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Q&A: A look at what’s driving the changes seen in our Religious Landscape Study

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David Campbell, University of Notre Dame
David Campbell, director, Rooney Center for the Study of American Democracy, University of Notre Dame

Based on more than 35,000 interviews, the Pew Research Center’s 2014 Religious Landscape Study presented a detailed portrait of an America where changes in religious affiliation have affected all regions of the country and many demographic groups.

The survey’s findings raise questions about why these changes are occurring.

Fact Tank sat down with David Campbell, a professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame, to explore what the new findings mean. Campbell is the author of a number of books on religion, including (along with Robert Putnam) “American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us.”

For you, what stands out as the most important new finding or findings in the Religious Landscape Study?

The rise of the religiously unaffiliated has rightly drawn a lot of attention, but it is worth pausing to consider what that rise tells us. For one thing, the secular surge demonstrates the fluid and dynamic nature of America’s religious ecosystem. Most of the people who say that their religion is “nothing in particular” or “none” were raised in a household that was at least nominally religious. In other words, the “nones” were once “somethings.” But, equally important, most of the “nones” are what we might call soft secularists. Most do not describe themselves as atheists or agnostics, which suggests that they are not totally disaffected from all aspects of religion, or from a belief in a God or higher power. In other words, this suggests that many of the “nones” are not actively opposed or hostile to religion, and that some of them might even be attracted to a new form of religion.

The pattern of growing “none”-ism also reminds us that the U.S. version of secularism is different than what we have observed in Western Europe. There, secularism has grown steadily through a process of generational replacement — each generation is more secular than the last. Here, secularism has grown rapidly, which means it cannot be explained by generational turnover. But, as I noted, the growth has largely been in soft secularism. Given the highly innovative and entrepreneurial nature of American religion, it is probable that we will see a response by religious leaders to bring those soft secularists back. Whether they will succeed is an open question, but the U.S. has gone through other periods where secularism seemed to be on the rise, only to see religion respond and stem the tide of secularism. For example, religious influence in U.S. society was waning in the 1960s, but was on the rebound by the late 1970s.

Why have mainline Protestants continued to decline dramatically, while evangelical Protestants have shown only small declines?

Evangelicalism can hold on to its adherents because it is as much a subculture as a religion. While evangelicals are typically defined by more than the church they attend on Sunday, they are also bound by mutually reinforcing expressions of culture — the schools their children attend, the movies they watch, the websites they visit, the music they listen to. The deeper someone’s immersion into such a subculture, the more their religion is an integral part of their identity, and thus hard to leave. Furthermore, evangelicalism — both as a religion and a subculture — is highly innovative, entrepreneurial, and adaptable. Evangelical congregations are often engaged in “creative destruction” by regularly introducing such things as new forms of church organization and types of worship.

In contrast, mainline Protestantism is much less likely to be all-encompassing, largely because over most of American history, the national culture had a mainline Protestant accent. Thus, there was no need for mainline Protestants to develop the sort of subculture found among evangelicals. Similarly, while there are some notable exceptions, mainline congregations are generally steeped in more tradition than their evangelical counterparts, making it more difficult to innovate.

The survey found that 13% of all American adults used to be Roman Catholic. In your view, what are the two or three biggest factors prompting so many people to leave the Catholic Church?

From what I have seen in the data, the continuing decline in Catholics is due largely to the same factors leading people to leave other faiths, rather than to specific Catholic issues. It is tempting to attribute the decline in Catholic numbers to the sex abuse crisis within the church, but that does not seem to be the primary explanation. I say this because we do not see a sharp drop in Catholic numbers corresponding with the revelations regarding sex abuse. Rather, it has been a steady trend. (There is evidence, however, that financial contributions to the Catholic Church have declined precipitously as a reaction to the sex abuse crisis. Catholic parishioners are voting with their dollars, if you will.)

One primary cause of the rise in “nones” — and thus the decline in Catholics — is a negative reaction to the mixture of religion and politics. And, just as mainline Protestants do not form the same sort of subculture as evangelicals, neither do Catholics. But Catholics once did. As the ethnic bonds of Catholicism have weakened, it has become easier for Catholics to become ex-Catholics.

The survey shows that Millennials, particularly the youngest Millennials, are the most likely to be unaffiliated. What factors are driving this development? 

The biggest reason the growth of the unaffiliated is concentrated among Millennials is dislike for the mixture of religion and politics. Many Americans find the mixture distasteful, particularly when religion is mixed with a political perspective they oppose. For those who have a weak attachment to religion in the first place, this distaste often leads to dropping a religious identity altogether. In other words, it is mainly moderates and liberals who are dropping a religious label, as they perceive that to be religious is to be politically conservative. And since young people are both the most likely to be politically liberal and have only known a political environment in which religion and conservatism go hand-in-hand, they are the most likely to identify as “nones.”

Among religious minorities, the report shows Muslims with considerable growth doubling (from 0.4% of U.S. adults in 2007 to 0.9% in 2014). Recent Pew Research Center demographic projections forecast Muslims to surpass Jews as the largest of the “small” American religious minorities. If this comes to pass, what, if any, impact is this development likely to have on the way Americans view Muslims?

It does appear likely that Muslims will eventually have a larger share of the population than Jews owing to immigration, a high birth rate and a high “retention” rate within Islam. The question of whether this changes how Americans view Muslims, however, depends on more than just the size of the Muslim population. Mormons are an illustrative example. There are as many Mormons in America as Jews, but they are viewed very differently. Jews are held in high regard; Mormons are not. One difference between the two groups is the degree to which they build bridges with people of other faiths. Jews have a high degree of inter-religious bridge building, while among Mormons it is far less common. As a result, fewer Americans develop close personal relationships with Mormons that enable them to overcome suspicions and misunderstandings. If Muslims grow as a share of the population but do not build interreligious bridges, they are more likely to be perceived negatively (like Mormons) than positively (like Jews).