US now more diverse, but belief in Christian nation rising: Study

Posted Oct 22, 2010 by Subir Ghosh
As the US establishment tries hard to project itself as a religiously diverse country, the conviction that America is a Christian nation is gaining currency and becoming more intensified, a study has found.
The researchers found that between 1996 and 2004 the percentage of people who said Christian faith w...
The researchers found that between 1996 and 2004 the percentage of people who said Christian faith was a very important attribute of being "truly American" rose by more than 11 percentage points, from about 38 percent to 50 percent. The findings are published in the current issue of the journal Sociology of Religion.
"Though initially paradoxical, these trends are less mysterious if the idea of a Christian America is understood, not as a description of religious demography, but as a discursive practice that seeks to align the symbolic boundaries of national belonging with the boundaries of the dominant faith community," says Jeremy Brooke Straughn, an assistant professor of sociology who studies national identity at Purdue University.
Using data from the 1996 and 2004 General Social Survey, Straughn and Scott L Feld, a professor of sociology at the same university, have shown that the growing prevalence of Christian America is restricted to Americans of Christian faith, thereby widening an existing religious divide over the meaning of American identity.
Over the last few decades, the proportion of Americans professing Christian faith, especially Protestants, has experienced a steady decline. Although Christians still account for about 78 percent of US adults as a whole, the percentage of Protestants has fallen from over 60 percent in the early 1990s to around 50 percent in 2006. Those religiously unaffiliated have grown from fewer than 10 percent to between 14 and 16 percent over the same period.
"Yet paradoxically, the growth of religious diversity has not produced a concomitant decline in the view of America as a Christian country," says Straughn. "On the contrary, such views have generally grown more prevalent among US adults since the turn of the century. As of the mid-1990s, only 60 percent said they regarded their country as a 'Christian nation'. By 2002, agreement with this view had risen to 67 percent and reached a peak of 71 percent in 2005 before settling to 67 percent the following year."
Why is America increasingly perceived as a Christian nation, even though Christians have not been growing as a proportion of the American population? If the notion of a “Christian America” is not just a reflection of demographic realities, what could account for its varying appeal over time? Straughn suggests, "Such questions become more tractable when the Christian America discourse is viewed through the lens of recent work on symbolic boundary construction. Rather than merely describing the demographic status quo, statements like 'America is a Christian nation' represent a discursive practice that seeks to align the boundaries of authentic national belonging with adherence to the dominant religious faith."
Straughn and Feld have published their findings, America as a “Christian Nation”? Understanding Religious Boundaries of National Identity in the United States, in a recent issue of Sociology of Religion journal.
Their analysis drew on two sets of GSS data collected by the National Opinion Research Center and obtained electronically from the Inter-University Consortium for Political and Social Research. The GSS conducts face-to-face interviews with a representative sample of American adults every year or two since 1972. In 1996 and 2004, the GSS questionnaires included items prefaced by the following question: “Some people say the following things are important for being truly American. Others say they are not important. How important do you think each of the following is?” Responses for each boundary criterion were coded as “very important”, “fairly important”, “not very important”, or “not important at all”. The researchers used the religious affiliation variable to measure the salience of Christianity to American identity.
Between 1996 and 2004, the percentage of “very important” responses rose by more than 11 percentage points, from about 38 percent to almost 50 percent. "As we suspected, the overall rise in Christian America was accompanied by a slight decrease in the proportion of Christians (by about 3 percentage points) between survey years. Although Roman Catholics and Other Christians grew by about 2 percentage points each, their gains were offset by a 5-point loss on the part of mainline Protestants, from 19 percent to just 14 percent. Nor was their any proportionate growth in the two bastions of belief in a Christian America," says Straughn.
He explains the identity issue. "Because symbolic boundaries can have practical consequences—affecting social prestige or even political clout—it is perhaps only 'natural' that the dominant groups in society would seek to align the boundaries of national belonging with membership in their particular communities. Thus, because America has always been a predominantly Christian country, many American Christians no doubt feel justified in viewing their religion as characteristic of the 'true' American. Among individual Christians, the degree of alignment between religion and national identity also tends to reflect the salience of both religious and national boundaries. Within the religious majority, belief in a Christian America grows significantly stronger with intensity of religious commitment and national attachment."
But isn't this met with scepticism or resentment by those who don't subscribe to such a notion? Straughn argues, "Understandably, non-Christian believers, as well as those with no religious affiliation, overwhelmingly reject the notion that being 'truly' American requires adherence to the dominant faith. Such opposition to a Christian America need not be construed as denying the objective importance of Christianity in American life. More likely, it represents a desire to downplay the symbolic significance of religion for defining American identity, in favor of religious pluralism and tolerance for diversity—values that also have deep roots in US history."
Given the decreasing gap between Christians and non-Christians, shouldn't the belief in a Christian America decreased too? Straighn explains, "As we saw, Americans were even more likely to espouse these beliefs after the turn of the century that they had been just a decade before. As of 1996, 38 percent of our respondents regarded being a Christian as very important for being truly American; by 2004, the figure had risen to nearly 50 percent. This trend was all the more surprising given the weaker salience of religious boundaries among better educated Americans, as well as among those born in more recent decades. As Americans became better educated, and as older generations gave way to younger ones, the appeal of a Christian American should have been on the decline."
He continues, "Although demography alone would not have predicted a surge in the Christian America (notion), our reasoning was basically correct. When we took these trends into account, our models predicted an even greater increase in the absence of compositional change. At the same time, the fact that Christian America experienced a significant rally at all makes it clear that demography in this instance is not destiny, at least in the near term. For example, it may be, as some have argued, that certain cataclysmic events since the turn of the century have enhanced the importance of religion to the self-understandings of many Americans. Such period effects also have precedent in the literature on religious politicisation and deprivation."
How about 9/11 and the Iraq War? "If the traumatic events of 9/11 or the war in Iraq have accentuated the connection between religion and national identity, we suspected that any resulting growth in Christian America would come primarily from American Christians. This hunch was well supported by the data. Among Christians, the proportion who saw Christianity as very important to American identity increased substantially between 1996 and 2004, assisted in part by a surge in religious commitment and national attachment. Yet, among non-Christians there was no significant change in either direction, even when other predictors were taken into account."
He maintains, "Within the religious majority, moreover, we found the largest proportionate increase in Christian America among Christians with at least weekly attendance at religious services. This was in line with our prediction that intensification will be especially pronounced, in 'unsettled times,' where the appeal of Christian America had been strongest in the past. It also confirmed that events which provoke a growing religious divide can accentuate the moral boundary between more and less devout members of the dominant faith."