Free Republic
Browse · Search
Topics · Post Article

Skip to comments.

Religious Kaleidoscope: American Religion in the 1990s
Åbo Akademi ^ | 1996 | WADE CLARK ROOF

Posted on 12/17/2002 9:22:50 AM PST by Kerberos

Temenos 32 (1996), 183-193.


Religious Kaleidoscope: American Religion in the 1990s

Religion in the United States is always in flux. From the time of Tocqueville's visit in the 1830s to the present, commentators have observed that the American religious scene is adaptive and accommodating to its ever-changing environment. Of course, change is more apparent in some periods than in others. In this lecture I focus on the more recent period - since the 1960s - a time when in the United States, and also much of the world, social and cultural change have been rampant. Globalization, the growing impact of the media and the cultural industries, and generational change have all contributed to a sense that we may be moving into a new world - frequently described as "post-traditional" or "post-modern." Thinking about such a possibility, I am reminded of a cartoon showing Adam and Eve being expelled from the Garden of Eden. The very last frame has Eve saying to Adam: "It appears we are in a period of transition."

Yet it is true, too, there is much continuity in American religious life. The United States has long been and continues to be the most religious of the modern industrial, or post-industrial nations, at least as judged by the conventional indicators of churchgoing and belief in God. Religious involvement remains quite high; there has been no drastic change in religious attendance or belief in God over the past several decades, as the surveys all point out. Religion remains a public presence. My country has been, and still is, a fertile breeding ground for new religious movements - in fact, some commentators argue that over the past thirty years the number of new movements has increased, not declined. So any attention to contemporary religious change must be placed in a larger context of the continuing religious life of the American people. Perhaps it is best to think of religious change in the United States neither as religious revival nor as secular decline but as somewhat like a religious kaleidoscope - as always changing in its forms.

What, then, are these new changes in this period of transition? There are four major trends that are reshaping the religious landscape: the new pluralism, the new voluntarism, the new organizational structures, and the new spirituality. Let us examine each of these.

The New Pluralism

First, there is the "new pluralism", a phrase for describing the growing diversity of American religions. At mid-century, the United States was, as Will Herberg so aptly put it, a "Protestant-Catholic-Jewish" country. "The outstanding feature of the religious situation in America today," wrote Herberg (1960: 56) "is the pervasiveness of religious identification along the tripartite scheme of Protestant, Catholic, Jew." To be sure, there were other religious groups on the scene at the time, as has always been true, but there was much truth in his statement. Religion enjoyed a comfortable alliance with the culture during those years - it was the Eisenhower era, the cold war, a time when churches and synagogues were flourishing. Ethnic loyalty as a means of expressing one's identity was frowned upon; religion in the generalized sense of Protestant-Catholic-Jew was widely approved and encouraged as a means of self-affirmation.

But this all fails to ring true in the 1990s. The mood of the country has changed drastically and so, too, have the religious demographics. Most notable is the steady decline of the Protestant majority. Since mid-century the Protestant population has declined from 67 percent to 56 percent, or a proportionate loss of 16 percent (see Roof and McKinney 1987). Still a majority numerically, but if present trends continue, Protestants will lose majority status early in the next century. Moreover, that majority does not have a strong sense of solidarity. Except in the South and perhaps the mid-West, Protestants think of themselves today as anything but as established and entrenched; increasingly they see themselves as overwhelmed by faiths that are more visible and have greater influence in the public arena. What Herberg said thirty years ago is even more true now: Protestantism in America presents the anomaly of a strong majority group with a growing minority consciousness.

While Protestantism is declining in numbers, Catholicism is growing. At mid-century the proportion of Catholics in the country was about 24 percent; by the 1990s that proportion was 28 or 29 percent, expanding at about the same pace as Protestants are declining. Benefitting from a higher birth rate and greater numbers of in-migrants, particularly Hispanics, American Catholicism enjoys healthy demographics. Projections now are that Hispanics will number about fifty percent of the American Catholic community by year 2000. A vital Catholic presence in the country in the future is thus assured, although it will be a style of Catholicism much different from its earlier forms.

Relative to Protestants and Catholics, the Jewish population is quite small - about 3 to 4 percent, and has not changed significantly in recent times. Both low birth rates and high levels of intermarriage work to keep the size of the Jewish community relatively small. The rate of intermarriage within the Jewish community is quite high - approximately 50 percent at present - giving rise to considerable worry about its long-term effects upon the future of this religious community.

