Catholic intensity fades as evangelical devotion surges

After November’s presidential vote, Catholics could cite ample evidence for their renewed political relevance while dispirited evangelicals were left wondering … Continued

After November’s presidential vote, Catholics could cite ample evidence for their renewed political relevance while dispirited evangelicals were left wondering if they are destined to be yesterday’s election news. Yet their roles in American spiritual life may be reversed.

New research shows that Catholics now report the lowest proportion of “strongly affiliated” followers among major American religious traditions, while the data indicates that evangelicals are increasingly devout and committed to their faith.

According to Philip Schwadel, a sociologist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, in the 1970s there was only a five-point difference between how strongly Catholics and evangelicals felt about their religion.

By 2010, he said, that “intensity gap” had grown to around 20 points, with some 56 percent of evangelicals describing themselves as “strongly affiliated” with their religion compared with 35 percent of Catholics. Even mainline Protestants reported a higher level of religious intensity than Catholics, at 39 percent.

“Sociologists have been writing about declines in mainline Protestantism for the last few decades,” said Schwadel, who details his findings in an article to be published in the upcoming edition of the journal Sociology of Religion. “The tremendous decline in Catholics’ strength of affiliation, though, was somewhat surprising.”

Exactly why these changes have been occurring is a matter of conjecture.

Schwadel noted that the decline in religious enthusiasm among Catholics began in the mid-1980s, and that coincided with the first revelations about the sexual abuse of children by clergy — a scandal that has haunted the church ever since.

Moreover, Latino Catholics are less likely to report a strong religious affiliation compared with other Catholics, and the number of Latino Catholics in the U.S. has been growing steadily in past decades.

At the same time, Schwadel noted that the surge in evangelical devotion to their faith began in the early 1990s and coincided with their growing presence in the public square. Other experts have noted that political battles can rally the faithful of a particular religious community, and even political losses can unite them in a shared sense of exile.

The changes in religious intensity that Schwadel found in particular religious groups contrasts with an overall stability in Americans’ religious views. Since the 1970s, about 37 percent of Americans have described themselves as “strongly affiliated” with their religion, with a brief spike to a high of 43 percent in the mid-1980s.

Among his other findings, Schwadel showed that African-American Protestants report a religious intensity level similar to that of white evangelicals — about 57 percent in 2010.

Schwadel did find one possible bright spot for Catholic leaders: Despite the steady erosion in the strength of religious affiliation among Catholics, it did not necessarily correlate to a decline in Mass attendance by younger Catholics.

“That could be seen as good news and bad news for the Catholic Church,” Schwadel said. “Younger Catholics are not being driven away from going to church, but they do still feel less strongly committed to their religion than they did a few decades ago.”

Schwadel culled the data for his report from nearly 40,000 responses to the General Social Survey from 1974-2010.

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  • amelia45

    For Catholics, it isn’t just the sex abuse scandal, although that is important. It is also Humanae Vitae on birth control, the priest shortage, the school closings, the decline in the number of vowed religious. There really is a cultural change happening in the U.S., and maybe elsewhere, over what it is to be Catholic and to live as a Catholic.

    Lately, the Church has turned to even more dogmatism, silencing of voices who bring new and different ideas about God in the world, the abuse of the ideals of “religious freedom” that turns it into religious tyranny, and the recent appalling intrusion of the Catholic bishops into how Catholics should act as citizens by telling them how to vote, the young boy refused confirmation for affirming the civil right of gays to marry.

    Despite all they have tried to do, Catholics still supported president Obama in the election, still support having contraceptives in health insurance, support gay marriage, and, surprising to me, almost half support keeping abortion legal, at least in some cases.

    Catholic voters, apparently, live in a different world than Catholic bishops. Earth calling Mars!

  • tieege

    I affirm your thoughts Amelia. I have been working in Catholic Parishes since the mid-70’s, the Church who invited me to ministry in the Spirit of the Second Vatican Council, invited me share my gifts and talents, is no longer intested in collegiality. The report above is absolutely “no surprise”. Young people continue to come, but not weekly, are not fed spiritually, given answers to questions they’re not asking, going because their parents drag them (there is a small percentage of youth that come willinging, and enjoy the liturgy). Our grade school graduates 80 8th graders each year. Your blessed if you see 10% of those students after they are Confirmed. Youth and Young adults are watching and listening; they witnessed the leadership of the Catholic Church during this election season. I can assure you, they will refer to these memories in the future when deciding upon the role of religion and spirituality in their individual lives.

  • one nation

    The youth of today will not accept the old ways of the hell, fire and damnation indoctrination of the RCC that the old and past where brought up with and when the youth of today are adults, they will not fully agree with the teachings of the RCC and or of this administration trying to turn the clock back to preVatican II ways of control. Most of todays RCs do not fully agree with the RCC teachings that they know and do not agree with the RCC administration speaking on political matters as well as telling the membership how to vote directly or indirectly. The RCC should comply with the words of the good late Cardinal Martini and end their pompous behavior as well.