Well, the numbers are in. This week, the results of the 2010 Religious Census were released to the public – and there are a few interesting surprises. Catholics are still the number one group, followed by the Baptists – no surprises here. But, for the very first time, the census has included ‘non-denominational evangelical’ congregations in the count, and taken together, this is the third largest group in America.
Anyone who’s familiar with American life wouldn’t find this too surprising at all – pretty much every preacher on television belongs to this group, and almost all of those super huge castles you see from the main highways have signs that boast their non-denominational credentials. In fact, I would suggest that suburban life – outside of the former Confederate states – revolves around one of these kinds of churches. When you think of the soccer mom, NASCAR dad, Jerry Falwell, Tea Party, love Jesus, hate Obama crowd, I think you have to also think mega-church in the suburbs preaching the prosperity gospel, the Republican party, and American exceptionalism.
All of this holds true in the South as well, but the Southern Baptist convention holds sway there – think less speaking in tongues, a little more guilt – but with the benefit of eternal security. The Mormons are the fastest growing group in the US. This is intriguing to me, since most everything Mormons believe is based on the only decades-old teachings of Joseph Smith – clearly an Elmer Gantry before his time. At least the non-denominational evangelicals can boast roots going back to the Great Awakening.
The Census recognizes that some of the numbers could be skewed, as the information comes from the churches themselves, not from individuals. The thinking is that if you ask an individual if they belong to a church, they might say ‘yes’ even if they haven’t been in years. Churches were asked to estimate the number of ‘adherents’ they counted – and I’m not sure if any guidelines were placed on them, such as if said adherents were regular attendees or if they contributed financial support to the organization.
Growing up in the Assemblies of God, we paid a lot of attention to the average attendance – in fact, many AG churches have the attendance board posted prominently near the front of the church, with numbers updated weekly. If other evangelical churches are similarly fixated on attendance, then I’d say the numbers from non-denominational evangelical groups are a reasonably fair assessment of who ‘belongs’ to the church. This doesn’t even take into consideration the folks who agree with the ideas of Joel Osteen, Benny Hinn, Robert Schuller, and other evangelicals – but have chosen for one reason or another to stay with their denomination. (Schuller is Dutch Reformed, a Calvinist belief with roots going back to Revolutionary times – Martin Van Buren and Teddy Roosevelt were both members; but many evangelicals proscribe to Schuller’s positive-thinking doctrine).
From my limited knowledge of how Catholics and Baptists count their membership, I’d think those numbers might be overestimated; Catholics tend to put your name down when you’re christened as a little baby, and don’t take it off the record until you die and have your funeral in a Catholic church, even if you don’t show up much in between. Baptists tend to do the same thing – once you join, you’re counted in the membership until you ‘move your letter’ or die. I’m not sure about Mormons – but I know there’s a big controversy about them baptizing people posthumously – don’t know if this pads their numbers or not.
I say all this to get to the number that I think is really important – the 150 million ‘non-adherents’ in American society. These are the people who either don’t believe in God, or don’t think he’s important enough to show up for any kind of Sunday (or Saturday) service or to offer any kind of financial support to a religious institution. How is it, then, that we are supposed to be a Christian nation?
Out of our 300 million citizens, fully one-half adhere to nothing. Out of the 150 million remaining, one has to subtract those of the Jewish faith, the Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Jain, Daoists, etc., etc., etc. Then, take into account that many denominations may be giving us over-blown numbers – someone may have been christened, but never darkened the door of a church since then. And speaking of christening – how many children are included in those numbers? Is it really fair to call toddlers and pre-schoolers ‘Catholic’ or ‘Evangelical’? If a church has a thousand people attending a Sunday morning service, how many of those would not be old enough to make decisions about eternity for themselves?
Could we only be looking at perhaps 75 million adult Christians in America? And perhaps only a third of them actively anti-secular? This would mean that a group comprising less than ten percent of the country are wielding enormous power when it comes to trying to inject religion into our schools and into our laws.
It’s time to stand up and be counted. Are you non-Christian? Your senator, congressman, school superintendent, and others need to hear your views – the fundamentalists have had their ear for too long – and their political power is disproportionate to their true numbers. It’s exciting to think that – given the right information and the opportunity to use it – four or five out of six Americans could be persuaded to a secularist approach to education and government.