Spring 2009, Vol. 12, No. 1

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Spiritual Politics blog

Articles in this issue:
Table of Contents

From the Editor:
Our Excellent ARIS Adventure

The Madoff Disgrace

Keeping the Faith-Based

Dolan Does Gotham

No Friends on the Right

A Buddhist Bishop in the UP

Breaking Up Is Hard to Adjudicate

Praise God and Pass the Diapers

Haggard Agonistes


New books


From the Editor:
Our Excellent ARIS Adventure
by Mark Silk 

Even decades’ participant-observation in the news media doesn’t prepare you for being in the eye of a media storm yourself. And that’s where we were, thanks to the 2008 American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS). The third large telephone survey conducted by Barry Kosmin and Ariela Keysar—our colleagues at the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture-—sailed out into the world March 9 under the banner of the college’s Program on Public Values, and never looked back.

With the help of USA Today’s bells and whistles, Trinity ARIS (as we’re calling it) turned into the biggest national story of the week, with the possible exception of President Obama’s announcement of his new policy on embryonic stem cell research. There was news coverage galore—on network television and radio, in newspapers domestic and foreign, to say nothing of talk shows and the blogosphere.

Do a Google search, and you get 100,000 or so references. As of this writing, the Trinity ARIS website  has been visited nearly 70,000 times. That may not amount to much beside a YouTube sensation like Susan Boyle, but for an academic report, it’s nothing short of amazing.

What actually caught the world’s eye was the revelation that since the first of the surveys in 1990, the number of Americans adults who say they have no religion has grown two and a half times, their proportion of the population nearly doubling from 8.2 percent to 15 percent. This amounts to two-thirds of the 10 point national decline in self-identified Christians, from 86 percent to 76 percent.

That finding was canonized in “The End of Christian America,” Newsweek’s April 4 cover story by editor John Meacham. Not since Time’s April 8, 1966 “Is God Dead?” cover has so stark a religious message adorned an American newsweekly. It put Trinity ARIS right up there with Time’s notorious Death of God theologians.

But in fact, the increase in no-religion Americans—the “Nones”—was not really news. It was the 2001 ARIS, the second of the surveys, that registered the big bump (to 14.1 percent). Since 2001, the proportion of Nones has grown by less than one point—and Christian self-identification has declined by less than one (with the actual number of self-identified American Christians increasing by over 450 thousand).

So why wasn’t the rise of the Nones and the decline of the Christians a big story back when it was a story?

The press release that announced the ARIS on October 25, 2001, did highlight the increase in Nones as “one of the most striking 1990-2001 comparisons.” But Gustav Niebuhr’s story in the New York Times the same day chose instead to focus on the survey’s finding that the number of Muslims in America was smaller than had previously been estimated. For two months, the rest of the press followed Niebuhr’s lead, and not just because he was writing for the Newspaper of Record. In the immediate aftermath of the September 11 attacks, Islam held center stage when it came to national religion coverage.

On the day before Christmas, USA Today did take note of the increase in Nones, but the headline was that America was still “one nation under God.”  “Nation of Faith: Religion Remains Central to Americans” cried the Daily Oklahoman’s stop-the-presses editorial December 30. Not until March 2002 did the Nones receive a full-dress treatment, in a three-story package by USA Today’s Cathy Lee Grossman focusing on the Pacific Northwest, the country’s least religiously identified region.

Grossman’s package attracted the attention of religion reporters as well as of the irreligious, such that when the occasion rose to do a story on the latter, the ARIS inevitably got a mention, supplying evidence to demonstrate that they were in fact a growing segment of American society. Yet in the post-9/11 world—the world of Osama bin Laden and George W. Bush—“the rise of the Nones” was well outside the prevailing narrative. Perhaps, some experts claimed, the finding was a statistical anomaly.

In the years since, other surveys have shown that the 2001 ARIS got it right. But Pew, Baylor, and the General Social Survey prefer to call the Nones “unaffiliated”—which permits the comforting thought that at least some of them just don’t happen to belong to a particular church at this particular time. And reassures the public that these are not, God forbid, Americans who don’t believe in God (though a disproportionate number of them don’t). While the confirmatory findings did not grab the headlines, they made it clear to those who were paying attention that Trinity ARIS’ finding of 15 percent Nones wasn’t much to write home about.

