Church Membership, U.S.

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Numerical summaries of religious affiliation in the United States, besides being of statistical interest, also are valuable as indices of the relative strength, distribution, and culture of various religious populations. In addition, changes over time in the membership and configuration of religious groups help to provide an indication of shifts in the direction of American religious observance and practice. Figures for religious affiliation, then, are an important resource in the social scientific study of religion in the United States.

Sources. An immediate difficulty in assessing American church membership is the absence of a single source for religious demographics. While the federal government issued a series of census reports on religious affiliation in 1890, 1906, 1916, 1926, and 1936, the practice was abandoned after that time following protests to the Department of Commerce that the gathering of such information violated the separation of Church and State.

For Christian churches, the best single source of data after 1936 is annual Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches (prior to 1973, the Yearbook of American Churches ) published by the National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. The 2001 edition of this yearbook provides listings for approximately 180 different religious denominations. While the Yearbook gives a taxative numerical list of religious data including membership, clergy, churches and Sunday schools, it is limited by its reliance on denominational reporting. Figures for a single religious group over a short time span sometimes exhibit wide fluctuations, suggesting that the manner of data collection and reporting is inconsistent. Additionally, some denominations fail to report annually, resulting in the listing of statistics that, in some cases, are more than ten years old. Finally, different bodies define membership differently and even the utilization of two categories for membership does not entirely solve this problem.

For Catholics, the annual Official Catholic Directory supplies relatively accurate numbers. This is the result of fairly thorough data collection by individual dioceses and a standard mode of aggregation by the directory's publishers. However, many loosely affiliated Catholics, especially recent immigrants, who fail to register with local parishes remain unrepresented. This problem is of growing concern given the continuing influx of immigrants from Latin America, most of whom come from traditionally Catholic backgrounds.

Estimates of Jewish religious membership must be taken from the American Jewish Yearbook. Here, however, affiliation is defined somewhat differently than in the previously mentioned sources. Data on Jewish religious affiliation is much more a "culture count," since the data is approximated from various sources and is not based on the membership rolls of local synagogues. As significant is the failure of the Yearbook to indicate affiliation by the major religious groupings of Reconstructionist, Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox. Essentially, the figures provided indicate involvement in some form of Jewish activity, rather than index membership in explicitly religious organizations.

Affiliation figures for other non-Christian groups are estimates at best. While Islam is one of America's fastest growing religions, the absence of any central agency for record-keeping makes data collection difficult. A further problem involves the question of whether organizations like the Nation of Islam are considered to be Muslim for demographic purposes. Similarly, although the American Hindu population has increased dramatically in recent years as a result of immigration, accurate numerical data are hard to obtain. This makes assessment of the entire religious configuration of America extremely difficult.

One recent source is worthy of mention. The result of a nationwide survey of 113,000 Americans conducted in 1990, the National Survey of Religious Identification (NSRI) is the most comprehensive recent study of religious affiliation in the United States. However, its usefulness in spotting religious trends will be limited until there is at least another survey collected in the same manner to provide multiple data points for comparison.

General Observations. To a significant degree, the general contours of American religion have changed relatively little since the mid-1960s. Major denominations continue to be important elements in the religious landscape in the early twenty-first century. In terms of numbers, Roman Catholicism continues to be the largest religious denomination in the United States. The Southern Baptist Convention is the second largest group, as it was in 1965, though by a wider margin than was the case at that time. Among Protestants, other major groups over the last half century have been the American Baptists, Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, United Methodists, Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., Episcopalians, and United Church of Christ. With the exception of the Missouri Synod Lutherans, all of these are liberal or centrist churches, sometimes referred to as "mainline" denominations. While strictly speaking not Protestant in origin or theology, the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints has also been a major American denomination for over half a century. Two Eastern Orthodox groups also have had significant membership during these years. These are the Orthodox Church in America, largely Slavic in origin, and the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North and South America.

Among non-Christian groups, Jews remained the largest at the beginning of the twenty-first century, as they were at the middle of the twentieth. Their actual numbers are hard to determine, however, for several reasons. There was a generally decline in the American Jewish population during the last half of the twentieth century. Moreover, the issue of whether Jewish numbers are determined by ethnic criteria or religious observance exercises a significant impact on ranking. Finally, the rapid growth of Islam in America threatens the Jewish numerical superiority, although accurate numbers here are also difficult to obtain. In all probability, at the beginning of the twenty-first century Judaism continues to be the largest non-Christian religion in the United States, followed by Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism.

