One Nation, Under God?

By Published on .

At a time when “God Bless America� has practically become the new national anthem, some might wonder whose God Americans are singing to. According to a new survey, while Americans are increasingly embracing more faiths, we are still predominantly a nation of Christians. The number of Christian Americans fell from 86 percent in 1990, to 77 percent in 2001, but slightly over half of Americans still self-identify as Protestants (52 percent) and one-fourth say they're Roman Catholic. By contrast, merely 1.3 percent identify themselves as Jewish and 0.5 percent belong to the Islamic faith.

The latest edition of the American Religious Identification Survey, first conducted in 1990 by the Graduate Center at the City University of New York (CUNY), comes at an opportune moment, with Americans' renewed interest in understanding the country's religious makeup. The 2001 survey draws on a national sample of over 50,000 randomly selected adult respondents.

The report, based on data collected between February and June 2001, analyzes religious identification and behavior according to demographic traits — leading to some interesting results. For example, more Buddhists are single (47 percent) than Catholics (20 percent) and Jews (18 percent). On the other end of the matrimonial spectrum, Pentecostals are twice as likely to be divorced or separated (14 percent), than Jehovah's Witnesses (6 percent) or Muslims (7 percent).

To understand whether or not, and under what circumstances, Americans see themselves as part of a religious community, the survey left the question of religious identification open-ended: “What is your religion, if any?� By doing so, the issue of self-identity was not restricted to whether or not the respondent was a member of a predefined religious group, but allowed for responses from individuals who might consider themselves part of a belief system, while not formally belonging to a house of worship. As a result, over 100 different religious identification categories were recorded. For instance, while the survey determined that there are about 5 million Jewish adults, only about 3 million (53 percent) identify themselves as members of Judaism. The other 47 percent either indicate that they are of Jewish parentage, were raised Jewish or consider themselves Jewish for nonreligious reasons.

But who practices their religion? Three-fourths of respondents say their outlook is either religious or somewhat religious; only 16 percent define themselves as secular or somewhat secular. Among those who consider their worldview strictly “religious,� certain demographic differences stand out. Just 27 percent of 18- to 34-year-olds say they are religious, compared with 47 percent of seniors age 65 years and older. And while nearly half of blacks say their outlook is religious (49 percent), only 37 percent of whites, 30 percent of Hispanics and 28 percent of Asians agree.

When it comes to church membership, however, Americans' behavior falls short of professed belief. While 8 in 10 respondents identify with a religion, only 54 percent live in a household where either they or someone else belongs to a church, synagogue, temple or mosque, according to the survey.

Overall, fewer people practice or preach at all. One of the most dramatic changes recorded by the survey is the sharp increase in the number of Americans who do not subscribe to any religion (a category that includes atheists, agnostics, humanists, secularists and those who do not identify with any religion). Their number has more than doubled from 14 million in 1990 (8 percent of the total population) to 29 million in 2001 (14 percent), and seems to be trending further upward. Of those professing no religion, 35 percent are between the ages of 18 and 29, while only 8 percent are over the age of 65. Looks like the next generation isn't only choosing their religion, their losing it as well.

The full report is available at

The Mobility of Church-Going Folk

Episcopalians, Jehovah's Witnesses, Methodists and Presbyterians are among the most transient religions.






Catholic 24.5% 59% 8% 17% 23%
Baptist 16.3% 69% 13% 14% 18%
No religion 14.1% 19% 23% 5% 28%
Christian 6.8% 60% 20% 12% 21%
Methodist 6.8% 66% 19% 25% 24%
Lutheran 4.6% 68% 18% 19% 28%
Presbyterian 2.7% 64% 24% 25% 27%
Protestant 2.2% 45% 7% 20% 33%
Pentecostal 2.1% 68% 30% 19% 24%
Episcopalian/Anglican 1.7% 64% 26% 23% 42%
Jewish 1.3% 53%* 6% 10% 27%
Mormon 1.3% 75% 16% 16% 12%
Churches of Christ 1.2% 71% 12% 14% 18%
Non-denominational 1.2% 55% 29% 2% 32%
Congregational/UCC 0.7% 69% 13% 18% 24%
Jehovah's Witnesses 0.6% 55% 39% 32% 30%
*includes only those who self-identify as Jews by religion

Source: “American Religious Identification Survey 2001,� City Univeristy of New York
Most Popular
In this article: