America’s Changing Religious Identity

29 September 2017

We know September as the month of change. It brings the autumn equinox in the Northern Hemisphere and the vernal equinox in the Southern Hemisphere. As we move beyond September 2017, this week end, however, I have some thoughts about the tremendous socio-religions changes in the United States. Depending on one’s perspective, the good old days are gone forever. 

According to Daniel Cox and Robert P. Jones, from the Public Religion Research Institute, the religious landscape in the United States is undergoing a truly dramatic transformation.  

Among the major findings: 

1. White Christians now account for less than half of the USA public. Today, only 43% of Americans identify as white and Christian, and only 30% as white and Protestant. In 1976, roughly eight in ten (81%) Americans identified as white and identified with a Christian denomination, and a majority (55%) were white Protestants. 

2. White evangelical Protestants are in decline—along with white mainline Protestants and white Roman Catholics. White evangelical Protestants were once thought to be bucking a longer trend, but over the past decade their numbers have dropped substantially. Fewer than one in five (17%) Americans are white evangelical Protestant, but they accounted for nearly one-quarter (23%) in 2006. Over the same period, white Catholics dropped five percentage points from 16% to 11%, as have white mainline Protestants, from 18% to 13%. 

3. Non-Christian religious groups are growing, but they still represent less than one in ten Americans combined. Jewish Americans constitute 2% of the public while Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus each constitute only 1% of the public. All other non-Christian religions constitute an additional 1%. 

4. America’s youngest religious groups are all non-Christian. Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists are all far younger than white Christian groups. At least one-third of Muslims (42%), Hindus (36%), and Buddhists (35%) are under the age of 30. Roughly one-third (34%) of religiously unaffiliated Americans are also under 30. In contrast, white Christian groups are aging. Slightly more than one in ten white Catholics (11%), white evangelical Protestants (11%), and white mainline Protestants (14%) are under 30. Approximately six in ten white evangelical Protestants (62%), white Catholics (62%), and white mainline Protestants (59%) are at least 50 years old. 

5. The Roman Catholic Church is experiencing an ethnic transformation. Twenty-five years ago, nearly nine in ten (87%) Catholics were white, non-Hispanic, compared to 55% today. Fewer than four in ten (36%) Catholics under the age of 30 are white, non-Hispanic; 52% are Hispanic. 

6. Atheists and agnostics account for a minority of all religiously unaffiliated. Most are secular. Atheists and agnostics account for only about one-quarter (27%) of all religiously unaffiliated Americans. Nearly six in ten (58%) religiously unaffiliated Americans identify as secular, someone who is not religious; 16% of religiously unaffiliated Americans nonetheless report that they identify as a “religious person.” 

7. There are 20 states in which no religious group comprises a greater share of residents than the religiously unaffiliated. These states tend to be more concentrated in the Western U.S., although they include a couple of New England states, as well. More than four in ten (41%) residents of Vermont and approximately one-third of Americans in Oregon (36%), Washington (35%), Hawaii (34%), Colorado (33%), and New Hampshire (33%) are religiously unaffiliated. 

8. No state is less religiously diverse than Mississippi. The state is heavily Protestant and dominated by a single denomination: Baptist. Six in ten (60%) Protestants in Mississippi are Baptist. No state has a greater degree of religious diversity than New York.  

9. The cultural center of the Roman Catholic Church is shifting south. The Northeast is no longer the epicenter of American Catholicism—although at 41% Catholic, Rhode Island remains the most Catholic state in the country. Immigration from predominantly Catholic countries in Latin America means new Catholic populations are settling in the Southwest. In 1972, roughly seven in ten Catholics lived in either the Northeast (41%) or the Midwest (28%). Only about one-third of Catholics lived in the South (13%) or West (18%). Today, a majority of Catholics now reside in the South (29%) or West (25%). Currently, only about one-quarter (26%) of the U.S. Catholic population lives in the Northeast, and 20% live in the Midwest. 

10. Jews, Hindus, and Unitarian-Universalists stand out as the most educated groups in the American religious landscape. More than one-third of Jews (34%), Hindus (38%), and Unitarian-Universalists (43%) hold post-graduate degrees. Notably, Muslims are significantly more likely than white evangelical Protestants to have at least a four-year college degree (33% vs. 25%, respectively). 

