The Latest US Religion Demographic Data

Ah, the Siren Song of new data…

In case you were not on social media yesterday the Pew Research Center released their new report on American’s Changing Religious Landscape and it is all over the interwebs from national mainstream media, to local news outlets, to the religious news sources to bloggers to the people in the pew. And don’t worry if you have missed it because it probably only quantifies what you already know. I like the way Derek Rishmanwy put it on Twitter:

The cool thing about Pew numbers is how versatile they are; bloggers can wear them with triumph, grief, & multiple shades of schadenfreude!

And a nod to Andrew Wilson and his tweeted observation:

Ironic, a few days after the UK discovered just how inaccurate polls can be, to see so much excitement / distress in the US over … a poll.

All that to say, I initially thought I would just look at it and say “Nothing to see here. Move along folks.”

But remember that my mantra is “I never met a data set I didn’t like,” so casting caution to the wind I jumped into the fray. Now join me as I drill down into a very small piece of the data released with this report.

First, in the event you have not taken a look, let me give you the bullet points everyone else is focusing on. Between the last survey in 2007 and this one in 2014:

  • The proportion of the population identified as part of mainline denominations has dropped 3.4% from 18.1% to 14.7% of the population
  • At the same time those classified as part of evangelical Protestant churches has dropped 0.9% from 26.3% to 25.4%
  • There was a 1.2% gain in non-Christian faiths (now 5.9% of the total population) and a 6.7% gain in what they identify as Unaffiliated which has grown to 22.8% of the population.

Now, Pew favors reporting in percentages since they are most interested in the proportional interplay of groups. But it is instructive in this case to convert this into absolute numbers. So in 2007 the estimated population of the U.S. was about 301.6 million. By 2014 it had grown to 318.9 million. Using the above numbers that means that the mainline decreased from 54.6 million to 46.9 million. However, in an absolute sense the number of evangelical Protestants grew from 79.3 million to 81.0 million.

OK, now my two biggest pet peeves about this data set. (Yes, this data set pushes the limits of meeting data sets I didn’t like).

  • The basic categories for Protestants are mainline, evangelical and historically black. In other words, if you are not the first or the last you must be evangelical – that mushy category that is tough to define. So, for example, you are combining into a single group those that subscribe to the Westminster Standards with those that have “No creed but Christ, no book but the Bible, no name but the name Christian.” I think this classification could be a bit more granular.
  • The category Unaffiliated is similarly a catch-all, at least at least as I look at it. The category includes Atheists (3.1% of the population), Agnostics (4.0%) and Nothing In Particular (15.8%). Furthermore, the Nothing In Particular are further divided into Religion Not Important (8.8%) and Religion Important (6.9%). Jack Jenkins over at Think Progress dissects this corner of the classification a bit more.

Specific to that first bullet point though, Appendix B says:

Protestant respondents who gave a vague answer to denominational questions (e.g., “I am just a Baptist” or “I know I am Methodist but don’t know which specific Methodist denomination I belong to”) were placed into one of the three Protestant traditions based on their race and/or their response to a question that asked if they would describe themselves as a “born-again or evangelical Christian.”

OK, so if I am PC(USA), but don’t know or admit that I am PC(USA) and acknowledge to being born again, I get placed in the Evangelical Presbyterian category. Likewise, someone in another Presbyterian tradition that does not identify which one but does not consider regeneration to be technically the same as being born again, they would be placed in the mainline. To this point the report goes on:

Overall, 38% of Protestants (including 36% of evangelical Protestants, 35% of mainline Protestants and 53% of those in the historically black Protestant tradition) gave a vague denominational identity, necessitating the use of their race or their born-again status (or sometimes both) to categorize them into one of the three major Protestant traditions.

