January 8, 2001
Mapping Religious Trends
-- Martin E. Marty
The United States Census has not collected religious data since 1936.Some religious groups do not want to be numbered or to release numbers,so counting or not became a religious issue.
The same census, however, reveals much about trends that have a bearingon religious forces. So "sighting" religion takes a bit of infraredvision which, when employed, tells a good deal about the place and placesof religion at the turn of the millennium.
The newspapers put their cartographers to work and, devoting themselvesto the political implications of the counting in 2000, concentrate on whatwill happen in the redistribution of congressional seats. The messageis simple: South wins over North, West wins over East. TheNortheast may not be emptying, but it does not gain; the Southwest profitsmost. Prospering areas include California, Nevada, Arizona, Colorado,and Texas in the Southwest and Florida, Georgia, and North Carolina inthe Southeast.Meanwhile, touch upon the Great Lakes and you are in trouble: New York and Pennsylvania lose most, and Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana,and Michigan also lose relatively.
So what has any of this to do with religious trends? Plenty. It is a common observation in the sociology of religion that inheritedloyalties do not travel well. Snowbirds who flee to Sunbelts don'talways take their denominational loyalties and traditions with them. Manygravitate to the faith communities which have adapted to and exploitedtheir new cultures. Of course, plenty of the people from Great Lakesand Northeastern states transplant what they have been used to. Buteven then, they tend to acquire colorations of the cultures adapted totheir new sites.
Look at an atlas of American religion and you find that mainstream andconservative Protestants not typed as "evangelical" (the United Churchof Christ, Presbyterian, Episcopal, Disciples of Christ, and Lutherans)are strongest in the states that lose population status. Do these denominationshold enough of the transplants in new settings for them to hold their placenationally? The population moves also help account for some of theconservatizing of the United Methodists, as the Sunbelters absorb migrantsfrom the more staid North.
If what we call the "country-and-westernization" of American religioninthe past half-century is to slow down and let the more traditional andclassic styles of worship, the arts, congregational life, and social ethicsto thrive, population movements now and tomorrow will not provide muchhelp. So suggests one more decanal census. The Catholic storydiffers somewhat, but is not exempt from the trends.