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Switching Denominations, Shopping for Religion

Switching Denominations, Shopping for Religion

"Switching Denominations" and "Shopping for Religion" made the main religious headlines last week because the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life released an important new survey – the broadest and biggest yet – of church affiliations and religious sentiments among our citizens. Two items stood out. One, much covered in headlines and TV and radio lead stories, was the discovery – hardly news! – that Protestants are on the verge of becoming a minority and that "mainline" Protestants suffered, declining and losing loyalties as fast as did non-Hispanic Catholics. The other, equally noticed, was the trend of Americans to switch denominational loyalties and go shopping for religion.

Ellen Goodman in the February 28 Boston Globe found it "most fascinating that 44 percent of Americans have left the religious traditions in which they grew up," a phenomenon she had not much noticed while growing up. Pew's Luis Lugo and sociologist Nancy Ammerman provided historically-informed perspective on the Jim Lehrer News Hour: They were impressed by news about "switching," our main topic today, but showed balance as they put the trend of today in historical perspective.

Switching does go on everywhere, so "better duck" is good advice to those who do not like news of this factor in American religion whizzing around and above them. There is no place to hide, I thought, as a not-unrepresentative case study reached me via an old Media Transparency clip, one which backgrounds a major story this week. The subject was the dismissal from the White House staff of admitted plagiarist Tim Goeglein, the staffer most credited by Christian Right political leaders with having bonded them into a successful voting bloc. A feted and faithful Lutheran layman from Ft. Wayne, Indiana, he comes from rock-ribbed strata of solidity and, one would assume, shows unswitchable stolidity. Yet he switched from "liberal" Lutheranism to conservatism. He was not alone among the Goegleins. According to the Indianapolis Star, "his oldest brother is a lawyer, Democrat and a Catholic, while his sister is a professor, a Democrat and a convert to Judaism after going to a Quaker school," while, continues the Star, "his younger brother married a Jew and has converted to Eastern Orthodoxy, which is prominent on the maternal side of Goeglein's family." If that kind of "flexibility" and switching goes on in the green tree of Ft. Wayne Lutheranism, imagine what happens under dry trees. Check it out by taking a look around at your next family reunion.

Shopping and switching accelerate long term trends. Centuries ago, evangelists in staid New England lured established Congregationalists into becoming ecstatic Baptists; advertising, luring, and changing has long gone on since. Here is Emerging Trends, June, 1980: "LESS THAN HALF REMAIN IN SAME DENOMINATION. Princeton, N.J. Fewer than half of U.S. adults [43 percent] say they have always been a member of their present religion, or denomination, as determined by a recent Gallup survey."

Is that good or bad? It's certainly inevitable. Mobility, the tangle of mass university experience, inter-marriage, advertising, competition, perhaps a dose of pick-and-choose egocentrism, "fulfilling…boutique church-going desires" (Wall Street Journal, March 1), valid or superficial judgments on the religious affiliation one is leaving, and profound spiritual searches all go into the "switching" and "changing" mix. Together they assure that those who cover American religious life will not run out of puzzling and exciting subject matter, as they switch subjects and change attitudes themselves.


Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at