Study on faith offers insights

By Sam Lucero | The Compass | July 14, 2021

Census looks at ‘American Religious Landscape in 2020’

The Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) released a census July 8 titled “The American Religious Landscape in 2020.” The census studied the religious affiliation of Americans and how their numbers have changed over recent decades.

Based on interviews with more than 500,000 respondents between 2013 and 2020, the census report reveals the shifting dynamics of American religious affiliation across geography, race and ethnicity, age and political affiliation over the last decade,” PRRI said in a press release.

The key findings of the report, according to PRRI, show that religious diversity is the highest in more urban areas and lowest in southern regions of the country and rural areas.

According to the report, seven in 10 Americans identify as Christian, while nearly one in four are religiously unaffiliated (17%) or identify as atheist (3%) or agnostic (3%). 

The report looks closely at the changing Christian population.

“The most substantial cultural and political divides are between white Christians and Christians of color,” the PRRI noted. “More than four in 10 Americans (44%) identify as white Christian,” including 12% who are Catholic. 

White Christians, the largest of all groups, have been declining over the last few decades, according to PRRI. “The proportion of the U.S. population that is white Christian has declined by nearly one-third,” it stated. In 1996, almost two-thirds of Americans (65%) identified as white and Christian. This number dropped in 2006 (54%) and again in 2018 (42%). 

Conversely, Christians of color made up 26% of the population in 2020, up from 25% in 2016 and 23% in 2006.

The rise of the “nones,” the religiously unaffiliated, went from 16% of Americans in 2007 to 19% in 2012. The high point was 26% in 2018, but has declined to 23% in 2020. “The increase in proportion of religiously unaffiliated Americans has occurred across all age groups,” said PRRI, “but has been most pronounced among young Americans.” 

Young Americans, ages 18-29, who claim no religion grew from 10% in 1986 to 38% in 2016 and dropped to 36% in 2020.

Of particular interest to Catholics were these demographic trends:

The median age of all Americans is 47, but for white Catholics, it is 54. For Hispanic Catholics the median age is 42, up from 39 in 2013.

Regarding ethnicity, 50% of Hispanic Americans are Catholic while 19% of white Americans are Catholic. Other groups by race/ethnicity who are Catholic: Native Americans, 11%; multiracial Americans, 11%; Asian and Pacific Islander Americans, 10%; and Black Americans, 7%.

Political affiliation among Catholics has also changed. “White Catholics skew slightly toward the Democratic side: 38% identify as Democrat, 32% identify as Republican and 28% identify as independent,” the report said.

The report also studied religious diversity at the county level. Every county in the Diocese of Green Bay ranked low in religious diversity, all scoring around 0.7, with zero indicating complete lack of diversity. Catholic population in northeast Wisconsin, however, is among the highest in the nation.

In fact, Calumet County had the fourth highest concentration in the nation of white Catholics in counties with more than 10,000 residents. Only Dubuque County, Iowa; Lackawanna County, Penn.; and Vermilion Parish, La.; scored higher. 

Brown County matched the highest percentage of Hispanic Catholics in Wisconsin, 6%, tied with Sheboygan, Milwaukee, Racine and Walworth counties.

These numbers offer a snapshot of our changing faith communities. While Wisconsin and indeed the Midwest rates high in numerous categories of religious practice, we have many challenges. Diversity, as well as evangelizing the religiously unaffiliated, remain top priorities for the church.

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