April 1, 2001
Changing Religious Demographics
-- Martin E. Marty
Various explanations are offered for religious change in the United States, among them "church growth" or "mainline apathy" or, on occasion, the devil. Sightings has no empirical data on the last of these causes, but one hears the others cited constantly.
But these days, demography outranks them all as a catalyst. Demography as an agent of religious reconfigurations is getting fifty updates these days as the U.S. Census figures for 2000 are being released, roughly one state per day, to the newspapers. Then the mapmakers and chart-designers get busy making the reports vivid.
None is likely to have more impact than the statistics released this past Friday, March 30. They deal with California, where one of eight Americans now live. For the first time since the nation was founded and the states have reported, a white population has been reduced to minority status. Los Angeles is now 31 percent white, 45 percent Histrongic, 9 percent black, and 12 percent Asian. Other states will not soon match this mix -- a mix also signaled by the presence of 903,115 who list themselves as multiracial. But get ready, everyone else.
If the American pie for decades has been sliced into three quarters marked Catholic, evangelical, and mainline (with African-American making up one-third of the remaining quarter), expect shifts next time the polltaker makes the rounds asking "What is your religious preference?" Count on some shuffling.
I recently attended a major conference marking the retirement of Professor Jay Dolan at the University of Notre Dame, where he was the guiding force behind the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism. His successor, R. Scott Appleby, and crew saw to it that Hispanic (Latino/a, Cuban, Puerto Rican, Central American, Mexican) scholars were well-represented. As historians, they deal with the past. As trend-spotters, they talked of the future and they also helped to embody it. One has to have eyes closed or blinders on to walk away from the study American Catholicism without foreseeing the huge role Hispanics will play in the future, atop and beyond the role they are now playing as one-fourth of the church.
Evangelicals of many sorts, especially Pentecostals and Southern Baptists, are "working the Hispanic influx" ardently, recognizing that millions are nominal or post- or ex- and sometimes even anti-Catholic.
The mainline will struggle. Think of the heirs of the colonial big three: United Church of Christ, Episcopal, Presbyterian. Or the frontier big three: Methodist, (Northern) Baptist, Disciples of Christ. Or the European Continental big three: Lutheran, Reformed, "Anabaptist." In all cases you will see churches with tiny percentages of non-white members, and an even tinier portion of Hispanic congregants.
If such churches want to serve and prosper, the best advice might be to learn a new language, and new ways.