But the most striking statistics of the period have not to do with the three major religious groups. When George Gallup Jr. interviews people he asks, "What is your religious preference, Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Other, or None?" Growth has been in these latter two groups. The 1960s brought a new wave of religious movements and they continue to flourish. In that same decade the liberalization of the nation's immigration laws opened up new opportunities for in-migrants - especially from Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America. Today, 8 percent of the population say they belong to a faith other than Protestant, Catholic, or Jew. Only 8 percent, but that is two or three times as many as did so in the 1950s. In 1978, J. Gordon Melton compiled a list of some 1200 different religious groups active in the United States. In the latest edition of his Encyclopedia of American Religion (1989) the number is upward of 2000 such groups! Gradually a new-style pluralism is emerging very much unlike the older pluralism of the past. This new pluralism is more global and brings traditions once thought of as alien right into American neighborhoods. Eastern mystical religious influence is a case in point. Twenty years ago the arrival of Transcendental Meditation, Hare Krishnas, and other mystical cults made news. Now such movements are no longer newsworthy. Another example is the growing Muslim presence in the United States: if present trends continue, there will likely be as many Muslims as Jews in this country by the end of the first decade of next century.

This new pluralism also includes those who choose not to affiliate religiously. Currently about 8 percent of Americans report having no institutional religious affiliation - again only 8 percent, but that is about 8 times higher than at mid-century. Many of these people may be religious in some private sense, but estrangement from organized religion runs deep for many people. And if you add to these non-affiliates those who are members of churches and synagogues but are not active participants, the numbers who are effectively cut off from organized religion for the nation as a whole is roughly around 40 percent. Where once the culture drove Americans to identify with religion, today that underlying pressure is no longer so great.

All of this points to the fact that the religious pluralism of the 1990s is something very different: the range of religious and secular alternatives has broadened and the pressures of religious conformity have greatly weakened. And this is true not just in places like New York and California, but increasingly in cities across the country.

The New Voluntarism

A second trend is the "new voluntarism", a phrase William McKinney and I (1987) have used to describe the changing dynamics of religious choice. Voluntarism is a treasured part of the American religious heritage, and in the past largely meant the possibility of options among religious alternatives, as say between Conservative or Reform or Orthodox Judaism. But the principle of choice has now expanded in new directions. Of course, this is true in virtually every realm of life: chocolate and vanilla have given way to 38 flavors of ice cream; telephones no longer come just in black but in dozens of colors and shapes. Nowhere is choice more apparent than in matters of lifestyle: we have become accustomed to Yuppies, Buppies, Grumpies and DINKS; marrieds who choose to have children, those who choose not to have children; straight and gay; single parents, blended families, and on and on. Choices have expanded in social life, and in a consumption-oriented culture we are more aware of those choices.

Here it is important to call attention to the post-war baby boom generation, for it is this large generation that has grown up with, and helped to shape, today's culture of choice. Perhaps no trait better describes the boomers and the younger Generation X that follows them than the so-called "expressive individualism" of contemporary culture (see Bellah et. al. 1985). Americans have long glorified the "rugged individualist", but in our time individualism has taken on more subjective and inward - some would say narcissistic - qualities. The focus is very much upon the person and his or her own inner life and feelings. Greater choice is played out in religion in many ways:

(1) The extent of religious switching: Almost one-third of Protestants switch denominations at one time or another. Growing numbers of Catholics and Jews switch faiths. The switching patterns are not random, but rather follow along predictable moral and ideological lines. Americans today are regrouping on the basis of conviction, values, and lifestyles; they are less concerned about keeping with family heritage and custom. Indeed, inherited religion, or that which you were born into, no longer contains people the way it once did. People want to be more self-actualized, and if that means you should leave your heritage behind in favor of another one, then fine.

(2) Another example of the "new voluntarism" is the picking and choosing that goes on within religious traditions. The phrase "selective Catholicism" is now frequently used: one can be a practicing Catholic, a devout Catholic, a communal Catholic, a disaffiliated Catholic - all Catholics. Large numbers of American Catholics have decided they can ignore the church's leadership on specific issues like abortion and birth control, and yet still think of themselves as good Catholics. What is new is not so much the rejection of the church's teachings, but rather how the norms have changed - people feel more free to practice Catholicism as they please while at the same time calling themselves a "good Catholic". It is said that much the same thing now goes on among Jews - Wertheimer (1993) calls it "Judaism à la carte". Such picking and choosing goes on in all the mainline faiths today - Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish. An age of choice has given us new hyphenated religionists such as vegetarian Unitarians, Quakerpalians, Presbyterians into holistic thought, Lake Wobegon Lutherans. It seems to be the thing today to add on layers of experiential meaning to traditional religious labels.