11. Asian or Pacific-Islander Americans have a significantly different religious profile than other racial or ethnic groups. There are as many Asian or Pacific-Islander Americans affiliated with non-Christian religions as with Christian religious groups. And one-third (34%) are religiously unaffiliated. 

12. Nearly half of LGBT Americans are religiously unaffiliated. Nearly half (46%) of Americans who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT) are religiously unaffiliated. This is roughly twice the number of Americans overall (24%) who are religiously unaffiliated. 

13. White Christians have become a minority in the Democratic Party. Fewer than one in three (29%) Democrats today are white Christian, compared to half (50%) one decade earlier. Only 14% of young Democrats (age 18 to 29) identify as white Christian. Forty percent identify as religiously unaffiliated. 

14. White evangelical Protestants remain the dominant religious force in the GOP. More than one-third (35%) of all Republicans identify as white evangelical Protestant, a proportion that has remained roughly stable over the past decade. Roughly three-quarters (73%) of Republicans belong to a white Christian religious group. 

More information here:

Yes “the times they are a changing.”


At the United Nations: A Bit of History 

21 September 2017

I remember the event. I had just arrived in Belgium to begin my studies at the Catholic University of Louvain. Pope Paul VI had arrived in New York, to address the United Nations. It was Monday, October 4, 1965. Gathered with my US classmates at The American College of Louvain, we watched the pope, speaking in French, on a small black and white TV with an occasionally flickering screen, because the rabbit ears were not working that well. Here, in English translation, are some excerpts from that historic address, because I believe they truly have contemporary significance:

Pope Paul VI at the United Nations

As I begin to speak to this audience that is unique in the whole world, I must first of all express my profound thanks to Mr. Thant, your Secretary General, who was kind enough to invite me to pay a visit to the United Nations on the occasion of the twentieth anniversary of this world institution for peace and collaboration between the nations of the whole world…. This gathering, as you are all aware, has a twofold nature: it is marked at one and the same time by simplicity and by greatness. By simplicity because the one who is speaking to you is a man like yourselves. He is your brother, and even one of the least among you who represent sovereign States, since he possesses – if you choose to consider it from this point of view – only a tiny and practically symbolic temporal sovereignty: the minimum needed in order to be free to exercise his spiritual mission and to assure those who deal with him that he is independent of any sovereignty of this world….   

Permit me to say that I have a message, and a happy one, to hand over to each one of you My message is meant to be first of all a solemn moral ratification of this lofty institution, and it comes from my experience of history. It is as an “expert on humanity” that I bring this organization the support and approval of my recent predecessors, that of the Catholic hierarchy, and my own, convinced as I am that this organization represents the obligatory path of modern civilization and world peace. 

In saying this, I am aware that I am speaking for the dead as well as for the living: for the dead who have fallen in the terrible wars of the past, dreaming of world peace and harmony; for the living who have survived the wars and who in their hearts condemn in advance those who would try to have them repeated; for other living people, as well: today’s younger generation who are moving ahead trustfully with every right to expect a better humankind.  

I also want to speak for the poor, the disinherited, the unfortunate, those who long for justice, a dignified life, liberty, prosperity and progress. People turn to the United Nations as if it were their last hope for peace and harmony.  

I presume to bring here their tribute of honor and of hope along with my own. That is why this moment is a great one for you too. I know that you are fully aware of this. So, listen now to the rest of my message, which is directed completely towards the future.  

This edifice that you have built must never again fall into ruins: it must be improved upon and adapted to the demands which the history of the world will make upon it. You mark a stage in the development of humankind. Henceforth, it is impossible to go back; you must go forward. 

You offer the many states  which can no longer ignore each other a form of coexistence that is extremely simple and fruitful. First of all, you recognize them and distinguish them from each other. Now you certainly do not confer existence on states, but you do qualify each nation as worthy of being seated in the orderly assembly of peoples. You confer recognition of lofty moral and juridical value upon each sovereign national community and you guarantee it an honorable international citizenship. It is in itself a great service to the cause of humanity to define clearly and honor the nations that are the subjects of the world community and to set them up in a juridical position which wins them the recognition and respect of all, and which can serve as the basis for an orderly and stable system of international life.  

