True and Useful Generalizations About U.S. Religion in 1000 Words or Less

Before I began my previous post, I imagined a quick introduction to set up a lightly edited version of notes that I prepared for the student reporter whom I mentioned. Ironically—or is that “symptomatically? “pathetically?”—by the time I finished, it was already long enough for a full post, although it was about pressure for concision.

Before this gets too long, let’s get to the notes. As I said last time, I did not manage to shrink them to a sound-bite, but I feel good about them as brief talking points on a complex subject– nervous as I am about oversimplification. If you want documentation on these assertions, I back them up here in a way that is concise by book standards.

Notes for the Daily Beacon on Religious Trends

You ask about trends in Tennessee religion, with special reference to denominations. I would make four key points.

First, sorting by denomination is not always the best way to structure maps, for two reasons. (A) Often the important parts of “religion” are not denominational. For example, there is a trend among young people to be “spiritual but not religious.” Also, thinking in terms of denominations does not always make sense for non-Christian traditions (a minority of US religions but a large one!). All this is before we start debating how to define religion—which might generate ideas like “the real religions of Tennessee are football and shopping.”  (B) Also, denominations have internal splits on the issues that people care about: for example, they fought on both sides of the Civil War, and are bitterly divided about LGBTQ rights, the morality of cowboy capitalism, and whether to be “fundamentalist.” Most big denominations have conservative and liberal wings that hate each other. So it may be more important to focus on conservative vs. liberal wings of, say, Methodists and Catholics together, rather than mapping all Methodists vs. all Catholics.

Second, insofar as we do want to sort by denomination—which is not all bad!—the way to start is (A) by distinguishing Catholics from offshoots in a “Protestant family” and (B) by race and ethnicity. Regarding race, most Protestants in the South have black and white variants of the traditions—for example white Pentecostals in the Assemblies of God and African American Pentecostals in the Church of God in Church. Historic schisms (some partly healed by now) mirror the Civil War. Catholics don’t have the same schisms, but they do have divides not solely among whites, blacks, and Latino/as, but also ethnic groups: Irish vs. Italian vs. German vs. Polish, etc. Historically the Irish have dominated white Catholicism and Latino/as are strongest among non-whites.

Thus a preliminary “rough sort” of denominations is into four quadrants: white Protestants, non-white (mainly black) Protestants, white Catholics, and non-white (mainly Latino/a) Catholics.

Third, if we are thinking about denominations in Tennessee in particular, then we obviously need to keep on noticing race.  But we also should think in terms of a Catholic minority (fairly weak historically especially compared to other parts of the country, but growing)—plus a whole bunch of Protestants who “protest” them. We then can sort Protestants on a continuum from moderate to radical protest. Some made extreme breaks with a Catholic system of formal liturgies and hierarchies of bishops. (Quakers, Baptists, and the Church of Christ moved furthest). Some (especially Episcopalians, to a lesser extent Lutherans) did not move very far. Presbyterians and Methodists are in the middle. However, this became very complicated over time, because Protestants also love to protest each other. A classic case is Methodists who started as a movement within the Episcopal church, but later broke away in protest—then after that had several internal schisms.

In different parts of the country, there are varying proportions of Catholics and Protestant groups. In most of the South, the top players are Protestant—Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists (the largest), and Pentecostals (the fastest growing).

We can also sort the Protestants, less by degree of break from Catholics, and more across a socio-economic hierarchy. Establishment denominations (especially Episcopalians who came as an arm of the British colonizing government, and sometimes Presbyterians) were historically at the top. At first the Baptists and Pentecostals were at the bottom—but that was long ago and now it is complicated because many have risen into the establishment. The old establishment still has weight if we count “one dollar one vote” or historic influence—but not so much if we count one person one vote. The further up the hierarchy we go, the less we have to think about white vs. non-white versions of denominational traditions. That’s not because race is less relevant, but simply because there are fewer elite African Americans. Across most social strata, de facto segregated denominations are the norm—especially for Baptists and Pentecostals. But there are not separate black and white Episcopalians or Presbyterians—except insofar as we think historically about black Methodists as an offshoot of Episcopalians.

Partly countervailing against all this splitting, there is a widely shared culture of evangelical revivalism. It stresses emotion-laden conversion to Jesus as “personal savior,” with common styles of preaching, singing, and moral teaching. That gives Methodists and Baptists (plus kindred groups including Restorationists and many Southern Presbyterians) family resemblances—even cutting across racial lines to some extent. Holiness and Pentecostal denominations started a little over 100 years ago as offshoots of this evangelical tradition. (Pentecostals stress healing and speaking in tongues; Baptists are standoffish there.)

Fourth, focusing on a Christian majority leaves out Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, flavors of new agers, neopagans, atheists/agnostics, and more. A ballpark estimate for this motley crew is 30% of the populace—half for “no religious preference” and half for all other non-Christians combined. These numbers are immensely slippery. Latter-Day Saints (Mormons) and Christian Scientists are tricky because they are self-described Christian but considered by most Christians to be separate religions. Unitarians are tricky because they started as a branch from Protestants, yet often self-describe as non-Christian. There are dozens of ambiguous cases that make counting schemes hazardous: Catholics who are also traditional Native Americans, Lutherans who are also New Agers, Jews who are also Buddhists, Christians and Jews who are also “secular” (this may include most of them by some definitions!), and much more.

Although there has been strong growth among non-Christians and secularists, our common wisdom quite often overestimates this, and conversely underplays the ongoing demographic strength of the various Christians. People who like to accent trends toward greater pluralism often resist what I just said, but the numbers don’t lie. Also, the cheerleaderish spin on growing “pluralism” is misleading if and when it comes bundled with a premise that the Christians are the conservative anti-pluralists, while non-Christians are the liberal “good guys.” If this shoe fits, wear it! Of course it often does. Still, this is a serious oversimplication. Many Christians are politically liberal, and a strong majority of the “pluralizing” new immigrants from Latin America and Asia are Christians. Meanwhile non-Christians are by no means always liberal and pluralist. For example, Republicans recruit many libertarian atheists and neoconservative Jews, and religious sexism comes in many flavors besides Christian ones.

MBE standard notice: The time I spend on this blog is not in addition to a Twitter and FaceBook presence, but an alternative to it.  If you think anything here merits wider circulation, this will probably only happen if you circulate it.

4 thoughts on “True and Useful Generalizations About U.S. Religion in 1000 Words or Less

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