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Experts know that American religion is rapidly changing. Congregations are shrinking. Religious disaffiliation is rising. Spiritual practices like yoga or meditation are playing a bigger role in people’s lives.

However, scholars often struggle to track these changes because they’re working with limited research tools. Few organizations conduct regular religion surveys. Fewer do them on a scale that’s large enough to offer state-level or county-level data.

PRRI broke the mold last week with its Census of American Religion, which offered a county-by-county look at religious trends. Researchers worked with six years of data, drawn from interviews with nearly 460,000 U.S. adults.

Reading through the report, I was struck by the complexity of America’s faith communities. It felt like I could look at the data 20 times and still find something new and surprising the 21st time I read through it.

Here are just a few of the findings that jumped out at me:

The rise of the ‘nones’ is slowing

One of the biggest religion stories in recent history is the surge in religious disaffiliation, also known as the rise of the nones.

From 2007 to 2018, the share of the U.S. population that does not identify with a faith group increased by 10 percentage points, from 16% to 26%.

In its new study, PRRI reported that this trend line has reversed course since 2018. In 2020, 23% of U.S. adults were religious nones, a 3 percentage point drop in two years.

Major political parties are becoming less Christian

Although the surge in disaffiliation is slowing, the share of nones in the Republican and Democratic parties is still much higher today than it was in the past.

In 2020, 23% of Democrats and 13% of Republicans identified as religiously unaffiliated. In 2006, those figures were 9% and 4%, respectively.

The parties’ shifting religious makeup holds the potential to ramp up political conflict in the coming years, as I recently reported. The Democratic Party, in particular, may struggle to balance the priorities of minority people of faith with the demands of young, mostly white religious nones.

Most faith groups are aging

Well, I guess we’re all aging. What I mean is that PRRI’s census shows the median age of most religious groups has increased since 2013.

For example, eight years ago, the median age of members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was 44. In 2020, the median age is 47, which is also the median age of the whole country. Over the same time period, the median age of Hindus jumped from 33 to 36.

As it stands today, “white evangelical Protestants are the old religious group in the U.S., with a median age of 56,” PRRI reported. Muslims (33) are the youngest.

Logan County, Illinois, is one-quarter white mainline Protestant

You might be thinking, “What does Logan County have to do with anything?” And that’s a fair reaction.

I’m bringing up the county I grew up in as a way to highlight the survey’s coolest feature: It offers a county-by-county look at religious affiliation.

Using some interactive graphics, I learned that Logan County is 25% white mainline Protestant, 38% white evangelical and 22% religiously unaffiliated.

With the help of PRRI’s county-specific data, my colleagues Trent Toone and Tad Walch wrote a fun article about the geographic spread of U.S. members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Fresh off the press

During a recent radio interview, I was asked to discuss whether legal experts treat religious objections to LGBTQ rights laws differently than religious objections to racial equality. The question caught me off guard, and I stumbled through my answer. The moment led me to pursue an article on the topic, which came out last week.

Term of the week: Composting

Composting is the increasingly popular practice of turning food scraps and other organic material, like dead leaves, into natural fertilizer. It’s done by collecting your compost — the banana peels, corn husks, weeds, etc. — in a pile or bin and adding water as needed. (This explainer from the Environmental Protection Agency offers a more in-depth guide.)

In recent years, some states have legalized human composting as an alternative to traditional burial or cremation. Human composting is the process by which human remains are broken down into rich, fertile soil.

Religion News Service reported on human composting last week in a story exploring the Catholic Church’s opposition to the practice. Catholic leaders claim that human compositing does not show “respect for the body of the deceased,” the article noted.

What I’m reading...

In 2017, a gunman walked into a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, and opened fire, killing more than two dozen worshippers and injuring others. This week, a Texas judge ruled that the Air Force was largely to blame for the event, since it failed to report the shooter’s criminal history to a database used to prevent violent offenders from buying guns, according to The Associated Press.

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Pew Research Center released a new analysis last week exploring what pastors said about racism, voting rights, the COVID-19 pandemic and other hot topics in their sermons last fall. Among other findings, the study reported that Catholics were less likely to hear about the 2020 election from the pulpit than other Christians.

Tuesday, July 6, marked six months since a protest at the U.S. Capitol turned ugly when participants stormed the building. The Washington Post recently released an in-depth analysis of the role religion played in riot.

Odds and ends

The International Religious Freedom Summit, co-chaired by former religious freedom ambassador Sam Brownback, kicks off Tuesday in Washington, D.C. In May, I spoke with Brownback about his goals for the event.

Do you have any story ideas related to religion and the Olympics? I’d love to hear them.

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