Back in February, I read a short news item in Christian Century titled “Gallup chief sees signs of religious revival.” Reporter Daniel Burke of Religion News Service interviewed Frank Newport, the editor-in-chief of Gallup Poll. Newport challenges several things pundits have been taking for granted about the religious landscape in the U.S.:
— The rise of the “nones”: According to Newport, we should be cautious about how we interpret the rise of the “nones,” those who report no religious affiliation. “When Gallup asked the question about religious identity back in the 1950s, almost zero would say they have ‘none’,” Newport says in the interview. “People would say ‘Baptist’ or ‘Catholic’ even if they were not particularly religious.” Newport sees a change in how people “express their religiosity,” not necessarily a decline in religion. Or maybe people are just being more honest than in the past.
— Demographic trends may point to an increase in religious identity: Based on demographic trends, Newport sees a possibility for an increase in religious identity in the U.S. “If you look at age, the baby boomers are approaching 65-85 years of age, which we’ve seen as the most religious group for decades,” Newport says, which means that large numbers of Boomers could find religion as they age. Secondly, the Hispanic population is increasing, and Hispanics “tend to be more religious.” Thirdly, “religion has been correlated to health,” and people might start seeking out religion to increase their well-being. Finally, more religious states are seeing in-migrations from other parts of the country, and people are more likely to participate in religion in states where more people around them participate in religion.
— Mainline Protestants are unlikely to grow: From a pollster’s point of view, Unitarian Universalists look pretty much like mainline Protestants, so we should be concerned when Newport says that mainline Protestants are unlikely to grow. How do religions grow? Newport says it’s simple: “For any group to grow, you have to have more people coming in than going out.” He outlines three ways religions can grow:
(a) Immigration: We’re seeing lots of Hispanics immigrating into the U.S., so it’s likely that Catholicism (and maybe Pentecostalism) will grow — but, says Newport, “there is no massive in-migration of Protestants,” and certainly no massive in-migration of Unitarian Universalists.
(b) High birth rates: Mormons are doing well because Mormonism encourages big families. Mainline Protestants tend to have lower than average birth rates. And I’d be willing to be that Unitarian Universalists have a birth rate that’s less than the replacement rate.
(c) Evangelize effectively: Mainline Protestants are doing a lousy job of evangelizing. Unitarian Universalists probably do a better job of evangelizing than most mainline Protestant churches — good enough that we make up for our low birth rates and lack of immigrants. But that doesn’t mean we’re good enough at evangelizing to grow.
So there you have it — the rate of religious identification may increase in the coming decade. However, the only way we Unitarian Universalists can take advantage of that possible increase is to evangelize more effectively.