New Polling Illustrates Need for Inclusive Religious Freedom

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Religious and cultural diversity are among our nation’s greatest strengths. And as we look ahead, Interfaith Alliance is committed to advancing an inclusive vision of religious freedom – one that ensures that all of us have the right to believe as we choose, without fear of discrimination or harm. 

To accomplish this goal, our work is guided by a clear-eyed understanding of America’s religious landscape. A recent survey reveals that the future of religion in America will be defined by racial and religious diversity. These findings have prompted new questions about the role of religion in the United States.

Voices on the Religious Right have lamented the decline of religion in the United States, even waging a rhetorical campaign against “the war on religion.” Yet research shows that, even as our national demographics are changing, religion continues to have a robust and meaningful place in American community life.

An inclusive view of religious freedom, one that protects Americans of faith and those who don’t profess a particular faith, does not diminish the central role that religion plays in communities across the country. Instead, when we celebrate our growing pluralism, we embrace a future where all are free to follow the religion of their choosing or no religion at all, with respect for the autonomy of others to do the same.

Religious identification in America is increasingly diverse. 

A comprehensive national survey conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) revealed that the future of religion in America is distinctly diverse. Americans ages 18–29 are the most religiously diverse age group, including a sizable percentage of individuals that do not identify with a particular religion. More than 1 in 3 young people now identify as unaffiliated, a broad category that may include those who are spiritual, agnostic, atheist, and more. This follows a trend that has been happening for the past few decades – the shrinking of a white Christian majority, alongside a rise in religiously unaffiliated Americans.

Mainline Protestants and evangelicals hold steady.

But surprisingly, this most recent survey showed that the decline in white evangelicals and mainline Protestants has stabilized. Over the past few decades, the white Christian proportion of the U.S. population has declined by nearly one-third, reaching an all-time low in 2018 of 42%. But this most recent data shows that the percentage of white mainline Protestants has grown, from 13% of Americans in 2016 to 16% in 2020. The percentage of white evangelical Protestants, which has dropped precipitously over the past decade, has stabilized since 2017, falling only slightly from 15% to 14%.

Mainline Protestant is the grouping researchers use for traditionally mainline churches including, Methodist, Presbyterian, Congregational, Lutheran, Episcopal, Disciples of Christ, and some Baptist denominations as well as unions of these traditions, such as the United Church of Christ, in the 20th century. Historically black churches are often excluded from mainline counts, as historically “mainline Protestant” referred to churches with white congregations. 

The term “mainline” once assumed a majority or dominant presence of white, Protestant Christians in American society. But as demonstrated by this recent survey, this is far from the case. Even still, some advocates on the Religious Right try to equate American values with religious ones in an attempt to privilege one religious viewpoint over others. 

Changing the Way We Think about Religion in America

The shifting landscape of religion in America is reflective of our national diversity. At the heart of religious freedom, guaranteed by the First Amendment, is the possibility of a nation in which people of all faiths and philosophies can thrive. This most recent survey encourages us to be mindful of how we think about faith communities – and nonreligious communities – and the freedom to believe as we choose. Religion in America is not declining, as some on the Religious Right would have you believe, but rather it is becoming more diverse. 

The vibrant tapestry of religion in America is something to be celebrated. Our increasing national diversity of faiths and philosophies does not devalue any one religious tradition. Rather, these shifts create opportunities to reexamine our assumptions about what religion in America looks like. True religious freedom protects the rights of all Americans, both those who practice a religion or those who don’t profess a particular faith. It doesn’t privilege or assume dominance of any one viewpoint, enabling all of us to thrive. 

Learn more about how Interfaith Alliance works to advance true religious freedom for all.