Nowhere is the new voluntarism more insidious than in the way it has redefined church and synagogue-going norms. Well over 80% of Americans in a Gallup survey some 8 or 10 years ago said "one can be a good Christian or Jew without going to church or synagogue". This cuts across all the major social and religious boundaries: Protestant, Catholic, Jewish; evangelical and mainline; across social class, across age. The norms defining religious involvement and what it means to be a good Christian or Jew are now greatly liberalized, and also highly privatized, meaning that individuals decide for themselves. The well-known example comes from the book written by Robert Bellah and associates, Habits of the Heart, the story of the young nurse named Sheila Larson who had the following to say about her faith:

I believe in God. I'm not a religious fanatic. I can't remember the last time I went to church. My faith has carried me a long way. Its Sheilaism. Just my own little voice. (Bellah 1985: 221)

Sheilaism has prompted much fear among religious leaders, yet her story is not unlike those of many women who are struggling with their own identities and seek liberation from the constraints of organized religion. My research suggests this outlook is actually quite widespread among the large baby boom generation (Roof 1993). It occurs not just as a spiritual struggle for women, gays and lesbians, and other minorities, but also among those who - as is very common among young people - have weak ties with a religious tradition, who have been raised in non-practicing or non-observant families, or who are born into mixed-faith families. For some, privatized religion results in a greater religious self-understanding; and for others it amounts to a weakening of faith altogether.

Yet we must be careful not simply to think of this as secular decline. Voluntarism is a source of creativity and empowerment. Though many persons have dropped out of organized religion, they often engage in much self-reflection about their own lives and about the meaning and purpose of life generally. When individuals decide for themselves to explore religion, they do so willfully and often embrace it - religion that is chosen rather than imposed through heritage tends to be stronger and has more consequences for the believer. So while there is much that points to quantitative decline on the religious landscape, there are other kinds of changes - more qualitative in character - that are positive and promising for the future. We shall see further evidence of this in the next two points about religious changes.

The New Organizational Structures

American religion has long been known as "denominational" in form. By denominational is meant that there is a great variety of religious traditions represented in its pluralism and that no one of them enjoys a monopoly on religious truth. A nation born out of many peoples has spawned many differing faiths, and compared to many other places around the world, these faiths and the structures they have created have worked pretty well. And as was said earlier, there has been an explosion of religious groups and traditions in the past several decades - which means that the denominationalizing process continues to flourish. Among "new immigrant" populations especially, there are many new denominational structures emerging today. Actually hundreds of new ethnic denominations have taken root in the past several decades.

There is an explosion as well in the rise of many new and innovative organizational forms of religion in the contemporary period. I refer to a wide range of special purpose groups - groups devoted to the environment, creating shelters for the homeless, providing prison ministries, assisting those with AIDS. Some of these groups are liberal, oriented to reforming society; others are conservative, aimed at reforming individual lives. There are feminist groups, peace groups, cultural groups, life-style groups, support groups. The new groups cut across religious lines. In addition to such groups as described above, there are programs for day schools, religious camps, retreat centers, and alternative religious celebrations for virtually every religious tradition. There are para-denominational movements such as charismatic renewal, Cursillo, Marriage Encounter, and liturgical renewal. Within both Protestantism and Catholicism, there is the house church movement and proliferation of cell groups. Across the entire religious spectrum, one observes a fragmentation into smaller, but often more deliberate, groupings.

To get some idea of the scope of change involved, sociologist Robert Wuthnow (1988: 100-131) has documented over 500 differing types of religiously-based special purpose groups in America today. What unites these groups is the clearly delimited purposes they serve and their appeal to a relatively small group of like-minded people. Typically they do not compete with established religious institutions but complement them. Some would say that the special purpose groups - which often link like-minded people across religious traditions - have led to a greater religious vitality in the country.

The media age has given rise as well to political movements appealing to religious concerns: the Christian Coalition is linked with widespread efforts at mobilizing constituencies on issues like abortion and homosexuality as well as getting out the vote in support of particular political candidates. In the period since mid-century, conservative faiths in the United States have become far more aggressive in fostering political agendas and endorsing candidates. The televangelists have played a significant part in shaping this new religious environment through its mass appeals for donations and memberships in particular causes. Liberal religious people are organized, though to a much lesser extent, trying to counter the conservative trends. The polarization of liberals versus conservatives had led commentators to speak often of a nation caught up in "culture wars".

