69 percent of American adults are very or moderately religious, based on self-reports of the importance of religion in their daily lives and attendance at religious services. Within that group, 40 percent are very religious, meaning that they attend religious services regularly and they say religion is important in their daily lives.
These data are based on more than 320,000 interviews conducted by Gallup between Jan. 2 and Nov. 30 of this year. Similar data going back to 2008 form the basis of the new book God Is Alive and Well: The Future of Religion in America.
Religiousness is distributed quite unequally across various subgroups and segments of the U.S. population.
The U.S. Remains a Largely Christian Nation
Broadly speaking, the United States remains a largely Christian nation, although one in which an increasing percentage of adults say that they don’t have a formal religious identity. More than three-fourths (77 percent) of American adults in 2012 identify with a Christian religion, including Protestantism, Catholicism, other Christian religions, and Mormonism. Among only those Americans who have a religious identity, 94 percent are Christians, with the rest spread across several other religious categories.
Gallup’s traditional religious identity question asks respondents about their religious preference, providing these response categories: Protestant, Roman Catholic, Mormon, Jewish, Muslim, another religion, or no religion. Those who say “another religion” are then asked: “Would that be a Christian religion, or is it not a Christian religion?” Most say their “other” religion is a Christian religion.
Overall, about 52 percent of American adults are either Protestant or say that their preference is another religion that is Christian but not Catholic or Mormon. 23 percent are Catholic, and 18 percent do not have a formal religious identity. Small percentages are Jewish, Mormon, Muslim, or of another religion identified as non-Christian.
Protestant Population Shrinking, “Unbranded” Religion Growing
There have been significant changes in the structure of religion in the U.S. over time. In particular, the percentage of Americans who do not have a specific religious identity has increased, while the percentage who identify as Protestant or some other non-Catholic Christian religion has decreased. This change has been accompanied by an increase in “unbranded” religion — the growth in nondenominational churches and congregations that are loosely affiliated with traditional denominations. The percentage of Americans who identify as Catholic has stayed largely the same over time, owing in part to the influx of young Catholic Hispanic immigrants. There has been no major increase in the percentage of Americans who identify with non-Christian religions.
Religion May Be Set to Become Increasingly Important in America
God Is Alive and Well reviews potential changes in religion in the U.S going forward. Although it is always difficult to predict the future, certain trends in the age composition of the American public suggest that religion may become increasingly important in the years to come. This is mostly the result of the fact that the number of Americans who are 65 and older will essentially double over the next 20 years, dramatically increasing the number of older Americans. As long as these aging baby boomers become more religious as they age – following the path of their elders – the average religiousness in the population will go up.
This trend could be counterbalanced by a lowered fertility rate among younger Americans, which is important given the significant correlation between having children and being religious.
Religiousness is significantly related to wellbeing and health. This fact may become better known in the future, increasing the chance that Americans – particularly aging baby boomers – may look to religion as a positive component of their way of life. Business and government leaders may take these correlates of religiousness into account in their quest to increase employee wellbeing and lower healthcare costs.
Additionally, Americans have been migrating to more religious rather than less religious states over the past decade, something that could have its own effect on the religiousness of the nation.
There will be continuing changes to the ways in which people worship in the years ahead, most likely an extension of the current trends toward unbranded, nondenominational, more free-form religious expression. This has significant implications for the future of traditional mainline religious groups that are slower to adapt to change.
There may be changes to the ways in which religion relates to secular aspects of American society. One of these is politics; it is possible that in the years ahead Democrats may increasingly contest Republicans for a larger share of the vote of the very religious. Accompanying this is the possibility that very religious Americans may shift their focus from family- and values-oriented issues to broader social issues such as justice, equity, and discrimination.
The fact that women are more religious than men is discordant with the fact that large religious groups in the U.S. prohibit women from being clergy. These groups, including Catholics and Southern Baptists, may find themselves in a gender crisis of sorts, with the increasing chance of losing their most fervent members to religious groups more formally open to women at all levels of service to the church.
As the book God Is Alive and Well concludes, it is highly likely that religion will continue to be an important component of American life in the years ahead, even as the ways in which religiousness is expressed and the ways in which people worship may undergo significant change.