Religion and Sacredness

It is easier to sketch the order, prosperity, and knowledge of a country by means of statistics than to picture its concern with religion, art, and ethics. Figures are not only scarcer in the latter fields; they are also in greater need of supplementation by facts of a non-quantitative kind.

Our prosperity seems to grow almost constantly; new knowledge is created every day; and additions to the social order are made in every season. In religion, the picture is more static: new forms of sacredness appear rarely on the American scene. In the last century, American Protestantism has witnessed only a few new forms of religious life Mormonism is perhaps the best known and American Catholicism has seen only one of its representatives becoming beatified by the Roman Catholic Church. The religious emphasis in America as indeed in most modern countries is to transmit the religious heritage from generation to generation, not to add to it. If anything, it appears as if American Christianity in this process is subtracting several items from its heritage to make it more consonant with modern tastes. There are certain signs indicating that religion in America has lost some of its theological salinity. From 1905 to 1940 the proportion of articles about religion in popular magazines declined two-thirds this holds for articles on religious dogma, for instance, the after-life, atonement, baptism, and the devil, as well as articles on church work. However, the number of articles on topics like the relation of religion to politics, to economy, and to science increased. The decline of interest in dogma is also evident in a comparative analysis of hymns used in 1836 and in 1939: it was found that hymns on traditional dogmas decreased from 45 to 12 per cent of the total.1) A certain ignorance about the Bible is also evident in the United States; only 35 per cent of adult Americans could name the four gospels, whereas in a poll in Great Britain 61 per cent got this answer right.2) Perhaps the fact that religion is not taught in most American schools accounts for much of the scriptural illiteracy; the clergy apparently find it easier to talk to the American laity about getting along with neighbors and colleagues and about civic and economic responsibilities than about the Atonement, the Law, the Sacraments, and other central religious aspects.

However, more Americans belong to a church today than at any previous time; the proportion of the population named on a church roll increased from 16 per cent in 1850 to 36 per cent in 1900 to 63 per cent in 1958.3) Another index of the organizational trends in religion in the United States is the change in the number of clergymen which, in the years from 1900 to 1950, rose by 68 per cent.4) However, since the population increased during this same period by 98 per cent, one may speculate whether this represents a genuine increase. Whether there has been any change in church participation during this period is impossible to ascertain; we obtained no data before 1939 and the samplings taken since then were not taken at the same time of the year. At mid-century the Catholics reported that 62 per cent were attending mass on Sundays and holy days (an obligation which it is a mortal sin to evade); of the Protestants 25 per cent were present at church every Sunday, and of the Jews 12 per cent attended synagogue every Saturday.5) By international standards these are high figures; certainly they are not matched by the other Western countries for which we have data.

A sample census in 1957 gave us, for the first time, uniform information as to how Americans from age 14 up describe their religious affiliations or backgrounds. It showed the United States as being two-thirds (66.2 per cent) Protestant and a quarter (25.7 per cent) Roman Catholic; the Jewish faith was reported by 3.2 per cent, other religions by 1.3 per cent, and no religion by 2.7 per cent. The remaining one per cent did not report their religion a small proportion, considering the fact that the question was answered on a voluntary basis. The Catholics are over-represented in urban areas, as are, to an even greater extent, the Jews. The largest of the Protestant denominations are the Baptists (29.8 per cent of all Protestants), the Methodists (21.1 per cent), the Lutherans (10.7 per cent), and the Presbyterians (8.4 per cent).6)

From other sample surveys we know the relative educational and economic achievements of adherents to the various Protestant denominations. We find, for example, that 35 per cent of Baptists (many of whom are Negroes), 44 per cent of Lutherans, 51 per cent of Methodists, 63 per cent of Presbyterians, and 71 per cent of Congregationalists have been graduated from high school. The corresponding figure for Catholics is 43 per cent, and for Jews 63 per cent.7)

Popular and scholarly discussions often depict religion as a conservative force in America. However, it is unwise to generalize on this point. For example, Negro ministers are more often champions of racial integration of the schools than are the Negro teachers.

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1) Michael Argyle, Religious Behavior, Free Press, Glencoe, 1959, pp. 32-33.

2) Infra, Table 78

3) Infra, Table 75

4) Wolfle, op.cit., p.127

5) Thomas Ford Hoult, The Sociology of Religion, Dryden Press, New York, 1958, p. 107.

6) Infra, Table 76

7) Infra, Table 77