America Goes Religion Shopping

Edited by Robin Silberman


The flock is restless, and the sheep lost, in the immense fold of North American Christianity. Under the blanket of a Christian faith that spreads in a more reassuring way than in any other Western country, encompassing basically 75% of the population – 230 million souls and bodies that declare themselves believers – the religious affiliations change easily and without significant traumas.

It’s a continuous transhumance of Catholics who become Episcopalians, Adventists who join Baptists, Lutherans who embrace the Holy Church of Rome. One believer out of two changes denominations at least once in his lifetime. One in five, before becoming an adult and turning 24, abandons the religion his parents raised him by.

We know well the Christian phenomenon in the first big nation in modern history that stated the principle of the separation between Church and State. We’ve long seen the explosion of Southern fundamentalism, cynically recruited as electoral blocks by the wolves of politics; the invention of tele-evangelism and the growth of mega-churches that collect thousands of believers within psalmic get-togethers in facilities that look like Olympic stadiums. But, even though the U.S. claims to be the biggest “Christian nation” on earth, research institutes like the Pew in Washington have gone through the flock that proclaims itself Christian, and have found out that the relationship with the intermediaries and representatives of the God of the Bible is much more laid-back and pragmatic than the churches claims.

Americans go religion shopping the way they shop for political parties, candidates, cars or detergents: looking for the church, the priest, the confession that best fulfills their wishes. If faith is a gift, the American faith is a gift that buyers examine carefully, and simply give back to the donor to get another in exchange, like presents the day after Christmas. In fact, 44% of people who declare themselves Christian belong to a different faith than the one learned in childhood. Two-thirds of those raised Catholic or Protestant admit jumping from the Reformist – or Counter Reformation – fence to another, at least once in their lifetimes. They often go back and forth. This is the result of disappointment with an inherited denomination; or for convenience, especially in those areas where it takes hours to get to church; or to please and follow a partner who belongs to another fold.

Many people, 50% of those converted to other religions, and 70% of former Catholics-turned-Protestants, admit “they didn’t like their religion anymore.” Therefore, this is a custom-made God, a “prêt-à-porter” Christianity for those who can’t stand a rigid doctrine, sought out by 113 million Americans who attend church (or a synagogue, or a mosque, or a Buddhist temple) regularly.

The Roman Catholic Church remains the first denomination in terms of followers, with 66 million in 19 thousand churches – 23% of population – less than Protestants, who are 51% of the population, but divided into lots of branches. It follows that Catholics are the ones who suffer and pay the most for the centralist dogmatism of the Church of Rome. Catholic apostates mention classical and painful issues of the Catholic debate – abortion, homosexuality, premarital sex, the incomprehensible “no” to contraception, the offensive exclusion of women from priesthood, the celibacy imposed to priests – as the cause of their disaffection and indifference towards the “Great Mother.” 2.5% of those 66 million gave up Catholicism out of shock at the scandal of pedophilic priests, and even more by the careless attitudes of the ecclesiastical hierarchy towards those guilty. The number of people who adhere to the Roman Church remains stable only because of the transfusion of immigrants from communities and nations south of the border. In fact, Europe no longer supplies the devoted legions that made cities like Boston or Baltimore bulwarks of Catholicism.

Documents and demographic research say that America remains a nation extremely religious if compared to the un-Christianized and secular Europe. On the day of God – Sunday for Christians – 41% of American citizens dress up and go to church, compared to 14% of the French and 6% of the Swedish. Not to mention, 90% of the population believes in a supernatural “Being,” whether it be the God of Zoroastrians or the Allah of the Quran (who can count on 6 million proselytes).

The symbols on U.S. banknotes mix a clear hint of Freemasonry (which most founding fathers followed in the 1700’s), with the promise “in God we trust,” added by President Eisenhower in the 20th century. But as ambiguous and contradictory as these symbols may be, no other Western nation would dare to stamp the name of God on its money. And the restless turnover of believers from one faith to another emphasizes that, even in matters of religion, Americans tend to believe more in God than in priests, unlike other more opportunistic Catholics. Americans apply to religion the basic principle of their nation, which is not the Bible, but the freedom of individual choice which Christianity claims too, and which papist Catholicism is afraid of.

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