You sanction the great principle that relationships between nations must be regulated by reason, justice, law and negotiation, and not by force, violence, war, nor indeed by fear and deceit…. 

Here my message reaches its culmination…. These are the words you are looking for me to say and the words I cannot utter without feeling aware of their seriousness and solemnity: never again one against the other, never, never again! Was not this the very end for which the United Nations came into existence: to be against war and for peace? Listen to the clear words of a great man who is no longer with us, John Kennedy, who proclaimed four years ago: Humans must put an end to war, or war will put an end to humanity. There is no need for a long talk to proclaim the main purpose of your institution. It is enough to recall that the blood of millions, countless unheard-of sufferings, useless massacres and frightening ruins have sanctioned the agreement that unites you with an oath that ought to change the future history of the world: never again war, never again war! It is peace, peace, that must guide the destiny of the nations of all humankind! 

Selective Christianity

15 September 2017

Selective Christianity is seductively attractive because it offers simple answers for complex questions, comforts the anxious without dealing with their anxieties, and equates fidelity to Christ with unquestioned obedience to doctrinaire spokespersons.  

Selective Christianity is a kind of pick-and-choose religion that makes people feel good by looking at life with a kind of self-stroking barrel vision. In the old days it was called heresy. The word “heresy” comes from the Greek word hairetikos meaning “choice.” Heresies are always a selective choice. They take one part of a reality and proclaim it as the whole thing. The old Christological heresies, for example, either denied Christ’s divinity (as in Arianism and Nestorianism) or denied his humanity (as in Docetism and Marcionism). The orthodox Christian understanding of course is that Jesus Christ is human and divine.  And believers in every age ponder how to best understand and express this reality…

These days I prefer the term “selective Christianity.” People select what they like to hear and what makes them feel good and important. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran minister whom the Nazis executed by hanging on 9 April 1945, would have called it “cheap grace.”  

Selective Christianity is powerful reality in contemporary America and found among Catholics as well as Protestants….and among Republicans as well as Democrats. I guess it is not surprising that, in a time of great socio-cultural polarization, we see increased Christian polarization and unhealthy distortion and disturbances in contemporary Christianity. I resonate strongly with the recent observation of the “progressive evangelical” David Gushee, who is Director of the Center for Faith and Public Life at Mercer University in Macon, Georgia: 

“American Christians are as hopelessly divided as the rest of American culture, these conflicts are rooted in fundamentally different perspectives on the massive social changes that have taken place in our country since the 1960s, and there is little evidence that the fight will end anytime soon. This capitulation to America’s “red” and “blue,” and the vicious conflict between them, marks a profound failure of American Christianity, reflecting weaknesses in our identity and theology that require serious reflection.” 

Evangelist Franklin Graham, son of Billy Graham, is a case in point and high on my list of unhealthy selective Christians. He distorts the Gospel by equating far-right US politics with God’s will for America. Graham sees a “satanic liberal conspiracy” that is working against President Trump. In an interview with Charisma magazine at the end of August, Graham junior proclaimed: “Trump has the might of God behind him and liberals will be hit by thunderbolts if they try to remove him.” In sync with Franklin, televangelist Paula White, one of President Trump’s key spiritual advisers, has now declared that opposition to the president is opposition to God. This is not just selective Christianity. It is perverted Christianity.  

While Franklin warns of heavenly thunderbolts, his sister, Anne Graham Lotz, warns that God is punishing and speaking to America through record-breaking fires in the northwest, hurricanes in Texas and Florida, and even the earthquake in Mexico. According to Anne, God is punishing the United States for permissive homosexuality and transgender “silliness.” Earlier in August she had warned that the solar eclipse of August 21st was God’s early warning sign to Americans about impending disaster and destruction. 

Minister Kevin Swanson, a Christian broadcaster from Colorado, said Houston had sinned by having a “very, very aggressively pro-homosexual mayor.” He told his radio audience “Jesus sends the message home, unless Americans repent, unless Houston repents, unless New Orleans repents, they will all likewise perish.” His comments came just a few days after Christian radio personality Rick Wiles linked Houston’s progressive sexual attitudes with the storm. “Here’s a city that has boasted of its LGBT devotion, its affinity for the sexual perversion movement in America,” he said, and then he added: “They’re underwater.” 

