Research for my new book “God Is Alive and Well: The Future of Religion in America” documents the degree to which religion retains a strong presence in the U.S. today, at least as far as we can tell from Americans’ responses to survey questions. More than nine in 10 Americans believe in God. Seven in 10 are at least “moderately” religious based on self-reports of church attendance and importance of religion. Six in 10 say that religion is important in their daily lives, and 52 percent attend church at least monthly. More than eight in 10 identify with a religious faith. Religion remains a very strong predictor of political orientation and candidate choice in the political arena and is a substantial driver of position on many policy issues. Almost half of the reasons that Americans who oppose same-sex marriage give for their stance, for example, have a religious or biblical basis.
All of this apparently comes as a revelation to some. A young male television interviewer in New York City said to me during a recent interview that very few of his friends turned to religion for answers to life’s problems. This is not an unexpected viewpoint given his demographic and geographic position. Being young and male and living in New York City correlates with significantly lower probabilities of being religious than, for example, being older and female and living in Mississippi.
The potential religious energy in the U.S. in fact translates into kinetic energy quite disproportionately across population segments. Women are more religious than men, older Americans are more religious than younger Americans, blacks and Hispanics are more religious than whites, Mormons are more religious than Jews, Alabamans are more religious than Vermonters, married Americans are more religious than those who are single or living in domestic partnerships, Americans with children are more religious than those of the same age without children, and Republicans are more religious than Democrats. These are highly regular and reproducible patterns.
These patterns are not standing still, however. America’s older population is going to double in size over the next 20 years. If history reproduces itself, these aging baby boomers are going to become more religious as they grow older, tilting America in a more religious direction. The Hispanic population is growing, affecting both religiousness overall and the continuing strength of the Catholic Church. Americans have been moving to states with populations that are more religious than average, which could affect the religion of those migrating into those states. Democrats — heretofore “missing in action” on the religious front — may gear up to compete for highly religious voters rather than abandoning them to the GOP. On the other hand, the nation’s fertility rate is down, which could stall the natural religious progression of the younger generation as it moves into its 30s and 40s.
Americans, particularly the baby boom generation, will almost certainly be looking for new ways to maintain or improve their wellbeing and health in the years ahead. An increased recognition of the well-documented relationship between religion and favorable health and wellbeing outcomes could augur an increased interest in religion for its personal value.
One of the signature characteristics of the highly differentiated American religious landscape is its ability to morph and change with the times — something that distinguishes it from religion in Europe. We are already seeing a significant increase in “unbranded” religion in America. An increased percentage of Americans don’t have a specific religious identity, and more Americans identify as “Christian” rather than with a specific Protestant denomination. These changes have been accompanied by a significant increase in the number of nondenominational churches across the country, while mainline Protestant denominations fade in importance.
It is increasingly likely that other changes in the practice of religion and spirituality among Americans will spring up in the years ahead. These changes don’t mean that religion as a whole is becoming less relevant, only different. Religion remains a fundamentally potent and prevalent force in American society today — and one that is likely to remain so in the years ahead.