Splicing and dicing American religion today: How about a seven-party Pew typology?

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U.S. religious categories were never as simple as indicated in “Protestant, Catholic, Jew,” Will Herberg’s tripartite classic from 1956.

What kind of Jew? Protestants, ever complicated, have become ever moreso. Catholics, too, are more of a checkerboard these days. With the 1965 immigration law, Islam and Asian religions came to the fore. Recently, “nones” with no religious affiliation emerged as a major category.

Now the ubiquitous Pew Research Center is splicing and dicing its survey data to discern a new seven-party system,  what the title of its latest report calls “The Religious Typology: A New Way to Categorize Americans By Religion.” That’s “the” typology, not merely “a” new concept, which seems presumptuous and yet intriguing.  

Journalists who saw news in this August 29 release have already written about it. But The Religion Guy recommends that beat specialists spend quality time reading or re-reading the full 98-page version (.pdf here), to provoke fresh thinking about the complex U.S. religious landscape.

Pew asked 16 questions and applied “cluster analysis” to sort Americans into the seven categories based upon broad religious attitudes and reported behavior across the traditional lines of formal membership or self-identification. Pew labels 40 percent of U.S. adults as “highly religious," sharing traditional belief in the God of the Bible and looking upon faith fondly, segmented into these three groups. 

(1) “Sunday Stalwarts” (17 percent of the Americans surveyed) -- These devout folks are weekly worshipers of whatever faith who mostly read the Bible daily, pray often, and consider religion their most important source of meaning and helpful for society. They’re also the most active in non-religious community causes and charities and – notably – lean Republican and are the most likely to vote in local elections.

(2) “God-and-Country Believers” (12 percent) -- This group stands out as the only one expressing majority approval for President Donald Trump’s performance. A remarkable two-thirds see immigrants as a threat to American values. They’re more likely than Sunday Stalwarts to think belief in God is needed to live morally yet less likely than Stalwarts to be active worship attenders and Bible readers.  

(3) “Diversely Devout” (11 percent) -- Those in this category embrace both Christian tenets and various so-called “New Age” beliefs e.g. spiritual energy located in crystals or objects in nature, psychic practices, reincarnation, or astrology. They’re low on the economic scale, likely to be Democrats and liberal on gay and racial issues, and the least likely to be registered to vote.  

Next come two types of “somewhat religious” Americans. 

(4) “Relaxed Religious” (17 percent) -- These respondents fall below the three groups above but stronger than the “non-religious” below on involvement and practice. A plurality says religious faith is only “somewhat” important. They believe in God and heaven but rarely read the Bible and generally don’t think belief in God is necessary to be a moral person. 

(5) “Spiritually Awake” (15 percent) -- This category closely resembles #4 but strongly identifies as “spiritual” rather than “religious.”  Half  believe in a “higher power” or “spiritual force” instead of the biblical God, and majorities embrace those “New Age” beliefs and practices. They lean Democratic and are heavily (62 percent) female.  

Finally, Pew defines two “non-religious” categories.  

(6) “Religion Resisters” (12 percent) -- Most believe in some higher power or spiritual force but not the biblical God, are unanimous in belief that spiritual energy inhabits physical objects and in other “New Age” concepts. They reject a “religious” identity, and think religions do more harm than good. They’re heavily Democratic and liberal, and strongly disapprove of President Trump. 

(7) “Solidly Secular” (17 percent) -- These Americans are also dubious about religious organizations but also reject a “spiritual” identity and  “New Age” ideas. They doubt the existence of either God or some other higher power.

The Guy underscores some data points. Evangelicals dominate among the Sunday Stalwarts, which explains their cultural impact. “Mainline” Protestants and Catholics, by contrast, are quite evenly spread among categories 1 through 5 with Catholics surprisingly thin on Stalwarts. There are more “God-and-Country” black Protestants than you’d predict. Jews are profoundly polarized with hefty numbers in both the most religious and the most secular categories. And much else.

Journalists and others would have fun taking Pew’s online test on the 16 questions to see where they fit. The Guy himself is somewhat flexibly a Sunday Stalwart.  

Technicalities: Sociologist Robert Wuthnow’s warns us to check “response rates” that are too low to warrant confidence. Pew’s online survey used its ongoing national panel for an unusually large 4,729 respondents, allowing e.g. careful distinctions between “evangelical” and “mainline” Protestants. But the fine print says surveys that originally created Pew’s panel had a mere 10 percent response rate, and after participant attrition the “cumulative rate” is 2.4 percent.  

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