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The Pew Forum's measurement of the size of religious communities in the U.S.

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Sponsored link.

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The public opinion poll:

The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life is a project of the Pew Research Center. It "...gathers and disseminates objective information through polls and reports on topics related to religion and public policy....it provides a neutral venue....for discussions of important issues where religion and politics intersect."

The Bliss Institute at the University of Akron conducted a National Survey of Religion and Politics in the spring of 2004 for the Pew Forum. A sampling of the Americans was conducted from March to May, and was completed well in advance of the 2004-NOV elections. They collected data from 4,000 adults over the age of 18 who were grouped into 18 distinct religious communities.

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Makeup of religious communities in the U.S.:

In the past, most polls simply attempted to identify American adults by denomination and religion. They counted the number of Southern Baptists, Episcopalians, Roman Catholics, etc. in their sample and estimated the number of followers that each had across the U.S.  The ARIS Study is one example. This poll attempted to study religious communities, such as the conservative wing of Evangelical Christianity, the liberal wing of Mainline Protestantism, Latino Catholics, and fifteen other groups. These communities cross denominational boundaries and include:

bulletEvangelical Protestantism: This consists of the conservative, mainline and liberal wings of Fundamentalist, other Evangelical, Pentecostal and Charismatic denominations. This includes such denominations as: the Assemblies of God; the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod; the Presbyterian Church in America; the Southern Baptist Convention, many smaller conservative faith groups, and a very large number of nondenominational -- often Fundamentalist -- churches.
bulletMainline Protestantism: This consists of the left, center and liberal wings of the Episcopal Church, USA; the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America; the Presbyterian Church (USA); the Reformed Church in America, the United Church of Christ, and the United Methodist Church, and smaller denominations with similar beliefs.

In order to capture the diversity of belief among Evangelicals, Mainline Protestants and Catholics, each was subdivided into three groups:

bulletTraditionalists: This includes Individual conservative believers with:
bulletHigh levels of orthodox belief in God, Satan, life after death, the Bible, creation science, and the truth -- or lack of it - within the world's religions), and
bulletHeavy religious involvement (attendance, financial support, prayer, scripture reading, small group participation), and
bulletA desire to hold fast to their beliefs and practices and resist pressures for change coming from society as a whole.
bulletModernists: These are believers at the other end of the scale -- those with liberal tendencies: a high level of heterodox belief, relatively low level of religious involvement, and a desire to accommodate change.
bulletCentrists: These are church members whose beliefs and practices are intermediate between the Traditionalists and Modernists.

Finally, they tabulated membership data from the major categories -- Evangelical Protestantism, Mainline Protestantism and Catholicism -- by ethnicity and/or race.

They found the following 18 religious communities, and established the size of each. The poll's margin of error is plus or minus 2%. This means that if the survey were repeated twenty times with different random samplings of American adults, any given result would be within 2% of the value shown here, for nineteen times out of twenty repeat polls:

They found:

54.7% of American adults identify themselves as Protestants. Of these:

bullet12.6% are Traditionalist Evangelicals
bullet10.8% Centrist Evangelicals
bullet02.9% Modernist Evangelicals
bulletMaking a total of 26.3% for white and non-Latino Evangelical Protestants
bullet04.3% Traditionalist Mainliners
bullet07.0% Centrist Mainliners
bullet04.7% Modernist Mainliners
bulletMaking a total of 16.0% for white and non-Latino Mainline Protestants
bullet02.8% Latino Protestants
bullet09.6% Black Protestants

22.0% are Roman Catholics:

bullet04.4% Traditionalist Catholic
bullet08.1% Centrist Catholic
bullet05.0% Modernist Catholic
bullet04.5% Latino Catholic

12.6% are followers of one or more religions not otherwise specified:

bullet02.7% Other Christian, including Christian Scientists, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, O (the Mormons), Orthodox Churches, etc.
bullet01.9% Jewish
bullet02.7% Other religions, including Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Unitarian Universalists, New Agers.
bullet05.3% Unaffiliated believers -- persons with no religious affiliation.

10.7% do reject the beliefs of established religions:

bullet07.5% Secularists -- persons with no religious affiliation who have few or no religious beliefs or practices.
bullet03.2% Atheists & Agnostics -- non-theistic beliefs.

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Some observations:

bulletReligious transition: It appears that America is poised to go through its second major religious transition. Prior to 1492 CE, the entire population of the U.S. was composed of about 500 tribes of Native Americans following an Aboriginal form of spirituality. After 1492, with the influx of Europeans, the balance shifted, and the area became predominately Protestant. Within a few years, a second shift will probably occur, placing Protestants in the minority. More details.
bulletBelief in God: Table 30 of the survey 3 shows that:
bulletMarginally more Americans regard God as a spirit or impersonal force (41%) than believe in a personal God (40%). However, this plurality is not statistically significant at this time.
bullet"Other Christians," and Traditionalists among the Evangelicals, Mainline denominations, and Catholics have a strong belief in the personhood of God (63%, 78%, 61%, 65%).
bulletAmong Modernists in Evangelical, Mainline, and Catholic denomination, those who believe that God is a spirit or impersonal force (42%,62%,66%) outnumber those who believe that God is a person (30%, 3%, 3%).
bulletIf we define the religion of a person by the God that they believe it, it can be argued that Traditionalists and Modernists among Evangelical, Mainline and Catholic denominations in the U.S. are actually following different religions.
bulletThe importance of cultural matters: When asked what was the most important problem facing the U.S. at this time:
bulletMore than 40% of American adults mentioned an economic issue (unemployment, lack of health care, poverty...);
bulletFewer than one in three mentioned a foreign policy issue (Iraqi war, terrorism, the UN...).
bulletTwenty percent mentioned a cultural matter (abortion, crime, public disorder...).
bulletLess than 10% mentioned a political process issue (media bias, campaign finance reform...).

Only Traditionalist Evangelicals ranked cultural matters as their main concern, at about 40%.

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  1. "American religious landscapes and political attitudes," The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, at: http://pewforum.org/
  2. John C Green, "American religious landscapes and political attitudes: A baseline for 2004," Pew Forum, at: http://pewforum.org/ You may need software to read these files. It can be obtained free from:

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Copyright © 2004 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance.
Written: 2004-SEP-20

Last updated: 2004-SEP-21
Author: B.A. Robinson

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