8 September 2018

Traditionally, many U.S. Americans describe themselves as Catholic, Baptist, Methodist, Jewish, Mormon, or Muslim, etc. Others describe themselves as atheist, agnostic or having no particular religious affiliation.

A new Pew Research Center analysis, however, looks at U.S. Americans’ beliefs that cut across many denominations: traits that either unite people of different faiths, or divide them. The result is a new typology of religious belief in American society.

This new classification sorts Americans into seven groups based on their religious beliefs: how they practice their faith and the value they place on it.

The seven classifications are:

(1) Sunday Stalwarts

The “Sunday Stalwarts” are the most religiously active group. They are largely Protestant, but also include Catholics, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jews, Muslims, Hindus and others. They actively practice their faith, and are deeply involved in their religious congregations: 82% attend weekly religious services. They hold many traditional beliefs and tilt toward the right on social and political issues. Republicans make up a majority of “Sunday Stalwarts,” who are the more likely than any group to see immigrants as a threat. A third of the “Sunday Stalwarts” are 65 or older.

(2) God and Country Believers

Closely aligned with the “Sunday Stalwarts” are the “God and Country Believers,” but only 27% of them actually attend weekly religious services. They are strongly nationalistic with 58% approving Donald Trump’s job performance

(3) Diversely Devout

Racial and ethnic minorities make up a large part of the “Diversely Devout.” They include fewer Protestants and more unaffiliated people, often called “nones.” (“Nones” is a category composed of people who identify, religiously, as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular.”) Only 12% of the “Diversely Devout” attend any kind of weekly religious services. The majority are non white, and more than 50% are between the ages 37 and 32. I find it noteworthy that the “Diversely Devout” and the “God-and-Country Believers” have the lowest levels of educational attainment. About six-in-ten, in each group, have a high school degree or less.

(4) Relaxed Religious

Seven-in-ten “Relaxed Religious” say they believe in the God of the Bible; but relatively few attend religious services or read scripture. They almost unanimously say it is not necessary to believe in God to be a moral person. More than 50% are between the ages 31 and 25.

(5) Spiritually Awake

“Spiritually Awake” Americans hold at least some New Age beliefs (views rejected by most of the “Relaxed Religious”) and believe in God or some higher power. Institutional religion is not important for them; but some kind of “spirituality” is a personal value. Many do not believe in the biblical God and relatively few ever attend religious services on a weekly basis. Close to 60% are between the ages 33 and 26.

(6) Religion Resisters

“Religion Resisters” generally do believe in some higher power or spiritual force, but not the God of the Bible. Many have some New Age beliefs and consider themselves “spiritual but not religious.” They have strongly negative views about organized religion. Overall, they think religion does more harm than good. “Religion Resisters” tend to be liberal and Democratic in their political views. More than 60% are between 40 and 21.

(7) Solidly Secular

The “Solidly Secular” are the least religious of the seven groups. They are relatively affluent, highly educated U.S. adults, mostly white, and male. They tend to describe themselves as “neither religious nor spiritual” and to reject all New Age beliefs as well as belief in the God of the Bible. Their median age is 40.

One can read the entire Pew Center report here: http://assets.pewresearch.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/11/2018/08/28163522/Full-Report-08-28-FOR-WEB.pdf


Some personal reflections as a believing Christian observer:

(1) The religious typology groups tend to move from oldest to youngest when going from the most to least religious. Have we forgotten young people? What are they thinking and saying? How can we better listen to them? A bishop friend told me, last year, that we should get all the young people together and “teach them to respect what the church teaches.” I suggested that we get all the bishops together and let young people teach the bishops about their experiences and thoughts about contemporary life…..

(2) “Religion Resisters” and the “Solidly Secular” have the highest levels of education, when compared with the other groups. “Sunday Stalwarts” and the “Spiritually Awake” have slightly lower levels of educational attainment. And the “Diversely Devout” and “God-and-Country Believers” have the least amount of education.

How do we present Christian belief to the “uneducated” as well as the “educated”? This is not an “elitist question,” as one of my friends told me recently. It is the reality. The Gospel is for all; but we don’t need a dumbing-down in the Christian community of faith. Anti-intellectualism is not a Christian virtue. How do we promote good education? Good education is handing on correct information, helping people access information that is not “fake,” and helping people develop critical thinking skills.

(3) The Pew study reports that the most actively engaged religious Americans tend to be the most politically and socially conservative, with strong elements of xenophobia. So what does this mean? Yes, we all need a sense of comfort and security; and yes, my faith is my anchor. Faith, however, is about much more than patting oneself on the back or warm Sunday fuzzies. It is about feeding the hungry and lifting up the oppressed. That, Jesus and our faith says, is where we meet the living God.

(4) Thinking about religion in our contemporary America, the big issue for me remains distinguishing between “religion’” and “faith.” They are not the same. All religions are formally structured interpretations of belief. There are healthy interpretations as well as unhealthy ones. Unhealthy interpretations turn religious structures, rituals, and symbols into idols: objects of idolatry. History shows that idols and idol worshipers use and abuse people. (And of course bishops, cardinals, and priests can become idols, demanding reverence and veneration.)

(5) The Pew Center report tells me as well that we really need to engage in inter-religious dialogue and collaboration. We need to grow in our understanding of all religious traditions. In particular we need to explore SPIRITUALITY. No single religious tradition has God neatly locked up in a tabernacle or temple……How does the belief and wisdom of a particular religious tradition help people in their exploration of the Divine? How does it help people relate to God, who is at the heart of Reality? I know so many young people — and so many older people turned-off by clerical sexual abuse — who are indeed searching for the Divine…..

Next week some thoughts more particularly about Catholicism and what I would call the “Third Millennial Reformation.” It has really just begun but the impact will be, depended on one’s viewpoint, devastating or wonderfully renewing.


4 thoughts on “Understanding Americans Today : Religious Typology

  1. Thank you, Jack, for tackling this vital subject. Human nature doesn’t change, “searching for the Divine.” The Gospel message is as important today as it has always been. “The Gospel is for all.” Correctly presented, it can only be a balm in troubled times to troubled men and women.”Good education is handing on correct information,” What the world always needs is more love.

  2. Jack
    Has the Pew Research created a category into which it can place people like yourself, all of us readers of Another Voice, and the many psychologically oriented people who have been supporting the Church? I felt left out by the Pew Research. I felt they were using a concept of faith that has created the problem of religious alienation. The bishop friend you mentioned illustrates the problem. I hear him ready to teach me dogma. Looking for the divine in all the wrong places has been our problem. I feel we should be looking to how we can create the kinds of relationships that leave us with an experience that illuminates Jesus’ simple request that we love one another as he loved us. In relationships alone do we begin to have a sense of transcending our aloneness in the world. I find we do not even have the language to begin addressing the absence of the faith in our times. I applaud the Pew Research for abandoning the old categories and its new ones are oriented toward relationships, but I do not sense a focus on human intimacy. Thanks again for a great read.

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