Actually the idea of a punishing and vengeful God is nothing new in America. The Puritans brought it with them in the eighteenth century. Jonathan Edwards’ 1741 sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” simply reaffirmed it. Can a vengeful God however be reconciled with the life and teaching of Jesus, who constantly reaffirmed God as “abba” his loving father? A vindictive and vengeful God, sending destructive storms, is a selective Christian aberration.  

From a vindictive, hard-nosed, and angry god one moves easily to vindictive, hard-nosed, and angry people. People perceived as enemies of the “faithful” become God’s enemies and should be irradiated. We saw it a month ago in Charlottesville, but we see it in our daily news as well. The list of enemies is long: blacks, gays, “liberals,” “bad hombre” Mexicans, foreigners in general, Jews, Muslims, “intellectuals,” “losers” and other “lazy bums”…..The vindictive thrive on a warped version of Christianity. They create division and destruction in the family of God. Their in-group love thrives on out-group hatred. Sin becomes virtue. When this happens, we are approaching what happened in Nazi Germany in the 1930s.  

What to do? 

All — which includes you and me of course — who strongly profess to be Christian have to examine their consciences about their beliefs and actions. To what degree are they consistent with the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth? We also need to be critical and dialogical bridge-builders: to enter into serious head-the-head, eye-to-eye, and heart-to-hear dialogue with other Christians about our understanding of the Gospel and how it challenges us to speak and behave in contemporary society. 

Some observations for reflection and dialogue: 

(1) Caesaropapism: This is an exaggerated political understanding which sees the head of state as the key religious leader: God’s spokesperson. Variations on the theme are that the United States is (or should be) a Christian theocracy, or even a “white Christian America.” Perhaps the “America first” doctrine is pernicious and anti-Christian because it really asks Americans to replace worship of God with worship of the nation?

(2) A conflictual relationship between science and faith: This is a false conflict actually, because both science and faith pursue ultimate truth. Red flags begin to wave however when religious leaders begin to warn about the dangers of asking questions about God, Reality, and human nature. Our theological and ethical understandings do change and evolve – along with our understanding of what it means that be a human person with dignity and self-worth, regardless of race or gender.

(3) A conflict between a literal and an historical-critical understanding of Sacred Scripture: One of my favorite biblical scholars, John Dominic Crossan, summed it up this way: “My point, once again, is not that those ancient people told literal stories and we are now smart enough to take them symbolically, but that they told them symbolically and we are now dumb enough to take them literally.”

(4) Being pro-life: Being “pro-life” means being opposed to abortion but much more. Doesn’t being “pro-life” demand a consistent-ethic-of-life morality? For years I have been amazed by those once active anti-abortion pro-life people who seem to ignore human life once the fetus becomes a baby, a child dying of hunger, an impoverished person, the poor, the unemployed, even the criminal awaiting execution on death row. I agree wth Chicago’s Cardinal Blase Cupich that being pro-life also means being pro-gun-control. Taking effect yesterday, Cardinal Cupich has issued a decree banning guns in all parishes, schools and other facilities across the Archdiocese of Chicago. Anyone found with a gun on archdiocesan property will be asked to remove it from the premises and will not be allowed to return until it’s gone. Clergy and Catholic institution staff members will also face disciplinary action if they fail to comply with Cupich’s directive.

(5) Taking the Incarnation seriously in today’s world: The Incarnation means that God is with us in our humanity — everyone’s humanity: black, white, every culture, every religion, every race and nationality. It is God’s amazing grace. Once we really begin to appreciate what this means and what it asks of us, we can all chant the lyrics of the old song: “I once was lost but now am found,
was blind, but now I see.” 

Hurricanes and Forest Fires

9 September 2017

Like so many people, my attention and my concern this week end goes out to all those people affected – and soon to be affected – by hurricanes and continuing forest fires. What do we say and do, when bad things happen?
Right now I am in more of a contemplative than a writing mood. I too have family and friends affected by this week end’s developments.

