Since we’re going to be reading a book about some of the ways faith is lived in America (and how that affects how deities spend their time on the continent), I thought it was worthwhile to pull in some actual facts on the state of American religion. So I called on my long-time friend and resident theologian Chris Ashley, a Ph.D. student at Union Theological Seminary who works on, among other things, the relationship of gay people to evangelical faith, and who is particularly qualified to comment on this particular subject because he carried Neil Gaiman’s luggage at one of the book signings on the American Gods tour. Denominationally, we differ on our preferences in monotheism, and our baseball teams (he is a benighted Cubs fan), but he’s a great guy (some of you have met him in comments) and I’m grateful to him for pulling this together.
By Chris Ashley
The premise of American Gods is plausible because everybody knows Americans are highly religious, especially when we’re compared to the world’s other wealthy and powerful nations. But how religious are we, exactly, and how is that landscape changing?
Americans overwhelmingly identify with some form or descendant of Christianity. As of 2007, the figure was about 79 percent. (All numbers, unless otherwise cited, are from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life’s Religious Landscape Survey.) Within Christianity, the three largest subgroups are evangelical Protestants (e.g. Southern Baptists, Pentecostals), Roman Catholics, and “mainline” Protestants (e.g. Methodists, Lutherans). Evangelicals are just over a quarter of the population, Catholics just under, and the mainline just under a fifth.
After Christians, the single largest religious group, and the fastest-growing one, is the unaffiliated, at just over 16 percent. This statistical construct includes avowed atheists and agnostics, as well as those who simply have no identification. The latter, some 12 percent of the United States as a whole, is larger than any single denomination other than the Catholics. There are approximately as many self-identified atheists as Jews or Mormons (1.6 percent for atheists; 1.7 percent for the others). The unaffiliated are a more exact cross-section of America than any other religious group, matching income and ethic proportions of the population as a whole very closely. Among other major world religions, there are about as many Buddhists as Muslims and slightly fewer Hindus (0.7 percent, 0.6 percent, 0.4 percent).
About 7 percent of Americans attend historically Black churches, out of a population around 12 percent Black overall (Census 2010). They display a pattern of service attendance almost identical to White evangelicals, with some 30 percent or more of members attending services more than once a week. Black people, including African immigrants, make up around a quarter of American Muslims and almost a quarter of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Overall, 71 percent of Americans “believe in God or a universal spirit” with absolute certainty, and another 17 percent are “fairly certain.” The likeliest to believe in God are Jehovah’s Witnesses, followed closely by evangelicals, Mormons, the historically Black churches (all over 90 percent), and Muslims (82 percent). Catholics, mainline Protestants, and Orthodox Christians hover slightly above the national average. Jews and Buddhists are much less likely to be theists.
Numerically, the major religion story of the postwar decades has been the shift of Christians from mainline to evangelical Protestantism, which is largely in turn a shift of social prestige. Most American Protestant churches share a common origin in the frontier evangelism and social activism of the Second Great Awakening, but as class differences settled with the growth and change of cities, the churches gradually diverged into groups, distinct as much by demographics as by theology. The mainline denominations, which take their conventional group name from Philadelphia’s tony Main Line suburbs, had been the churches of the elite. Between the Civil War and the mid-20th century, they had become identified increasingly with the middle class and the liberal consensus. As that consensus broke down in the wake of the civil rights movement, the conservative movement began growing its own paths to social power. Those Protestant churches that had never accepted the liberal consensus, in either politics or theology, reaped the benefits. Mainline denominations peaked in size in the late 1960s; they have now fallen to half that, or less.
The fastest-growing ethnicity in America, Latinos, is difficult to pin down religiously. Though traditionally Catholic, and still heavily so — over 29 percent of American Catholics are Latino, and over half of Latinos are Catholic — the postwar decades have seen intense and successful efforts at Protestant evangelism among Latinos, both in the United States and in Latin America. The proselytizing forms of Christianity (evangelicals, Mormons, and Jehovah’s Witnesses) have all had measurable success among Latinos in America; about 30 percent of Latinos identify as “born-again.”