While the notion of "culture war" seems ominous, the situation is not as serious as it may appear. Many, and probably most, Americans are not highly committed to either of the ideological extremes. Overall the organizational fragmentation may, in fact, be a re-vitalizing influence. Young Americans like hands-on activities. They get excited about specific causes where they feel they can make a tangible difference by giving of their time and money. Americans respond to opportunities for more flexible styles of getting involved and for greater lay participation. At a time when old-line Protestant denominations and Catholic parishes are losing members, such opportunities open up new possibilities for religious involvement. The current religious scene, then, has a somewhat paradoxical quality: old structures often fail to attract while new ways of grouping are energizing. Older, more patriarchical versions of a tradition lose appeal while growing segments of the population insist that their own religious version must be accommodated. The greater religious individualism of our time is thus not so much a secularizing trend as it is a restructuring of religious expressions.

The New Spirituality

Finally, there is the new spirituality which gets to the inner forces which lie behind many of the new religious expressions. These forces take many forms, both within and outside organized religion: in nature religion, in healing rituals, in concerns about holistic health, in goddess worship, in the popularity of twelve-step support groups, in the phenomenal interest in the Joseph Campbell series on myth, in the rediscovery of religious mystics, in the large number of books now concerned with spiritual growth, in fascination with movies like E.T. and Ghost.

Much has been written about the 1970s and 1980s - the narcissistic culture, the Me-Decade, the turning inward. Whatever else might be said, clearly the cultural mood encouraged a deeply personal spirituality, tailored to the individual's own quests. What emerged was a do-it-yourself-kind-of-religion, the authority for which rested not in an institution but within the self. If Sheilaism is a religion, then there are 260 million different religions in the US, one for each of us. The extreme version of this sort of privatized religion is found, of course, in the New Age movement - where self and deity become fused into one; but even more generally, it seems that Americans have become more inwardly focused in their faiths. This new concern with spirituality is found especially among younger Americans. In our research, we asked many young Americans about how they defined themselves: did they think of themselves as "religious" or as "spiritual"? We found much evidence of a major cleavage between these two modes of self-identification. Many young Americans dislike the term religious but say they are spiritual.

What does it mean to be spiritual? It means many things: connectedness, unity, peace, harmony, centeredness. These words make up the new spiritual vocabulary replacing some of the older religious terms. As evidence of the popularity of the new spiritual vocabulary, one has only to visit a good book store: that portion of the shelf devoted to religion has declined while that given to spirituality has greatly expanded. Topics include angels, gurus, meditation, astrology, metaphysics, Taoism, ESP, near-death experiences, and the like. Numerous books on the best-seller lists are books on spirituality.

In my research, we asked the post-World War II baby boomers if they preferred to stick to a particular faith or to explore teachings from many traditions - and the overwhelming majority said explore. Faith is seen as a journey, not a fixed destination. The boomer generation has been more exposed to the world's religions and spiritual teachings than any generation ever. And in a global world, pressures are strong pushing us in the direction of "cafeteria-style" religion. Twenty-two (22) percent of young adults in our study said they believed in reincarnation (Roof 1993). Even church-going is often determined on the basis of whether it contributes to spiritual growth. We asked in the survey if one should attend a church or synagogue out of duty or only if it helps one to grow - and the overwhelming majority said the latter. Even Christian evangelicals and fundamentalists are increasingly thinking this way - which simply shows the extent to which popular psychology and faith have come to be fused in the minds of believers.

The twelve-step recovery movement has a strong and diverse following: there are today more than 200 differing kinds of twelve-step groups all modeled after Alcoholics Anonymous-Al-Anon, Gamblers Anonymous, Overeater's Anonymous, Depressives Anonymous, and so forth. Each develops its own spiritual style of recovery. Also fascinating is the growth of retreat centers and weekend seminars catering to people with particular concerns and experiences - such as "finding the inner child within you", "recovery from abusive relationships", or "exploring women's experiences", to cite just a few of the hot topics currently. Recovery theology has emerged in response to so much talk about victimization in recent years. To recover is to rid oneself of all those compulsions and addictions that enslave the human spirit - to "let go" of shame, guilt, inferiority, disappointment, failure, and all the other hurts of life. So prevalent is the recovery motif, one is inclined almost to conclude that addiction has replaced sin in popular discourse as the fundamental human dilemma.

All of this suggests that religious life has become more oriented to the inner life - to feelings, to experience, to the self. Of course, it is easy to criticize popular spirituality, to find it shallow and lacking in substance, more of a fad than of any lasting significance. And while I am sympathetic to this point of view, I am convinced that something more fundamental is going on. Among many Americans there is a serious religious ferment, a quest in search of a deeper spirituality. For sure, there is much experimentation, but beneath much of what we observe at present, I believe, is an authentic quest for wholeness. Americans, like people elsewhere, yearn for a more holistic world and meaningful interpretations of life in the face of all the challenges we now confront with modernity.