But for the country at large, for the world at large, it was big news because it fit into the current narrative of Democratic ascendency, the election of Obama, the collapse of the religious right, and the New Atheism. A culture digests no statistic before its time.

So does the Trinity ARIS have only an old story to tell? By no means. It shows, startlingly, a shift in Catholicism’s center of gravity from the Northeast to the Southwest. California is now more heavily Catholic than New England is—and New England has become almost as religiously unidentified as the Pacific Northwest. This is a measure of the latinization of the Catholic church, the result of Latino immigration and a falling away of non-Hispanic Catholics (especially those of Irish descent).

Then there is the changing face of non-Catholic Christianity.

On one side, mainline Protestantism seems to have gone from a condition of losing market share to one of dying away. In 1990, those who identified with mainline denominations constituted 18.7 percent of the American population. During the 1990s, their share of the pie dropped to 17.2 percent even as their actual numbers increased, from 32 million to just under 35 million. But since 2001, they have shed 6.5 million adherents, and dropped proportionally to under 13 percent of the population.

Nor are the prospects for recovery good. Demographically, mainliners are significantly older than other segments of the Christian population. The future of non-Catholic Christianity does not lie with them.

Where does it lie?

One of the great virtues of the ARIS approach is that instead of offering an array of religious boxes for respondents to put themselves in, it simply asks, “What is your religion, if any?” If the respondent gives a generic answer like “Protestant” or “Christian,” he or she is asked, “Which denomination?” Those who decline to name one are simply listed as “Protestant” or “Christian Unspecified” or “Evangelical/Born Again.”

Or “Non-Denominational Christian.”

In 1990, fewer than 200,000 adults identified themselves that way. In 2001, the number was two-and-one-half million. In 2008, it was eight million. By contrast, the “Protestants,” who weighed in at over 17 million in 1990, now comprise just above 5 million, shrinking from 9.8 percent to just 2.3 percent of the population.

In 1990, these residual Protestants made up two-thirds of the generic Christian category. Today, they’re just one-sixth. Pretty clearly, the low-intensity “I’m just a Protestant” is being rapidly replaced by the “I’m a non-denominational Christian”—often a megachurch member—who resists further labeling as a matter of affirmative religious commitment.

Since 1990, these non-denominationals (including “Christians” and “evangelicals”) have increased their share of the population from 5 percent to 8.5 percent to 11.8 percent. Soon they will outnumber the mainliners. Put them together with the rest of the evangelical flock—Baptists, Pentecostals, etc.—and they outnumber the mainliners by two to one. In another decade, the ratio will likely be three to one.

In short, what church historian Martin Marty called the two-party system of American Protestantism is in collapse. A broad species of evangelicalism has become the norm for non-Catholic Christianity in America, while the mainline has turned into a large niche market. It is clear that this new reality has not been lost on the Obama administration, whose faith outreach has been notable for its focus on the evangelical community. 

But what about those Nones? Even if their increased numbers is not news, the increase remains in need of explanation. Uniquely among all the ARIS findings, the rough doubling in the None population has occurred in every state, in every racial and ethnic group. This is a bona fide national religious phenomenon.

There’s little indication, however, that the phenomenon has coincided with a change in American religious behavior. It’s a change in labeling, a category shift.

Religion in America has become less of an ascriptive and more of a chosen identity. A nation of seekers is less inclined to identify with a childhood religion it no longer practices. A normative evangelicalism requires an active faith commitment. A liberalism of little faith wants no part of religion, if religious identity points to the GOP.

Whatever the explanatory mix, the category of having no religion—even unto unbelief—has now established itself in American culture. As President Obama said in his Inaugural Address, “We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and nonbelievers.”

That is not to say that all Nones are the same—that they express their no-religion status in the same way. In the Pacific Northwest, the distinctive policy expression of None culture is physician-assisted suicide, which last November became the law of the land in Washington as well as Oregon. In New England, it is same-sex marriage, which as of June had been adopted by every state in the region except Rhode Island.

The explanation, I’d venture, lies in the difference between a libertarian regional ethos and a communitarian one. But that is a subject for another survey.

 Spiritual Politics
Mark Silk's blog on religion and politics.


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