The Magazine

God Helps Us

America remains as religious as you thought.

Jul 29, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 43 • By WILLIAM MCKENZIE
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You may have read about the rise in the number of Americans who claim no religious affiliation, making you think that we are on our way to becoming as irreligious as Europe. You may have read how religion is growing fast in Latin America, Asia, and Africa, leaving you to think religion is on the wane in the United States. Or you may have read about the popularity of the late Christopher Hitchens and other writers who championed their disavowal of God, leading you to think that the New Atheism is drowning out faith in this country.

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Each of those trends is, indeed, real. I, for one, have written quite a bit about the growth of religion across Asia, Latin America, and Africa. The spread of Christianity and Islam in those parts of the globe is influencing religious and political debates worldwide. Just look at the schism in the Anglican Communion, between churches in the northern and southern hemispheres, over issues such as the ordination of gay clergy. Or consider the challenge that militant Islam presents in places like Nigeria. But in God Is Alive and Well, Frank Newport presents page after page of data demonstrating how religion is thriving in the United States. Religious belief is taking on new shapes, mind you; but that morphing is a good thing. It keeps religious expression growing and vital.

The data presented by Newport, who is Gallup’s editor in chief, start off showing that the percentage of Americans who say they believe in God is on par with the percentage who said they were believers back in 1944. When Gallup asked Americans in 2011 whether they believed in God, more than 90 percent said yes. Over those 67 years, the percentage of Americans who say they do not believe in God has bounced around between only 6 and 8 percent. In other words, there has been no real change. 

Newport also presents data showing that the percentage of Americans saying they attend church is about the same as in 1940. About 40 percent report attending religious services at least once a week or almost weekly. About 15 percent say they never attend church. “Overall, this is fairly indicative of a religious nation,” writes Newport, who was raised a Southern Baptist and is a Baylor graduate. He also highlights how the percentage of Americans who say that religion is very important to them remains at 55 percent. That number is not lower than it was 30 years ago: “There is no indication that there has been a continuous drop in the personal aspect of religion in recent years,” he concludes.

What is changing is how we believe. That is the fascinating part of the religious trends working their way across America. And they are worth observing, not only for their effect in the pew but also for their influence on the larger culture.

The first trend does not bode well for people like me, white, mainline Protestants. I am a Presbyterian, and people in my denomination as well as in the Episcopal, Methodist, and even Baptist churches continue losing market share. This is not a new trend, but its continuance suggests that the decline in influence that mainline Protestants have experienced since their heyday in the middle of the last century will continue. The likelihood of a mainline Protestant thinker such as Reinhold Niebuhr popping up and influencing the culture, particularly the political culture, is not so great. And as Newport explains, mainliners are not producing enough babies. Nor are they broadening their base through evangelism or absorbing waves of immigrants. These factors suggest their percentage decline will not reverse itself.

I have mixed feelings about this reality. Newspapers have lost market share over time, for example, but they serve both a function and a segment of the American marketplace. Perhaps mainliners should focus on their function, which is largely to express the depth of God’s love and how it applies to this world, minister to their segment of America, and worry less about their loss of the overall religious marketplace. 

But the numbers are what they are, and growth is clearly coming in other ways. The most fascinating change is the one that’s accompanying large birthrates among Latinos. Newport reports that those growth rates are keeping Roman Catholicism growing in America. (The percentage of white Catholics is declining, but not of Latino Catholics.) Even more important is the role of Latino evangelicals. They are one of the fastest-growing parts of evangelicalism, and their churches are common in places like Dallas, where I live and where you see neighborhood churches with signs proclaiming names like Iglesia del Señor.

Latinos could influence the way evangelicalism shapes national politics, and we’re seeing it already in the immigration debate. Latino evangelicals like Reverend Samuel Rodriguez are speaking out for a broad reform of policies, not just tighter security along the border. Look for more such influence. Look, also, for the role that baby boomers could play in religion in general. The older people get, the more likely they are to turn to some kind of faith, a point that Newport backs up with data. If those of us who are boomers follow this time-honored trend, we could become a growth industry for churches and other houses of faith. I had not thought of the possibility before reading this book, but what an irony if boomers, a generation known in part for self-absorption, should fuel religious growth on our way out.

The part of the book that caught me most off-guard, and that is worth the cover price, is the section that deals with the link between religion and health. I was genuinely skeptical when I started reading Newport’s explanation of data that show how people of faith tend to enjoy better health. I still don’t know what to do with the point: All sorts of people could use it to create a new prosperity gospel, preaching that virtuous living leads to good health. But what would that mean to the religious person who ends up with cancer? 

Still, the research that Newport presents is compelling. There is, for example, a table that shows that Americans who consider themselves “very religious” enjoy higher rates of “well-being” than both moderately religious and nonreligious Americans. The Gallup-Healthways “Well-Being Index” shows very religious Americans reporting higher rates of emotional and physical health, as well as greater rates of healthy behaviors. The same is true of the correlation between the degree of religiousness and worry, stress, and anger. Very religious Americans experienced less of those emotions than the moderately religious or nonreligious.

Some of these findings make me squeamish: You can almost hear the religious marketing agents hyping the connection between faith and health, promising a stress-free life. (Of course, the last time I checked, some of the greatest martyrs experienced a good deal of stress.) Still, the data show that something is going on. And that is the compelling part of God Is Alive and Well, which you would expect from a Gallup editor’s work. But Newport presents his information clearly in this easy-to-read book, a book that is important to read, as well, if you want to find out more about the state of religion in America.

William McKenzie, a columnist for the Dallas Morning News, moderates the Texas Faith blog at DallasNews.com.