Changing Character of American Religion: Implications for American Jewry

By Steven Windmueller, Ph.D.

Over the past number of years, numerous articles found on this site and elsewhere address questions related to American Judaism. Beyond those studies that examine specific elements of Jewish life, there is a growing body of research examining the impact of religion in general on the lives of its adherents and on the behavior of the larger society. In examining this research about American religion, how might these findings inform us about the Jewish experience?

To be sure, the United States remains home to more Christians than any other country in the world, and a large majority of Americans – roughly seven-in-ten – continue to identify with some branch of the Christian faith. Drawing upon these studies, we can identify a number of significant trends, some of which will have profound implications for American Jewry, as religion in America continues to transition, and in some cases to decline in importance.

2007 – 78.4% of Americans defined themselves as “Christian” (178 million)
2014 – 70.6% of Americans defined themselves as “Christian” (173 million)

Mainline Protestantism has suffered the most significant loss of members during this period, while the number of Evangelical Christians remained reasonably stable. In the 1950’s demographers would ask about the “importance of religion” in the lives of Americans. At that time some 70% ranked “religion” as very important to their wellbeing; today, that number has dropped to 56%.

According to The Washington Post, the American religious landscape is being remade, most notably by the decline of the white Protestant majority and the rise of the religiously unaffiliated.

Age Factor in American Religion:

U.S. religious groups are aging! The unaffiliated or “Religious Nones” are comparatively young. The median age of unaffiliated adults, based on the Pew report, has dropped to 36, down from 38 in 2007 and far lower than the general (adult) population’s median age of 46. By contrast, the median age of mainline Protestant adults in the 2014 survey was 52 (up from 50 in 2007), and the median age of Catholic adults is 49 (up from 45 seven years earlier).

It should be noted that America’s newer religious communities tend to be younger. Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists are all far younger than white Christian groups. 42% of American Muslims, 36% of Hindus, and 35% of Buddhists are under the age of 30. Roughly one-third (34%) of religiously unaffiliated Americans are also under 30. In contrast, white Christian groups are aging. Slightly more than one in ten white Catholics (11%), white evangelical Protestants (11%) and white mainline Protestants (14%) are under 30. Approximately six in ten white evangelical Protestants (62%), white Catholics (62%) and white mainline Protestants (59%) are at least 50 years old.

Decline in a Belief in God:

A 1966 study of Americans noted that 98% expressed a belief in God. A 2014 survey noted that 86% held that view, but among younger adults the data suggested that only 80% held such a belief.

Spirituality and Mindfulness as America’s Alternative to Religious Practice:

The significant growth of spiritual practice, distinct from religious observance and church affiliation, may represent the most important new element. Americans spent some $13 billion in books, tapes and other materials in connection with spirituality and mindfulness models of practice and belief. Today, American consumers are spending some $27 billion to both practice and study Yoga.

The Growth of the Religious NONES:

The Pew findings note the significant rise of “Religious Nones.”

2007 – 16.1% defined themselves as having “no religion”
2014 – 22.8% identified with having “no religion”

According to the 2014 Study there are now approximately 56 million religiously unaffiliated adults in this nation, and this group is more numerous than either Catholics or mainline Protestants.

Men were more likely than women to identify as “unaffiliated.” The data also confirms that these non-affiliation patterns are particularly evident among younger Americans, yet all segments of the society regardless of education, ethnicity, race or age were exhibiting such behavior. Today, one-third of Americans are “unaffiliated” with any religious denomination.

Religious Switching:

Pew reports that religious “nones” have experienced larger gains through religious switching than any other group. Nearly one-in-five U.S. adults (18%) were raised in a religious faith and now identify with no religion. Some switching also has occurred in the other direction: 9% of American adults say they were raised with no religious affiliation, and almost half of them (4.3% of all U.S. adults) now identify with some religion. But for every person who has joined a religion after having been raised unaffiliated, there are more than four people who have become religious “nones” after having been raised in some religion.

The Rise of New Religions in America:

The fastest growing non-Christian religions in America include Islam and Hinduism. Islam, according to the Pew Foundation, will surpass Judaism by 2050 as America’s second major religious community. At this point Hinduism is seen as the fastest growing faith community in the country. Today, 5.9% of all Americans are practicing a religious faith tradition other than Christianity.

Education and Religion:

More than one-third of Jews (34%), Hindus (38%) and Unitarian-Universalists (43%) hold post-graduate degrees. Notably, Muslims are significantly more likely than white evangelical Protestants to have at least a four-year college degree (33% vs. 25%, respectively).

Politics and Religion:

The Pew Study would also offer some helpful insights into the political orientation of religiously affiliated Americans:

Among the more interesting findings, 54% of “Religious Nones” indicated that they were Republicans, as against only 23% registered as “Democrats.” This would appear to be counterintuitive as the assumption about religiously nonaffiliated persons is that they would tend to be more “liberal.” This appears not to be the case.

Mormons were more likely to be Republican than any other Christian denomination, with over 70% identifying with the GOP. Evangelical Protestants represented the second “most Republican” community among religious constituencies.

In this 2014 Study Jews were the third most “Democratic” constituency (64%) among religious groupings, behind Black Protestants (80%) and Buddhists (69%). American Muslims (62%) and Hindus (61%) represented the other key Democratic Party constituencies.

White Christians today represent a minority in the Democratic Party. Fewer than one in three (29%) Democrats today are white Christian, compared to half (50%) one decade earlier. Only 14% of young Democrats (age 18 to 29) identify as white Christian. On the Republican side, white evangelical Protestants remain the dominant religious force within the GOP. More than one-third (35%) of all Republicans identify as white evangelical Protestants. Roughly three-quarters (73%) of all Republicans belong to a white Christian religious group.

A Pew Research Center poll of March 2016 found that Trump trailed Ted Cruz by 15 points among Republicans who attended religious services every week, yet the President led Senator Cruz by 27 points among those who did not. How might one explain this phenomenon? Culturally conservative white Americans, who are disengaged from church, experience less economic success and more family breakdown than those who remain connected, and as they grow more pessimistic and resentful, they tend to seek out alternative political choices.

End Notes: Implications for Jewish Americans

In understanding that Judaism and the Jewish experience transcend traditional religious definitions and encompass the ideas of ethnicity, culture, etc., some of these “religious-based” findings will need to be interpreted and examined in a different context. Nonetheless, there appear to be some significant implications here for American Jewry:

  • Just as younger Christians are switching denominations, leaving the church, and encountering spirituality, we are finding similar religious and cultural Jewish expressions of experimentation among younger Jewish Americans.
  • Similar to American Christianity, the “whiteness” of American Judaism is likewise undergoing a transition as a result of intermarriage and the growing presence of Jews of color.
  • As we see a decline in religious affiliation within mainline churches, one can document similar patterns among the liberal denominations within American Judaism.
  • Just as Evangelical Protestantism has generally maintained its membership base, Orthodox Judaism appears not only to be sustaining its core but also growing significantly.
  • The “greying” of the American synagogue parallels a similar experience documented within mainstream Christianity of an aging constituency.
  • There appear to be some similarities associated with Jewish political behavior and synagogue affiliation patterns, case in point: Orthodox Jews tend to be more politically conservative than other Jewish denominational groups.

Steven Windmueller Ph. D. on behalf of the Wind Group, Consulting for the Jewish Future. Dr. Windmueller’s collection of articles can be found on his website: