim stole) the Presidential elections that year on the back of strong evangelical support.

What are we to make then of the findings in the recent survey of religious orientation in the US conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public life? The survey (out 25 February), comprising 35,000 respondents, aged 18 and upwards, has thrown up a few surprises on this assemblage of religious peoples. Some of them will provide scant comfort for commentators.

For one thing, the U.S. finds itself on the verge of becoming a minority Protestant country, with current numbers hovering around 51.3 percent. A column from the Boston Globe (26 February 2008) by Michael Paulson does little to hide the shock. ‘The United States, founded by dissident Protestants seeking religious freedom, is on the verge of becoming a nation in which Protestants are only a minority.’

This may bear out an old argument suggested by some religious scholars (Steve Bruce, for one, in A House Divided (1990)): that Protestantism’s democratic pluralism has tended to undermine its influence. Some groups try to resist the trend - the strong-faith base of the evangelical churches continues to hold strong at 26.3 percent. The evangelicals may be losing political influence, but they are not necessarily losing numbers.

Just to add more confusion to the debate and muddle the argument as to why Protestantism might be its own worse enemy is the recent changes in America’s Catholic following. The Catholic base, ostensibly less pluralistic, has also been far from immune. Its losses have been made up in part by immigration – the growth of America’s Hispanic population has seen to that.

Christian followers need have no worry as to rise of rival religions. Amongst non-Christian religions (numbering 4.7 percent of the sample), Jewry accounts for 1.7 percent, Buddhists come in at 0.7 percent, and Muslims register a negligible 0.6 percent.

These figures from the Pew Forum do little to suggest an overall flight from religious persuasion. They rather suggest a flight between religions. 44 percent of adults have switched religious affiliation, moved from having no affiliation with any religion to having some affiliation with a particular faith, ‘or dropped any connection to a specific religious tradition altogether.’ 28 percent of respondents left the faith in which they were raised in favour a different belief system. Such mobility has prompted Louis E. Lugo, director of the Pew Forum, to call American religion a thriving ‘marketplace’, both ‘dynamic’ and ‘competitive.’ In this movement, institutional religion, rather than religion per se, is the notable casualty.

The loss of interest in institutional religion fits well with the initial Christianizing of North America by English settlers. The Puritan Separatists in New Plymouth called for a de-centering of religious authority. A key reason why religious migrants found a home in the Americas was no less than to flee the idea of institutionalized faith and governance. Institutions had, after all, been responsible for their persecution.

Another change the survey reveals is the increased number of individuals not affiliated with any particular faith (something in the order of 16.1 percent), though such a figure is deceptive. Of these, 1.6 percent of the sample describe themselves as atheist, while the group ‘nothing in particular’ comes in at 12.1 percent. Such a figure is hardly a sign of rampant secularization – America remains sui generis for being both highly industrialized and deeply religious.

The truth borne out in the Pew survey is that religion, notably those of Christian faith, is alive and well in America. It may be a ‘marketplace’, but its hold is no less convincing. The furniture may have changed places, but the house of religion appears immoveable.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He blogs at Oz Moses.

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Emanuel Paparella2008-04-23 13:45:33
Interesting and thought provoking article. Indeed, by establishing a secular state and wisely separating Church and State while recognizing and protecting religious freedom, the founding fathers of this country assured that the country would continue for more than two centuries to confound the predictions of Voltaire and his cohorts, those who see religion as a vestige of medieval obscurantism and a sign of regression, the opium of the people the sooner liquidated the better. The contrary has in fact happened: the country became one of the most prosperous and progressives in the world and the assorted “enlightened” people of our brave new world have still to wrap their mind around the idea that religion per se may be one of the best cultural glues for countering the centripetal forces of great diversity, for it takes than a common bank and common soccer games to establish “e pluribus unum,” or unity in diversity.

Emanuel Paparella2008-04-23 13:50:00
Errata above: "more" should be added after "it takes" in the last sentence.

Emanuel Paparella2008-04-23 21:02:10

For a more thorough analysis of the issue or religion and the secular state see the above linked article which I wrote for Newropeans magazine in 1994.

Emanuel Paparella2008-04-23 22:39:45
Errata: the date is 2004

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