Robert P. Jones: Don't write off mainline Protestants
The narrative of decline in the mainline church underestimates the continuing influence of its members, says a religion researcher.
February 26, 2013 | Robert P. Jones is the CEO of Public Religion Research Institute in Washington, D.C., a nonpartisan nonprofit that focuses on the intersection of religion, values and public life.
Using public opinion surveys and qualitative research, PRRI seeks to understand and inform the public about religion in American life.
Digging into the data adds some surprising nuances to familiar narratives about the church, the religiously unaffiliated and the influence of Christian leaders, Jones said.
“We do take theology seriously,” Jones said. “Understanding … what happens when theological ideals are enmeshed in congregational life is certainly very helpful as a survey researcher.”
Jones, who earned an M.Div. from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and a Ph.D. in religion from Emory University, writes “Figuring Faith” for the On Faith blog network of The Washington Post.
He is the author of two books, “Progressive & Religious: How Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Buddhist Leaders Are Moving Beyond the Culture Wars and Transforming American Public Life” and “Liberalism’s Troubled Search for Equality.”
Jones spoke to Faith & Leadership while at Duke University to give a lecture as part of the Religions and Public Life initiative. The following is an edited transcript.
Q: What trends do you see in American religious life that you think are underreported or underappreciated?
Clergy are going to have to grapple with not just the increasing pluralism in their communities but the increasing pluralism in their pews.
Rates of intermarriage are going up. A significant number of Americans are switching their religious affiliation. I think the days of standing in the pulpit looking out in the pews in a Presbyterian church or a Methodist church and thinking most of these people in here are cradle-to-grave are gone.
More than three in 10 Americans are switching their religious affiliation at least once -- and I don’t just mean Methodist to Presbyterian. I mean Catholic to mainline Protestant or Muslim to Buddhist. They’re big switches, not just denominational trades.
The other, I think, really interesting thing is the ways in which the ideological divides in the country over things like abortion and, increasingly, same-sex marriage have in some very complex ways lowered the boundaries between denominations.
For example, the Catholic Church is in the process of creating special categories to receive converts from Anglicanism who are disaffected with the more liberal trends in Anglicanism or to receive conservative Lutherans who are mad about the Lutherans’ position on affirming openly gay pastors.
That’s a really interesting set of circumstances -- a kind of ideological sifting that’s been going on for quite some time -- but these institutional channels are designed to speed that process up as the barriers come down for people.
One thing that has gotten some ink, but we just haven’t fully felt its impact, is the rise of the unaffiliated in America.
In the early 1990s, we were in the single digits for how many people in America said they had no religious affiliation. We’re now at 19 percent. In a very short time, those numbers have nearly tripled, and among young people you’re looking at about a third of young people saying they have no religious preference.
Q: What have you learned about the unaffiliated?
We were able to identify three subgroups among that 19 percent of the country that now calls itself unaffiliated.
The first one is, I guess, one that everybody is not surprised about -- atheist and agnostic. That’s about four in 10 of that unaffiliated group.
Another four in 10 are people who say they’re not atheist or agnostic but they’re just kind of secular. They’re not religious, but they’re also not atheist or agnostic.
Then the last group, which I think is one of the more interesting subgroups that really hadn’t been identified prior to this survey a few months ago, was a group that we called “unattached believers.”
These are people that by most measures are pretty religious people, but yet when you ask them what is their religion, they say “nothing in particular.”
They tend to be more minority. They tend to be a little bit lower-educated. They believe in a personal God. They say they attend religious services a few times a year at least, but yet they’re not attached to a religious tradition.
Q: Are those the “spiritual but not religious” folks that you hear about?
I think they’re actually religious -- just not institutionally religious.
If you didn’t know that they had said “nothing in particular” and you just looked at [whether] they have a literal view of the Bible, do they believe in a personal God, do they attend religious services a few times a year, you would call them religious.
That’s why we label them unattached believers -- because they believe. They believe many of these traditional theological beliefs. They’re just not connected to an institutional form of religion.
Q: Are they Christian?
We don’t know. When you ask them, “Are you Protestant, Catholic, Jewish?” -- and we even have a follow-up question and ask, “Is it a Christian religion?” -- they just say, “I’m nothing in particular.” That’s it.