That appendix does list 16 different Evangelical Presbyterian categories that were reported, some of which were specific (exempli gratia: Presbyterian Church in America, Cumberland Presbyterian, Bible Presbyterian), some of which are ambiguous (does Reformed Presbyterian refer to the RPCNA or to the Hanover Presbytery?) and some are general catch-all categories like Ethnic Presbyterian and “Presbyterian, ambiguous affiliation.”

[I will note that the main report does have a two page section (beginning on page 30) on identifying evangelicals and they discuss how it can be by denomination (so Presbyterians are never evangelical), by the born-again test, or by a more detailed analysis of their beliefs. The latter is outside the scope of this report but they expect another report on that later.]

So in the report of data they group Presbyterians into three categories: the mainline PC(USA) and two Evangelical categories: PCA and everyone else. I found it interesting that in the population numbers reported in that appendix the size of the PC(USA) and the size of the Evangelical everyone else was the same with each being 1.1% of the population in 2007 and 0.9% in 2014. The PCA held steady at 0.4% of the population. For comparison purposes, if the PC(USA) had about 1.7 million members in 2014 and the US population was 318.9 million that means that only 0.5% of the population of the US was a member of the PC(USA). So based on the Pew results the adherents, or those who identify with the PC(USA), almost doubles when you consider how people self-identify or the survey classifies ambiguous answers.

Moving on to the detailed data, I will focus only on Presbyterians and refer only to the breakout pages for Presbyterians. There is one for Mainline Presbyterians generally and a subset for the PC(USA). Similarly, there is one for Evangelical Presbyterians and the subset for the PCA. So keep in mind that for the the general evangelical numbers, about half are the PCA. In addition, since I am not sure what a mainline Presbyterian who is not in the PC(USA) is I will simply focus on the PC(USA) data. But there is another 0.5% of the population that they classify as being mainline without being PC(USA).

And as I start this drill-down let me add this warning: I will be looking at small changes in some of the categories but my interest must be tempered with caution, or even skepticism, because the table of Margins of Error shows that for these sample sizes the margin is between +/-7% and +/-5.5%. That means that while many of the differences between the numbers below are interesting, very few of them are statistically significant.

So let’s start with Age.

I find it interesting that differences between all the Presbyterian categories were so similar in the 2007 survey. In general, they all had about 10% in the 18-29 age group, and 30% in each of the other age groups – 30-49, 50-64 and 65+. Yes, there are some slight differences but the pattern looks solid and there are uncertainty ranges (and the ambiguous classifications) to consider so I don’t get too concerned about that range.

Between 2007 and 2014 the PC(USA) and the PCA show very similar patterns of change in the age ranges. The youngest range stays the same, the 30-49 range decreases markedly ( -11% for the PCA and -9% for the PC(USA) ), the 50-64 range also remains the same and the 65+ range increases markedly ( +12% for the PCA and +6% for the PC(USA) ). The general evangelical as a whole shows less change in each category except that there is a marked increase in the 50-64 range ( +6%).

Gender composition

In terms of gender composition the PC(USA) remained steady at 45%/55% men to women. The PCA and the overall general evangelical both had a 5% shift from men to women.

Racial composition

Each of the groups became more diverse over the last five years with the PC(USA) dropping from 91% to 88% white, the PCA from 86% to 80% white and the general group from 88% to 81%.

For the PC(USA) the change was distributed over all the other categories with Black respondents increasing from 4% to 5%, Asian from 2% to 3% and Latino from 2% to 4%.

In the PCA it was a similar pattern for Black adherents with an increase of 5% to 6%. Asian members decreased from 4% to 3%. The biggest increase was in the Other/Mixed category jumping from 1% to 5% and a noticeable increase in the Latino category from 4% to 6%.

For the combined general evangelical category the Black percentage increased from 4% to 6%, the Asian from 3% to 5%, Other/Mixed from 1% to 4% and Latino was constant at 4%.

