When Pope Benedict XVI goes to America next week, he will find a religious landscape different from that which greeted his predecessor John Paul II. He will be greeted by an American Catholicism that has been haemorrhaging non-Hispanic whites, mainline Protestants who have diminished in numbers and importance, and the emergence of evangelicalism as the largest religious tradition in America.
Benedict may also find less Protestant hostility to Rome and the papacy than at any previous time in American history.
These are some of the startling implications of the most important survey of American religion in decades. In February 2008 the Pew Research Center released its first report on the “US Religious Landscape Survey,” a massive study that conducted 35,000 in-depth interviews of a representative sample of American adults between May and August 2007.
Some things have stayed the same in American religion. For example, atheists and agnostics taken together still number only 4 percent of American adults, and Protestants still outnumber Catholics by more than 2 to 1.
But there are striking differences. The Protestant market share is shrinking markedly: as recently as the 1980s Protestants were two-thirds of the adult population, but now they are only 51 percent. According to the Landscape Survey’s summary, “The United States is on the verge of becoming a minority Protestant country.”
There is also a new “loosening of denominationalism.” More than one-quarter of American adults (28 percent) have left the faith in which they were raised in favour of another religion—or no religion at all. 16 percent of American adults say they are unaffiliated with any particular religion. But one-third of these people are adopting the European pattern of “believing without belonging.” They say religion is “important” to them, but they haven’t joined a religious group.
No American religion has lost more than Catholicism: 32 percent of those raised Catholic have left the Church — half of those have become Protestant, usually joining an evangelical church.
The American Catholic Church has retained its market share—one-fourth of America—but only because of Hispanic immigration. Latinos are now one-third of all U.S. Catholics, and nearly half of all Catholics between the ages of 18 and 29. This reflects the burgeoning Latino community — now 14 percent of the U.S. population and projected to be 29 percent by 2050.
Twenty per cent of all American Latinos have left the Catholic Church, and most have joined evangelical churches. According to Gastón Espinoza, president of La Comunidad of Hispanic Scholars of Religion, there are “nine million US Latino Protestants [and they] are overwhelmingly Evangelical and Pentecostal in their orientation.”
Another big change is the “homogenous, ageing and diminishing” state of mainline Protestantism. Once the majority of Americans, now these Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Episcopalians and Congregationalists number only 18.1 percent of American adults.
They are divided internally by questions about sexuality, biblical authority, and the necessity of Jesus for salvation. “Progressives” regard the biblical restriction of sex and procreation to heterosexual marriage as unenlightened and uncompassionate, and think non-Christians can be saved without Jesus. Self-styled “orthodox” say the Bible’s vision of sex and marriage is true for all ages, and that Jesus is the only Saviour.
Progressives define the gospel as liberation from earthly structures of oppression such as racism, sexism, heterosexism and imperialism. The orthodox retain the traditional definition of gospel as salvation by Jesus’ death and resurrection from sin, death and the devil.
Evangelicals now number 26.3 percent of American adults. Unlike mainline Protestants, they are young and growing. But like mainline Protestants, they are also divided. While all evangelicals agree that the Bible is their authority and they should share their faith with others, there are differences between those who prefer the term “fundamentalist” and the rest of the evangelicals.
Fundamentalists tend to read the Bible more literally, while other evangelicals tend to look more carefully at genre and literary and historical context. Fundamentalists question the value of human culture that is not created by Christians or related to the Bible, whereas more evangelicals see God’s “common grace” working in and through all human culture. Fundamentalists tend to restrict their social witness to protests against homosexual practice and abortion, but most evangelicals also want to fight racism, sexism and poverty.
The growing strength of evangelicalism is one reason why the Pope may find more openness from Protestants than ever before. While fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals continue to denounce Catholicism as false religion because they think it teaches salvation by good works, evangelical leaders in recent years have found common cause with Catholics. This began with the pro-life movement, in which evangelicals and Catholics found themselves working together in the 1970s and 80s to fight abortion-on-demand. Then in 1994 prominent evangelical leaders joined hands with Catholic theologians to start “Evangelicals and Catholics Together,” a movement that has pointed to theological agreements on the Bible and salvation while at the same time disagreeing about prayer to Mary and the saints, purgatory, and other doctrines.
For decades evangelicals in non-denominational charismatic and Pentecostal churches, which may number half of all American evangelicals, have felt an affinity for their brethren in the Catholic charismatic movement.
A recent article in Pro Ecclesia, an American journal “of Catholic and Evangelical theology,” argues that Jonathan Edwards, the most distinguished American theologian ever and a hero to most evangelicals, held a view of salvation similar to that of Thomas Aquinas, perhaps Catholicism’s greatest theologian.
One of the most noted developments in American evangelicalism in recent years has been the rise of “emergent” and “missional” churches, which are dominated by 20-somethings who are less concerned with doctrine than social action and mystery–which some find in Catholic-like liturgy. Many of these young evangelicals admired John Paul II’s boldness and warmth, and find attractive Catholicism’s devotion to social justice, defence of biblical morality, and opposition to capital punishment.
Latino evangelicals will also be attentive to the Pope’s visit. The Landscape Survey found that most of them left Catholicism not because something negative “pushed” them out, but because the desire for more intimate religious experience in evangelical churches “pulled” them.
According to Professor Espinoza, “Many Latino Catholics who convert to Protestantism feel a little betrayed by their previous faith – wanting to know why it took a conversion experience to another tradition to facilitate and develop a relationship with Jesus Christ. But they are also less hostile to the papacy than fundamentalists because they admire the positions on family issues which the last two popes have taken.”
Even Baptists, who now represent one-third of all US Protestants and close to one-fifth of the American population, have a “selective appreciation” for the Pope. Michael McClymond, religion historian at St Louis University, says that Baptists, who in 1960 led the opposition to (Catholic) John F. Kennedy’s election to the presidency, now show a growing recognition that John Paul II and Benedict XVI have become the “de facto leaders of world-wide Christianity.”
Many mainline Protestants will also listen appreciatively to the Pope next week. The progressives among them oppose Catholic positions on birth control, women’s ordination, abortion and homosexuality. But the orthodox — for example, Episcopalians who now call themselves “Anglicans” to protest their denomination’s acceptance of liberal theology — appreciate the Vatican’s commitments to historic doctrine and morality. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (at 4.8 million members, the largest American Lutheran church) is beginning to follow the direction of the liberal Episcopal Church, but it also signed the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (1999) between the Lutheran World Federation and the Catholic Church—abandoning the anathemas Lutherans and Catholics hurled at each other nearly four hundred years before.
In short, next week in America Benedict will face a new American religious scene. He may also get a hearing that is historically unprecedented.
Gerald R. McDermott is Professor of Religion at Roanoke College, the second oldest Lutheran-related college in the US. He is the author or editor of ten books, including Understanding Jonathan Edwards: An Introduction to America’s Theologian (forthcoming from Oxford University Press).