In 1981 the prominent American rabbi, Harold S. Kushner, published a book titled “When Bad Things Happen to Good People.” The book deals with questions about human suffering, God, omnipotence, and a contemporary theology. Perhaps next week I will explore a bit more of his thinking; but today I would like share a couple quotations that have helped me and kept me going over the years: 

God does not cause our misfortunes. Some are caused by bad luck, some are caused by bad people, and some are simply an inevitable consequence of our being human and being mortal. living in a world of inflexible natural laws.  

The painful things that happen to us are not punishments for our misbehavior, nor are they in any way part of some grand design on God’s part. Because the tragedy is not God’s will, we need not feel hurt or betrayed by God when tragedy strikes….. Given the unfairness that strikes so many people in life, I would rather believe in a God of limited power and unlimited love and justice, rather than the other way around.

One of the basic needs of every human being is the need to be loved, to have our wishes and feelings taken seriously, to be validated as people who matter.

Global Change: More Thoughts

Labor Day Week End – 3 September 2017

A few readers have asked me to briefly expand on my “Silk Road” and global change thoughts from last week. You can call today’s essay something for post Labor Day reflection……I am an historical theologian, not a political scientist. Nevertheless, I do try to stay alert to the ever changing world around us, because that is our Reality — the only place where we encounter God, the Spirit of Christ, and our ongoing Christian challenge. 

A New Silk Road?

What I found fascinating in Peter Frankopan’s book was: (1) his survey of past civilizations and the trade routes that brought them to power, and (2) his projections about a new global trade route and the contemporary shift in economic and political power from the West to the East.

Asian and other non-European countries are indeed ascending to central places in the global order and are refashioning its structure. A key development here is China’s “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR). It is unprecedented in its size and scope. China’s OBOR project promises investments of around $1 trillion, covering countries that account for 60 percent of the world’s population and one-third of global GDP. This dramatic change occurs at a time when Western global leadership is stymied by ineffective political and international leadership on both sides of the Atlantic.

OBOR, today, increases Beijing’s influence in states all along major trade routes, from East Asia, through the Indian Ocean and Central Asia, then the Middle East and on to Africa and Europe. It means, indeed, a galactic shift for international trade and global political influence.

Beijing is calling this 21st century initiative “Silk Road.” The project’s geography brings up thoughts of a grandiose past when European powers were not dominant and the New World was yet to be colonized. The Silk Road imagery portrays an interlinked Eurasian landmass that, frankly, does not include the United States.

My observations are not anti-American but realistic. We need to reflect about who we are and where we are going as we look deeper into the significance of this major global shift. How do we live on this globe in peaceful collaboration with differing understandings of nationalism and strong political ideologies? How do we promote and support human identity and human rights? How do we collaborate in safeguarding the environment as we confront increasingly dramatic and destructive climate change?

As our world changes, there are urgent ethical issues that we cannot ignore. There are major religious trends, as well, that cannot be ignored.

Five religions trends projected by the Pew Research Center pin point for me major global religious change and influence.

(1) Muslims today are the world’s fastest growing religious group because they have high fertility rates and the world’s youngest population.

(2) The share of the world’s population that is Christian is expected to remain steady (at about 31%), but the regional distribution of Christians is forecast to change significantly: 38% living in Subsaharan Africa by 2050, an increase from the 24% who lived there in 2010. The percentage of the world’s Christians living in Europe – which fell from 66% in 1910 to 26% in 2010 – will continue to decline, to roughly 16% in 2050.

(3) In the United States, Christians will decline from more than three-quarters of the population in 2010 to two-thirds in 2050, with corresponding rises of religious “nones” as well as Muslims, Hindus and others. At mid-century, Judaism will no longer be the largest non-Christian religion in the US. Muslims are projected to be more numerous than people who identify as religiously Jewish.

(4) Indonesia is currently home to the world’s largest Muslim population, but that is expected to change. By 2050, the Pew Center projects India to be the country with the largest number of Muslims – more than 310 million – even though Hindus will continue to make up a solid majority of India’s population (77%), while Muslims remain a minority (18%). Indonesia will have the third-largest number of Muslims, with Pakistan ranking second.

(5) The farther into the future we look, the more uncertainty exists, which is why the Pew projections stop at 2050. But if they are extended into the second half of this century, the projections forecast Muslims and Christians to be roughly equal in number around 2070, with Muslims the slightly larger group after that year.