Religious diversity reshapes America, safeguards freedom

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Thanks to the First Amendment, Americans are free to choose in matters of faith. As it turns out, that’s exactly what we do.

A report released this week by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life finds that almost half of us “have either switched religious affiliation, moved from being unaffiliated with any religion to being affiliated with a particular faith, or dropped any connection to a specific religious tradition altogether.”

The religious marketplace of America is not only dynamic — it’s also crowded. The United States is now home to all major world religions, many minor ones, and some entirely homegrown.

Although the Pew report tells us that 78.4% of Americans identify themselves as “Christian,” that is a very big tent covering scores, if not hundreds, of religious groups with widely divergent views about what it means to be Christian.

One of the study’s most surprising findings is that just 51% of American adults are now affiliated with Protestant denominations. Only 20 years ago, two-thirds of the population was Protestant. Soon the United States — almost entirely Protestant at the founding — will be a minority Protestant nation. (See full report.)

This dramatic demographic shift may help explain the growing anxiety expressed by many traditionalist Protestants as our society moves beyond the Protestant ethos that dominated America for much of our early history. Culture-war conflicts over state-sponsored religion are less about 60-second prayers in schools or Ten Commandments monuments in courthouses and more about struggles to define who we are as a nation — and who we will be.

For better or worse (depending on your point of view), the Pew study describes a newly diverse America in the 21st century, a place where a cacophony of religious and non-religious voices compete to be heard. Although still relatively small in numbers, Buddhists (.07%), Muslims (.06%), Hindus (.04%) and adherents of other world religions are increasingly visible and vocal in America’s public square.

Even some familiar American groups are beginning to have an unfamiliar look. The report tells us, for example, that a third of adult Catholics in the U.S. are now Latino, including nearly half of all Catholics ages 18-29. Thanks to immigration (and conversion), the number of Catholics has held steady at about a fourth of the population for several decades — despite the fact that a third of people raised as Catholics no longer identify with the faith.

Equally significant for understanding the new religious landscape in America is the rapid growth of what pollsters sometimes dub the “religious nones” — people who say they are not affiliated with any faith. In the 1980s, surveys put that number at between 5% and 8%. Today the number is 16.1% of adult Americans, according to the Pew study.

Unaffiliated, however, doesn’t necessarily mean non-religious. People in this group describe themselves variously as atheist (1.6% of the overall adult population), agnostic (2.4% of the adult population) and “nothing in particular” (12.1% of the adult population). According to the report, half of the latter group identifies as secular, while the other half sees religion as somewhat important or very important in their lives.

The Pew findings are likely to intensify the already heated debate about whether expanding religious diversity is a source of strength for the nation or a point of weakness.

I vote for strength, mostly for two reasons: Religious diversity is good for society — and essential for religious freedom.

Competition, after all, is the American way. As long as we level the playing field (which means keeping government from taking sides), all religious and non-religious beliefs are free to compete for the minds and hearts of the people. Thomas Jefferson was right: “Truth is great and will prevail if left to herself.”

And James Madison was also right. Religious freedom “arises from that multiplicity of sects, which pervades America, and which is the best and only security for religious liberty in any society. For where there is such a variety of sects, there cannot be a majority of any one sect to oppress and persecute the rest.”

Charles C. Haynes is senior scholar at the First Amendment Center, 555 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C., 20001. Web: E-mail:

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