These, then, are the big trends reshaping the religious landscape in the United States today - the new pluralism, the new voluntarism, the new organizational structures, the new spirituality. We could of course explore all of these trends in greater detail or draw attention to other realignments that are now occurring. But as was pointed out at the beginning of this lecture, the important point about American religion is that it is always in flux and taking on new forms. Kaleidoscopic religion is always interesting and challenging. For sociologists of religion this is certainly true, even if it is frustrating to try to predict just what the next trend might be.


·  Bellah, Robert N. [et al.]

·  1985 Habits of the Heart. Individualism and Commitment in American Life. Berkeley: University of California Press.

·  Herberg, Will

·  1960 Protestant-Catholic-Jew. An Essay in American Religious sociology. Garden City: Anchor Books.

·  Melton, J. Gordon

·  1989 The Encyclopedia of American Religions. Detroit: Gale Research. [3rd ed.]

·  Roof, Wade Clark

·  1993 A Generation of Seekers. The spiritual Journeys of the Baby Boom Generation. San Francisco: Harper San Francisco.

·  Roof, Wade Clark, and William McKinney

·  1987 American Mainline Religion. Its Changing Shape and Future. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.

·  Wertheimer, Jack

·  1993 A People Divided. Judaism in Contemporary America. New York: Basic Books.

·  Wuthnow, Robert

·  1988 The Restructuring of American Religion. Society and Faith Since World War II. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

<![if !supportEmptyParas]> <![endif]>

TOPICS: Culture/Society; Extended News; Philosophy
KEYWORDS: christian; church; religion

1 posted on 12/17/2002 9:22:51 AM PST by Kerberos
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | View Replies]

To: Kerberos
Most religious denominations recognize the importance of small groups within their body. Believers are encouraged to join a small group: Bible study, prayer group, school of ministry, women's group, Mom's group, etc.

It's the only way to make personal contacts and build relationships within the body. Just greeting people in the pews and before and after service isn't enough to establish church relationships.

2 posted on 12/17/2002 10:00:45 AM PST by Ciexyz
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 1 | View Replies]

To: Kerberos
bump for later study
3 posted on 12/17/2002 1:24:02 PM PST by LiteKeeper
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 1 | View Replies]

To: Kerberos
While Protestantism is declining in numbers, Catholicism is growing.

I quit reading here. Not true. No credibility.

4 posted on 12/17/2002 5:50:07 PM PST by Iowegian
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 1 | View Replies]

To: Iowegian
"I quit reading here. Not true. No credibility. "

What are you basing that on?

5 posted on 12/17/2002 5:53:52 PM PST by Kerberos
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 4 | View Replies]

To: Kerberos
What are you basing that on?

A totally flawed number of RC's vs. generally reliable and honest numbers for NC churches.

6 posted on 12/17/2002 5:58:20 PM PST by Iowegian
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 5 | View Replies]

To: Iowegian
"A totally flawed number of RC's vs. generally reliable and honest numbers for NC churches. "

I'm not sure I am understanding your reply. I would like to obtain information of attendance numbers in churches particularly over the last 25-50 years. Unfortunately I have no idea as to where I could obtain that kind of data. Do you know where I could get it?

7 posted on 12/17/2002 6:04:16 PM PST by Kerberos
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 6 | View Replies]

To: Kerberos
Reliable numbers are not available for the RC church. But my best guess is take the official numbers and multiply by .45 or .50 (45-50%). They have lost millions of members, but they keep counting them.
8 posted on 12/17/2002 6:15:19 PM PST by Iowegian
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 7 | View Replies]

To: Iowegian
"They have lost millions of members, but they keep counting them. "

Do you have any insight as to what has caused this decline?

9 posted on 12/17/2002 6:25:33 PM PST by Kerberos
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 8 | View Replies]

To: Kerberos
Do you have any insight as to what has caused this decline?

I could give you my opinion, but better to ask any of the millions who rarely, if ever, attend a RC church anymore. They aren't hard to find, they are everywhere.

10 posted on 12/17/2002 6:41:19 PM PST by Iowegian
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 9 | View Replies]

Disclaimer: Opinions posted on Free Republic are those of the individual posters and do not necessarily represent the opinion of Free Republic or its management. All materials posted herein are protected by copyright law and the exemption for fair use of copyrighted works.

Free Republic
Browse · Search
Topics · Post Article

FreeRepublic, LLC, PO BOX 9771, FRESNO, CA 93794 is powered by software copyright 2000-2008 John Robinson