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What to Make of America's Unfaithful Faithful

by Tom Goodman
March 1, 2008

In O Brother Where Art Thou, Everett, Pete, and Delmar commandeered a car on their escape from prison.  Along the way, they pick up blues guitarist, Tommy Johnson, who had been waiting at the crossroads to make a deal with the devil:

Tommy Johnson:  I had to be up at that there crossroads last midnight, to sell my soul to the devil.

Everett:  Well, ain't it a small world, spiritually speaking. Pete and Delmar just been baptized and saved.  I guess I'm the only one that remains unaffiliated.

Everett would find himself in good company today, though.  When the Pew Forum recently asked over 35,000 Americans about their connection to a religious organization, about 16 percent of the population was identified as unaffiliated.

In my weekly LeaderLines e-newsletter, I've been going through a review of the book unChristian.  I'll return to that next week.  Since I received so many e-mails about front-page stories covering the Pew Forum survey this week, I wanted to make some comments on the findings.

(Actually, the Pew Forum findings have some relation to our review of unChristian, since the survey found similar numbers as the research behind the book:  Of the 35,000 surveyed, 1 out of every 4 young adults 18-29 described themselves as unaffiliated.  By contrast, only 8 percent of those age 70 and older to say that they are not affiliated with any particular religion.)

A few thoughts from the report:

Let's hear it for religious freedom.  The report found that about 44 percent of Americans have switched their religious commitment in their lifetime -- either they've become involved in a church when they were unaffiliated as kids, or they've dropped out of church involvement, or they've switched to another denomination or religion.  My first thought is that a report like this would never come from places like Saudi Arabia or Iran where switching one's religious affiliation is punishable by death (that is, if the faith one leaves is Islam).

Religion is a major influence in American life.  Most Americans (78.4%) identify themselves as Christians of some sort.  This Christian majority seems to be a settled fact for some time to come, with trends such as Hispanic immigration bolstering these numbers.

Evangelicals are now the largest single group of American Christians.  Twenty-six percent of those who call themselves Christians identify as evangelicals while mainline Protestant churches and denominations continue to lose membership and now represent only 18.1% of the population.  Of course, the "evangelical" title is very broad, encompassing political liberals like Jim Wallis as well as political conservatives like James Dobson.  As I see it, though, our country benefits from the growing majority of evangelical churches like ours that work to found life upon the Bible, communicate the gospel to the community around them, and connect people to a personal relationship with Christ (three chief characteristics of an evangelical).

Denominational identification continues to lose value.  The major Christian denominations are losing numbers fast. Baptists, while still predominant in the South, are merely holding on, with no signs of growth.  Only non-denominational churches showed growth outpacing losses.

More than half of those who had no church home as children are now connected to a church.  This amounts to about 4 percent of the overall adult population.  I bet you didn't read that in any of the newspaper reports, but that's pretty significant.  Most of the news reports focused on the growing numbers of people unaffiliated with any religious group, and I'll get to that.  But among the 44 who changed their religious identification include those who went from no identification to church involvement.

"Nothing" matters!   About 12 percent say their religious identity is "nothing in particular," outranking every denomination and tradition except Catholics (23.9%) and all groups of Baptists (17.2%).  Add atheists (1.6%) and agnostics (2.4%), and you get about 16 percent of Americans claiming no affiliation to any religious group.  It's the fastest-growing segment in the survey.  We need to ask God what he wants us to do to reach our world -- and keep them.

We have to look for ways to connect with men.  When you break down the unaffiliated category even further, you find that nearly 20% of all men and 13% of all women are unaffiliated.  Our churches need to do more to inspire men to follow Christ.

We have to look for ways to connect with the next generation.  Young people were more likely to call themselves "unaffiliated" than any other generation.  One out of four adults under 30 has no connection to a religious group.

The Pew Forum survey is the largest of its kind to date.  The findings are being presented in two segments.  The report that was just released looks at religious affiliation and demographic characteristics.  The other, to be released in late spring, will delve into beliefs, behavior and political views.

Thanks for all the emails alerting me to your interest in this survey!


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