clock menu more-arrow no yes
The Very Rev. Martin Diaz celebrates Mass at the Cathedral of the Madeleine in Salt Lake City.
The Very Rev. Martin Diaz celebrates Mass at the Cathedral of the Madeleine in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, May 12, 2020.
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Filed under:

How immigration, secularization and other forces are reshaping American religion

Pew Research Center’s latest research shows that while America is becoming increasingly secular, the country remains, by and large, Christian and religious — and immigration might have something to do with that

New data paints a complicated picture of the state of religion in America today: The latest numbers on the country’s religious composition from Pew Research Center show that America continues its march towards secularization. But researchers also found that the country remains largely religious — with even a sizable minority of the so-called “nones” attending worship services once in a while and approximately 3 in 10 reporting that they pray on a somewhat regular basis.

The research also points to trends that are changing the face of American Christianity. The share of U.S. adults who identify as Christian continues to decline — down to 63% today as opposed to 78% in 2007 — as the number of “nones” grows to a new high of 29%. But, of the Americans who remain Christian, the number of evangelicals is holding steady or trending slightly upward.

“Is evangelicalism declining in the U.S.?” said Greg Smith, Pew’s associate director of research and the lead researcher of the new study. “Yes. But.”

He continued, “The share of Americans who are born again or evangelical Protestants is lower than it was 10 or 15 years ago … because there are fewer Americans who identify as Christians or Protestants.” However, he added, “within Protestantism, the share of those who call themselves born again or evangelical is not declining — it’s the same or even ticking up a bit.”

Among Protestants, 60% say they are “born again or evangelical.” When broken down by race, Black Americans come out a bit higher on this measure, with 66% of Black Protestants calling themselves born again or evangelical, compared to 58% of white Protestants.

So while the number of Christians in America is shrinking on the whole, as that space grows smaller, it’s becoming a little more evangelical.

According to Pew’s latest study, Black evangelicals are among the most religious people in the country. They report higher rates of church attendance, daily prayer — and more than any other group — say that religion is very important in their lives. On the whole, Black Americans rank higher on religious measures than white Americans.

Shifts are also occurring in American Catholicism. Though the religion loses more adherents than any other denomination, Smith said, the percentage of Catholics has held steady at 21% since 2014.

“Catholics lose more people through religious switching than any other religion but their share of the population is pretty steady,” said Smith, adding that this has been true over the long term.

While there’s “been a bit of a decline” in the overall number of Catholics in America, Smith said, it’s not like the drop in the number of Protestants.

Smith and other experts believe that the pool of American Catholics is likely replenished by immigration, particularly from predominantly Catholic Latin America.

“Immigration has served to reinforce the Christian character of the United States,” Smith said.

Because many young Latinos are joining the ranks of the nones — and some are also gravitating towards evangelicalism — in the future, “you could have a scenario” in which most Latinos in America aren’t Catholic but most American Catholics are Latino, he added.

In addition to the decline in the number of Christians, Smith pointed out that multiple measures suggest that Americans’ religiosity, on the whole, is waning. Frequency of prayer went down, as did the number of those who say that religion is important to them.

Today, 45% of American adults pray on a daily basis — a 13 percentage point drop since 2007. In the same period, the number of U.S. adults who say they seldom or never pray went up from 18% in 2007 to 32%.

Even fewer American adults say that religion is very important in their lives: 41% in Pew’s latest survey as compared with 56% in 2007. The number who said that religion is “not too” or “not at all” important in their lives more than doubled in the same period, reaching a new high of 33% this year.

However, the nones offered some surprises on these same measures, with 13% reporting that they pray every day and another 16% saying they pray weekly or monthly.

“That’s about 3 in 10 of nones who pray somewhat regularly,” said Smith.

Additionally, 6% of nones said religion is very important in their lives and 15% reported that religion is somewhat important to them.

While nones are “far less religious than people who identify with a religion,” Smith said, the numbers remind us that the group is not a monolith composed solely of atheists and agnostics.

And though Christianity seems to be on the decline in America, Smith said, “We should not lose sight of the fact that even despite these secularizing trends, the U.S. remains a very religious place. Most Americans identify with a religion, primarily Christianity.”

Faith

How to combat antisemitism in your office

Faith

Elder Jeffrey R. Holland: How 2 car accidents demonstrate the power of forgiveness, faith

Utah

Utah celebrates Martin Luther King Jr. Day; President Nelson issues call to 'abandon prejudice'

View all stories in Faith