The Fluid Religious Marketplace in the United States

The New York Times reports on a new poll released by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, which shows a relatively high level of fluidity in the religious identities of residents here in the United States. Analysts and scholars of the role of religion in public life have long understood the US exceptionalism with respect to the important role and place of religion in public life. This has occurred despite (although some would argue because of) the official church-state separation in US society. Most other states with developed economies are much more secular than is the United States, even though some of these states (such as Great Britain and Germany) do not have state/church separation.

The main take-home message of this new Pew Poll, I think, is the fluidity of religious identity here in the United States, where religion is more individualized and personalized and really becomes a type of individual identity. (Remember in Chapter 3 of O’Neil where we differentiated between individual and group identity and discussed whether religious identity could be both.) Conversely, in countries like France, Great Britain, Germany, etc., religion is much more a social–i.e., group–(rather than a religious) identity and is, therefore, much more immutable. Here is an excerpt from the article, with a graphic:

us_religious_makeup.jpgWASHINGTON — More than a quarter of adult Americans have left the faith of their childhood to join another religion or no religion, according to a survey of religious affiliation by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

The report, titled “U.S. Religious Landscape Survey,” depicts a highly fluid and diverse national religious life. If shifts among Protestant denominations are included, then it appears that 44 percent of Americans have switched religious affiliations.

For at least a generation, scholars have noted that more Americans are moving among faiths, as denominational loyalty erodes. But the survey, based on telephone interviews with more than 35,000 Americans, offers one of the clearest views yet of that trend, scholars said. The United States Census does not track religious affiliation.

It shows, for example, that every religion is losing and gaining members, but that the Roman Catholic Church “has experienced the greatest net losses as a result of affiliation changes.” The survey also indicates that the group that had the greatest net gain was the unaffiliated. Sixteen percent of American adults say they are not part of any organized faith, which makes the unaffiliated the country’s fourth-largest “religious group.”

That 44 percent of Americans have switched religious affiliation is astounding. What are the implcations of this? I can think of two immediately…

You can find the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life here. Here is a link to a video interview with Pew Forum Director Luis Lugo who talks about the next step in data analysis. Lugo characterizes the United States as having a dynamic “religious marketplace.” Here is a link to an interview with Neela Bannerjee, the New York Times journalist, who wrote the article.

US Intelligence Director Assesses Al Qaeda Threat

A new article in the New York Times analyzes Mike McConell’s Tuesday testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee.  How successful has the war on terror been in destroying th threat capability of that terrorist network?  According to McConell’s testimony, not too successful, unfortunately:

Al Qaeda is gaining in strength from its refuge in Pakistan and is steadily improving its ability to recruit, train and position operatives capable of carrying out attacks inside the United States, the director of national intelligence told a Senate panel on Tuesday.

The director, Mike McConnell, told lawmakers that Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, remained in control of the terrorist group and had promoted a new generation of lieutenants. He said Al Qaeda was also improving what he called “the last key aspect of its ability to attack the U.S.” — producing militants, including new Western recruits, capable of blending into American society and attacking domestic targets.

A senior intelligence official said Tuesday evening that the testimony was based in part on new evidence that Qaeda operatives in Pakistan were training Westerners, most likely including American citizens, to carry out attacks. The official said there was no indication as yet that Al Qaeda had succeeded in getting operatives into the United States.

One point merits comment: The ability of a non-territorially-based network to threaten powerful states like the US is severely diminished without protection from states, like Pakistan.  Why Pakistan is an ideal refuge for Al Qaeda is a complicated story, but it goes back to the initial founding of the state in the 1940s, and the fact that the Pakistani state has never truly controlled–ie., asserted the monopoly of political violence in the parts of Pakistan in which members of Al Qaeda are currently taking refuge.  A more forceful response from the Pakistani government could have truly powerful destabilizing effects on Pakistan, and on the region as a whole.

See this slide show at the following link, for a fascinating look at Peshawar, a Pakistani city right at the heart of the battle: