Fanning the Flames: The Freedom Project Blog


Faithfully Fleeting

By Shawn Healy
Trinity College recently released the third edition of their ongoing study of religious identity in the United States. Titled the American Religious Identification Survey, the authors, Barry Kosmin and Ariela Keysar, concludes that our nation is drifting away from faith altogether. Based on a survey of 54,461 respondents, the authors replicated their earlier efforts in 1990 and 2001. They asked participants a simple, open-ended question: "What is your religion, if any?"

While all religious denominations grew over this twenty-eight year period, most shrank in a relative sense. The number of Americans who call themselves Christian is down more than 10 percent since 1990, from 86.2 to 76 percent. Catholics make up the largest single denomination of this bloc, though their share has fallen slightly. The heavy influx of immigrants from Latin American countries in the intervening years has rescued the Catholic Church from a more accelerated decline.

Those who fail to identify with a religious faith entirely nearly doubled from 8.2 to 15 percent, though the rate of growth slowed significantly since 2001. Controlling for our growing national population, atheists and agnostics represent the largest share of this demographic, a full 37 percent, clearly outdistancing the next closest competitor, Catholicism, at 21 percent.

Among the Protestant faiths, the Baptists own a plurality of adherents, with 15.8 percent of Americans claiming affiliation. Generic Christian ranks just behind at 14.2 percent, and both have declined marginally since 1990. Eastern Religions and Islamic adherents have more than doubled, yet they claim only 0.9 and 0.6 percent of the population, respectively.

There is significant gender balance across most faiths, with the most prominent exceptions being Pentecostals, who claim the highest percentage of females, 58 percent, and non-believers, who are most likely to be male (60 percent). Muslims are the youngest of any of the major religious traditions in America, as 42 percent are 29 or younger, while Baptists are the oldest denomination, with a full 37 percent older than 50. Most faiths are populated by middle-age adherents in the 30-49 demographic.

Turning to race, Catholicism is most prominent among both whites and Hispanics, with 21 and 59 percent of each racial group affiliating with the faith. Blacks are more likely to be Baptist, a full 45 percent of the group, and a plurality of Asians (27 percent) are non-believers.

More than two-thirds (69.5 percent) of Americas claim a definitive belief in God, while 12.1 reject a personal God, but do believe in a higher power. Among non-believers, 5.7 percent plead uncertainty, 4.3 percent claim that their is no way to know, and 2.3 percent reject the notion outright.

A vast majority continue to engage in the rituals of faith such as initiations at birth and later in life, weddings, and funeral services, although 26, 30, and 27 percent of Americans do not tie religion to any of these respective events.

In sum, "when it comes to religion, the USA is now a nation of freelancers." When Kosmin published the first study in this series in 1990 he concluded that Americans saw God as a "personal hobby" and the nation is a "greenhouse of spiritual sprouts." In the intervening years, he has resorted to describing religion as a "fashion statement" and "not a deep personal commitment for many."

The authors steer clear of the impact of these trends, but I will dive into this cauldron for a moment, raising two pressing matters of concern. One, religion serves as one of many indicators of civic health, and a widespread abandonment of institutionalized worship threatens to further undermine our commitment to the local fabric of our community. I am not suggesting that religious entities are the only actor in this arena, but they are the most widespread and perform a number of charitable and community-building functions from a faith-based model. Their erosion requires alternatives to operate in the remaining vacuum.

Two, greater religious diversity demands educational attention by our schools and faith-based institutions to overcome discrimination that is bread by fear and ignorance. The religious quilt that continues to characterize America is as old as pre-European settlement, but the respective patches have been altered and rearranged. The Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment is the most prominent protection for this variegated form of worship or non-affiliation, and we have an ongoing obligation as a society to pay heed to its central tenets.


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Managing Director

McCormick Freedom Project

Shawn is responsible for overseeing and managing the operations associated with the McCormick Freedom Project. Additionally, he serves as the in house content expert and voice of museum through public speaking and original scholarship. Before joining the Freedom Project, he taught American Government, Economics, American History, and Chicago History at Community High School in West Chicago, IL and Sheboygan North High School in Wisconsin.

Shawn is a doctoral candidate within the Political Science Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago where he received his MA in Political Science. He is a 2001 James Madison Fellow from the State of Wisconsin and holds a bachelor's degree in Political Science, History, and Secondary Education from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

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About Fanning the Flames and the McCormick Freedom Project

Fanning the Flames is a blog of the McCormick Freedom Project, which was started in 2006 by museum managing director Shawn Healy. The blog highlights the news of the day, in hopes of engaging readers in dialogue about freedom issues. Any views or opinions expressed on this blog represent those of the writers alone and do not represent an official opinion of the McCormick Freedom Project.

Founded in 2005, the McCormick Freedom Project is part of the McCormick Foundation. The Freedom Project’s mission is to enable informed and engaged participation in our democracy by demonstrating the relevance of the First Amendment and the role it plays in the ongoing struggle to define and defend freedom. The museum offers programs and resources for teachers, students, and the general public.

First Amendment journalism initiative

The Freedom Project recently launched a new reporting initiative with professional journalists Tim McNulty and Jamie Loo. The goal is to expand and promote the benefits of lifelong civic engagement among citizens of all ages, through original reporting, commentary and news aggregation on First Amendment and freedom issues. Please visit the McCormick Freedom Project's news Web site, The Post-Exchange at

Dave Anderson
Vice President of Civic Programs
McCormick Foundation

Tim McNulty
Senior Journalist
McCormick Freedom Project

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