Income and Education

These two demographic measures appear to have some correlation as you might expect. For the PC(USA) the peak in annual household income shifted from the $50,000-$99,999 group in 2007 (37%) to the $100,000+ group in 2014. Actually, considering the margin of error the two bins are pretty close in 2014 with that lower bin having 29%. For education, the distribution is pretty flat in 2014 with just about 25% in each of the categories – High School or less, Some College, College, Post-graduate.

The interesting thing across all three classifications of Presbyterians for income is that it is bi-modal as they have binned it. In all the cases there is a lower peak in the <$30,000 bin. For 2014 the PC(USA) it is 24%, for the PC it is 27% and for the general evangelical it is 28%.

For the PCA and general evangelical the income distributions have their primary peak in the $50,000-$99,999 range with 31% in the PCA and 21% in the general. Likewise, the education peak for both groups is in the Some College bracket with 37% of the PCA and 35% of the general.

I suggested the income/education correlation, but another one comes to mind. Is the apparent correlation age reflecting the higher incomes in the PC(USA) does an older demographic with higher earning power or with more two-wage earner households account for that result.

Switching and Retention

The last set of data I want to look at is the information on individuals switching denominations and the retention of members. For this we need to turn to the section in the full report beginning on page 32. Overall, 19.0% of the country grew up in the mainline Protestant church. In the survey the measurement is that 10.4% of the population has left, 6.1% have switch into the mainline giving 14.7% now in the mainline. For evangelical Protestants the numbers are 23.9% that grew up in it, 8.4% left, 9.8% joined and now 25.4% are in that category.

Looking at all Presbyterians, 3.0% of the population grew up in a Presbyterian church of some flavor. Those who have left make up 2.0% of the US population and those that have joined make up 1.1% for a current total of 2.2% of the population.

Now, returning back to that margin of error stuff – in compiling all this data is struck me that there are some interesting differences between these three groups, but based on the demographic data in the report these three groups of Presbyterians are not that different after all.

So where do we go from here?

One thing that struck me was the “the sky is falling” response. As I said in the early discussion there is nothing new about these demographic changes. A lot of attention is being paid to the Unaffiliated growth but this group comes in a number of flavors and I am not sure combining them gives much insight. Looking at the data my interpretation is that the Nothing in Particular category has now become the point for loosely or barely affiliated individuals to now identify with. As Ed Stetzer puts it in his helpful analysis

One of the primary reasons it appears as though “American Christianity” is experiencing a sharp decline is because the nominals that once made up (disproportionately) Mainline Protestantism and Catholicism are now checking “none” on religious affiliation surveys.

In the long view what is happening now is more of a pruning or consolidation. A vital core is still there for the church to move forward.

However, this consolidation does not seem to favor the mainline. There are enough theories as to why that is the case that I won’t go there now. But I think the same principle applies — there is pruning and consolidation going on with that branch. The key will be finding a central core and shared vision to organize around in the years ahead.

Can the mainline do that? It will be interesting to see. There is certainly a lot of pruning going on in the PC(USA) although you will get significant discussion as to whether there the mainline is the core that needs to be pruned or the part that is being shed in the consolidation. But with the Split-P’s the divisions come and reunion later comes as well. We will have to see which groups can develop strong cores or whether the declines will overtake them before they can.

I also wanted to add that for purposes of forecasting future trends grouping and reporting the data a bit differently would be useful. The primary example is the age data where the ranges are large enough that having a report with shifted age ranges so that individuals in the 2007 report are in the same group in the 2014 report would be useful. Even better, maybe a report with the age ranges reflecting the customary demographic groups – Builders, Boomers, Gen X and Millennials – could be considered. The purpose of course is to isolate the groups to see if they fit the oft-reported trends. Similarly, when dealing with something like household income it would be helpful to not just see it in the bins but also report the quartiles of the data.

So there are a few of the things I was chasing here. A couple other items jump out at me but this close to the opening of the Church of Scotland General Assembly convening that I want to chase those any further. Lots to think about here so something to return to later if times get slow. And there is always that report on Evangelical Protestants. But for now…

… On to Edinburgh

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