Religious Shifts. At the same time, the relative position of various groups within the American religious constellation continues to change. This serves as an index of shifts in the religious perspectives and preferences of the population as a whole.

The Roman Catholic Church continues to exhibit a pattern of growth, with about 62 million members in 2000, compared with about 49.6 million in 1980, and 44.8 million in 1965. Studies suggest that much of this is due to the influx of immigrants from traditionally Catholic countries in Latin America. The higher birth rate within such immigrant communities from lower socioeconomic groups has enhanced this trend.

Within the ranks of American Protestantism, the most obvious growth has been among conservative churches. From a total membership of around 10.4 million in 1965, for example, Southern Baptists had grown to some 15.7 million by 2000. Similarly, the Seventh Day Adventists increased from 346 thousand in 1965 to nearly 840 thousand in 2000, more than doubling their membership. The Church of the Nazarene likewise grew from 342 to 623 thousand during the same period, while the relatively small Church of God (Anderson, Indiana) increased from 144 to 234 thousand.

Arguably, the most dramatic growth in the latter part of the twentieth century was by the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints. With about 1.79 million members in 1965, it had grown to 2.54 million by 1980, and 4.42 million in 2000. This was largely the result of intense missionary activity by the church throughout the United States.

There has also been a notable rise in membership in two Eastern Orthodox bodies. The Orthodox Church in America with 750 thousand members in 1965 increased to 1 million by 2000, while the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese grew from 1.55 to 1.95 million during the same period. In the former case, conversion was a major factor while increased immigration accounted for much of the increase in the latter.

This gain in conservative Christianity has been paralleled by a decline in liberal and centrist groups. The United Methodist Church, for example, has gone from 10.2 million members in 1965 to 8.4 million in 2000, and similar decline can be seen in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Most dramatically, the Episcopal Church went from around 3.3 million members in 1962 to around 1.6 million in 2000. Other groups experiencing decline have been the American Baptists, Disciples of Christ, and United Church of Christ. Over the course of less than half a century, these denominations, mostly characterized as "mainline," have become significantly less numerically powerful.

Outside the Christian sector, a similar conservative trend is demonstrated by significant changes in America's Jewish and Islamic populations. Decreases in the Jewish population continued throughout the second half of the twentieth century, with a decline of about 10 percent between 1990 and 2001 alone, resulting in around2.8 million adherents. This largely is accounted for by a declining birth rate and rising number of intermarriages, now over 50 percent. What growth has occurred has been in the Orthodox sector.

During this same period of ten years, however, the American Muslim population grew from an estimated 527 thousand to 1.1 million, a 109 percent increase. In 2001, Muslims accounted for approximately .5 percent of the U.S. religious population. While the estimated number of Jews is still considerably greater, such demographic trends make it likely that Islam will overtake Judaism as America's second largest religious group (after Christianity) during the twenty-first century.

Demographic Differences by Denomination. Within American Christianity, different denominations exhibit varying patterns of attendance, church size, and geographic concentration. These are useful indicators of differing modes of organization and group culture.

In 2001, conservative denominations led in percentage of members attending church weekly. Mormons were first with 71 percent, followed by Assemblies of God (69 percent), Pentecostals (66 percent) and Baptists (50 percent). Conversely, among Episcopalians, only around 30 percent were weekly attenders. Weekly attendance by Roman Catholics was around 48 percent, reflecting the significant gap between those who identify themselves as members of this community and those who practice regularly.

The number of churches and congregants per church varies widely among the ten religious bodies with the most churches in the United States. In 1990, the Southern Baptists led with nearly 38 thousand churches, followed closely by the United Methodists with 37 thousand. Catholics ranked third with around 22 thousand churches, followed by the Churches of Christ, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Assemblies of God, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, and Episcopalians. However, Catholics ranked first in the number of congregants per church with 2, 380. Southern Baptists came in second with 499 and Evangelical Lutherans with 479, while Jehovah's Witnesses (161) and Churches of Christ (128) had the smallest congregations. Especially noteworthy in these numbers is the marked difference between the Roman Catholic pattern of smaller numbers of large parishes compared with Protestantism's dramatically smaller congregational size even in denominations with relatively large numbers of churches and adherents. These likely reflect in part the relative differences in emphases between Catholicism's sacramental focus and the more word-dominant Protestant orientation.

