Americans are changing their minds often when it comes to religious affiliation. That’s according to a recent survey by the Pew Forum on Faith and Religious Life. The survey, titled “Faith in Flux” confirms what religious experts have long suspected, that religious life in the U.S. is in an unprecedented state of fluidity.
In addition to the steady decline in mainline Protestant churches over the past two decades, as well as a decline in Catholic membership, the study shows there’s significant “churn” in today’s religious demographic.
Nearly half of U.S. adults have changed their religious affiliation from that in which they were raised. That number reflects both those who have changed from one major religious tradition to another, like from Protestantism to Catholicism, as well as from one Protestant denomination to another. It also reflects those who have walked away from organized religion completely. The reasons people gave for changing revealed a lot about how Americans think in what’s been called a postmodern, post-denominational world.
According to the survey, people who made a major shift cited weighty, theological reasons. For example, 71 percent of those who converted from Catholicism to Protestantism said their spiritual needs were not being met.
Such was the case for Carol Hovland of Union County. A California native, Hovland was raised Catholic and was very involved in the church as a teenager.
Two years ago Hovland and her husband, Scott, who was raised Lutheran, began to feel disenchanted with Catholicism. Carol, whose father was Baptist, felt drawn to “a simpler, Bible-based form of worship.”
“We’ve always lived our lives simply,” said Hovland. “The Catholic Church began to feel like a huge production to us.” Today the Hovlands and their two children attend a Southern Baptist church and say they’re very happy.
As with the Hovlands, the survey also showed that people who change their religious affiliation tend to do so more than once.
The Rev. James Hull has shifted denominations three times in his 56 years. Raised in the Baptist Church, Hull joined the historically black Church of God in Christ as a teenager. Like many young blacks in the 60s, Hull’s increasing awareness of his racial identity and interest in the civil rights movement led him to join the Islamic faith when he was 15.
“I was angry with whites and the nation was preaching black self-sufficiency and rebellion from oppression. At the time that message resonated strongly with me,” said Hull. He cut ties with Islam when he was 35, completely re-affirming his commitment to Christianity and today he’s a Baptist minister. The reason, he said, was strongly theological.
“I came to a different understanding of salvation and where my soul would spend eternity,” said Hull.
Another reason people shift religious affiliation is because of lifestyle changes. Nearly four-in-ten people who switched to a different Protestant denomination said they did so not because of theological reasons but because another church presented a better fit for their life.
Charles and Betty Reece of Tupelo don’t exactly fit that category, but their experience reflects the kind of compromise approach cited by people in the survey. Charles and Betty were each happy in their respective traditions: Charles was raised Catholic and Betty, Presbyterian.
When the couple decided to marry they felt pressured from family members to choose one tradition or the other. As newlyweds they attended their respective churches but when they started having children Charles felt it was time to bring everybody together under one roof. In 1970 Charles converted to Presbyterianism and says the switch has been nothing but positive.
“I still love the Catholic Church and have many friends there,” said Charles whose grown children are now Methodist and Presbyterian. He said that in his household denominational affiliation doesn’t mean as much as family togetherness and he’s confident he made the right decision.
“We all worship the same God,” said Charles. “It’s just a matter of ritualistic differences.”
That kind of broad, fluid approach is becoming the norm these days. According to the Rev. Rick Brooks, pastor of St. Luke United Methodist Church in Tupelo, the trend started with his baby boom generation.
“Especially in the South, people have traditionally seen their denominational identity as a big part of who they are,” said Brooks. “But, I’d say that, even within my generation, I’ve seen that ebb a bit, and it’s very evident in young people today.” The Pew survey revealed that people who change their affiliation usually do so before the age of 24.
The Rev. Forrest Sheffiled, pastor of Harrisburg Baptist Church, has served 40 years as a pastor. He said he sees good things in the modern tendency to broaden one’s perspective, but he worries that some of the unique characteristics of specific denominations might be lost in the process.
“Perhaps there’s a little less loyalty today, a tendency to approach religion as a marketplace,” said Sheffield, adding that churches sometimes fall into the trap of trying too hard to attract members. Sheffield said that particularly within the Southern Baptist denomination, the tendency of members to drift, or not to identify themselves with the denomination, bleeds support and financing away from important projects, like missions.
The fastest growing demographic according to the survey are those unaffiliated with any religious tradition. Those might include people who’ve been raised in a faith but for some reason walked away. Jim High of Tupelo was raised Methodist but today, although he’s still officially a member, he doesn’t attend services and his heart hasn’t been in it for some time.
High’s experience differs from most of those whom the study identified as unaffiliated. They generally gave emotional and personal reasons for leaving their faith, such as they found religious people hypocritical and insincere. High still attends religious education classes but he’s become disillusioned with aspects of Christianity he feels are antithetical to science.
He and a handful of others have recently started chapter of South Points Association for Exploring Religion. The SPAFER group, which meets once a month, is composed of former and current Methodists, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Baptists and Unitarian Universalists.
True to the findings of the survey, these unaffiliated folks are diverse and, although few of them still attend church services, they are spiritually very much engaged.
“We place a lot of emphasis on broadening our understanding of the world,” said High. “We’re focused on understanding humanity, scholarship and the growth of human intelligence.”
High said his group has grown tired of what they see as an overly dogmatic, myopic Christianity that assaults the reason of thinking people.
Sheffield at Harrisburg said he understands the frustration of people like High, but he’s encouraged that Christians are increasingly willing to cross denominational lines to address common issues.
“Traditional marriage, gambling, abortion and the abuse of alcohol are some areas where people of faith have really found common ground,” said Sheffiled. “I’m a proud Baptist, and I couldn’t be anything else, but there are areas where we can work together without switching from one camp to the other.”
Contact Daily Journal religion editor Galen Holley at 678-1510 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Galen Holley/NEMS Daily Journal