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

When I began my previous post, I imagined a short and sweet introduction to set up a lightly edited version of notes that I prepared for the student reporter whom I mentioned. Ironically—or is a better word “symptomatically? “pathetically?”—by the time I finished this introduction, it was already longish as an entire post, even though its subject concerned trade-offs caused by pressure for concision.

Before this introduction gets too long, here are the notes. As I said before, I did not manage to shrink them to sound-bite length, but I feel pretty good about them as brief talking points on a complex subject. I hope they do some good, nervous as I am about oversimplification. If you want documentation or expansion 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 mapping trends in Tennessee religion, with special reference to denominations. I would make four main points.

First, sorting by denomination is not always the best way to structure maps, for two reasons. (A) Often the most important parts of “religion” are not denominational in the first place. 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) Most large denominations have internal splits on issues that people care about: for example they fought on both sides of the Civil War, and are bitterly divided about things like LGBTQ rights, the morality of cowboy capitalism, or whether to be “fundamentalist.” Most big denominations have conservative and liberal wings that hate each other. Thus it may be more important to focus on the conservative vs. liberal wings of, say, Methodists and Catholics together, than to map blocs of all Methodists vs. all Catholics.

Second, insofar as we want to sort by denomination, the way to start is (A) by distinguishing Catholics from offshoots in a “Protestantism family” and (B) by race and ethnicity. Regarding race, most Protestants in the South have black and white versions of their 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 these schisms but do have divides not solely among whites, blacks, and Latino/as, but also ethnic groups (Irish/Italian/German/Polish/etc). Historically the Irish have been dominant in white Catholicism and Latino/as are strongest among non-whites. So a preliminary “rough sort” is into four quadrants: white Protestants, non-white (mainly black) Protestants, white Catholics, non-white (mainly Latino/a) Catholics.

Third, if we are thinking about denominations in Tennessee, then keep on noticing race, but also think about a Catholic minority (fairly weak historically, but growing)—plus a whole bunch of Protestants who “protest” them. Sort the 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 extremely complicated over time, because Protestants love to protest each other. A classic case is Methodists who started as a movement within Episcopalians but broke away in protest—and after that had a bunch of 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 Protestants, not by their distance from Catholics, but across a socio-economic hierarchy. Older establishment denominations (especially Episcopalians who came as an arm of British colonies, and sometimes Presbyterians) were historically at the top. Baptists and Pentecostals were at the bottom at the start—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; there are simply fewer elite African Americans. Across most social strata, de facto segregated denominations are the norm—especially for Baptists and Pentecostals, to a lesser extent for Methodists. 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 growth among non-Christians and secularists, our common wisdom overestimates this; conversely we underplay the ongoing demographic strength of the various Christians. People who like to accent change toward greater pluralism often resist what I just said—but this pro-pluralist spin can be misleading if it comes bundled with a premise that the Christians are the conservative anti-pluralists and non-Christians are the liberal “good guys.” If this shoe fits, wear it–but it’s usually a lot more complicated. Many Christians are politically liberal, and much new immigration from Latin America and Asia is Christian. Meanwhile non-Christians are by no means always liberal and pluralist. For example, Republicans recruit many Mormons and libertarian atheists, and religious sexism does not only come in Christian flavors.



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