That America's religious populations are not randomly distributed geographically is clear from the numerical data. Catholics, in 1990, were the largest religious body in 36 states. These tended to be clustered in the Northeast, New England, the Midwest, Great Plains, and West Coast, with Rhode Island having the highest percentage of Catholic population (63 percent). Southern Baptists tend to be strongest in the Southern and Middle Border states. Their density is highest in Mississippi, with one citizen in three a church member. Methodists were largely to be found in the Plains States, as well as the Midwest, Northeast, and New England. Only in West Virginia, however, were they the largest denomination, with 10 percent of the population. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America was strongest in the Upper Midwest, and was the largest religious group in North Dakota (28 percent of the population). Mormons were concentrated in the Inter-Mountain West and West Coast states, with 71 percent of Utah's citizens, and 27 percent of Idaho's, members of this church.

This geographic distribution of religious populations reflects both patterns of immigration and denominational history. American Catholic immigrants, though mainly from rural backgrounds, disproportionately settled in urban centers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, fueling the nation's industrial development. Their concentration in the Midwest, Northeast, and New England reflects this early pattern. Similarly, Scandinavian immigrants tended to settle in states like Wisconsin, Minnesota, and the Dakotas, resuming the agricultural vocations they had previously undertaken. The concentration of Evangelical Lutherans in this region reflects the ethnic character of the denominations that merged into that church in 1988.

The Southern Baptist Convention was formed in 1845 when American Baptists split along geographical lines on the issue of abolition. This church's name reflects its regional homeland, still a center of its strength. The Mormon migration to Utah in the nineteenth century to avoid persecution made the Inter-Mountain West a locus of church activity. This is seen today in Mormon concentrations in the western part of the Inter-Mountain West, California, and the Pacific Northwest. A large number of United Church of Christ congregations (as distinct from members) in Hawaii is a legacy of intense missionary activity by that church in Polynesia during the nineteenth century.

Geographic clustering is also reflected in the population distribution of America's two most numerous non-Christian religions. Muslims were most frequently found in New York and New Jersey in the East, Ohio, Illinois and Michigan in the Midwest, California in the West and Florida in the South. This distribution in part reflects settlement patterns of Arabs for economic reasons in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries as well as a desire to locate in climates comparable to those of the Middle East and South Asia. American Jews, on the other hand, were most prevalent in the Northeast, especially New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts, Florida and Maryland in the South, Illinois in the Midwest, and California in the West. The essentially urban character of this religious group is indicated by the fact that the metropolitan areas of New York, Los Angeles, Miami, and Chicago together accounted for over 50 percent of the American Jewish population. Here again, the relatively greater opportunities for immigrants in urban America during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries account for much of the Jewish pattern of settlement in the urban areas of states with large commercial and industrial bases.

Conclusions. Numerical data regarding religious populations in the United States both provide summary indices about specific American faith communities and indicate the general contours of religion in the nation as a whole. Geographic density, church size, and attendance data point out how individual religious groups are organized and give indications about their histories and patterns of initial settlement and expansion. Indirectly, they also help to demonstrate how theological tenets are expressed in concrete demographic arrangements.

Viewed longitudinally, membership data provide a useful indication of shifts within the American religious ecology. Here, the most obvious trend of the second half of the twentieth century and beginning of the twenty-first was the growing strength of conservative religious groups, and the concomitant diminution of "mainline" centrist and liberal denominations. Within the Protestant sector, the growth of evangelical and Pentecostal churches like the Southern Baptists and Assemblies of God were illustrative of this conservative impulse. During the same period, more liberal denominations such as the United Church of Christ and Episcopal Church suffered significant declines. The substantial rise in membership within the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints also testified to this trend. Increasing American religious conservatism, too, was indicated in the losses within the liberal sector of Judaism, as well as the dramatic gains made by Islam in the second half of the twentieth century. Data gathered in the 1990s suggest that these will continue to be the directions of religion in the United States well into the twenty-first century.

Bibliography: The results of the National Survey of Religious Identification are published in b. kosmin and s. lachman, One Nation under God: Religion in Contemporary American Society (New York 1993). Glenmary Research Center, Churches and Church Membership in the United States, 1990 (Atlanta 1992).

[f. m. perko]

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Church Membership, U.S.

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