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Leaving and joining the Episcopal Church: the importance of demographics, belief orthodoxy, and LGBTQ issues
According to the 2014 Pew Religious Landscape Survey, more than half of Americans (56%) currently identify with a religious denomination that is different than the one they were raised in. This decreases to 42% if you count only those who have switched from one wider religious tradition (such as Catholic to Jewish or Evangelical to “none of the above,”) to another. Where do Episcopalians fit in this picture of religious change?
The RLS survey reveals that of those raised Episcopalian, about 61% continue to identify as Episcopalian/Anglican as adults, a slightly higher retention than the national average. Nearly two in five (17%) now identify as “none of the above.” Another 6% have joined another denomination within Mainline Protestantism while 7% now identify as Evangelicals and 4% as Catholic. Roughly 5% now identify as either Muslim, Jewish, Mormon, Buddhist, Hindu, or something else. Looking at it another way, about 60% of those who have left the Episcopal Church still claim some form of religious identity while the other 40% does not.
Who leaves the Episcopal Church?
There are a variety of factors that can correlate with religious disaffiliation. To identify which ones matter for Episcopal disaffiliation, I used a statistical tool called regression analysis that can tease out the independent effect of one factor on a particular outcome while simultaneously controlling for several others. Specifically, I analyzed the independent effect of demographics (gender, age, race/ethnicity, education, income), social attitudes (including political partisanship and same-sex marriage attitudes), and religious factors (strength of belief in God, frequency of prayer, importance of religion, religion as a source of morality, frequency of spiritual experiences, Biblical literalism, frequency of worship service attendance, desire to preserve tradition vs. modernize in one’s religious community, how exclusive one sees their own religious tradition in terms of salvation, and how they view questions of right and wrong).
This analysis revealed only three variables that consistently predicted who currently identifies as a former Episcopalian vs. a current Episcopalian.
Belief in God: in general, current Episcopalians are more likely to believe in God than former Episcopalians (96% vs 78%, respectively), but once we control for the differences mentioned above (e.g. between people who reaffiliate into another tradition and continue to participate in a religious life vs. those who disaffiliate and no longer participate), stronger belief in God is actually associated with a higher likelihood of having left the Episcopal Church. Those with the firmest belief in God are about 15% more likely to be former Episcopalians compared to those who are unsure about their belief, and 30% more likely than those who are certain that God does not exist.
Absolute morality: about a third (34%) of former Episcopalians believe that there are “clear and absolute standards for what is right and wrong” instead of “what is right and wrong depends on the context.” This is only slightly higher than the 29% of current Episcopalians who believe in absolute morality, but after controlling for demographics, religiosity, etc., those who believe in clear and absolute morality are about 12% more likely to be former Episcopalians than current Episcopalians.
Same sex marriage: 28% of former Episcopalians oppose same sex marriage (either strongly or somewhat) compared to 20% of current Episcopalians. After statistically controlling for the other factors as discussed above, however, those who strongly oppose same-sex marriage are 20% more likely to have left than those who strongly support.
Who joins the Episcopal Church?
Roughly half (48%) of those who today call themselves Episcopalians said that they were raised in some other religious tradition or denomination. Of those who are Episcopalian “converts,” the vast majority (93%) were raised in another Christian denomination, with 37% coming from Mainline Protestantism, 29% from Catholicism, 24% from Evangelical Protestantism, and 3% from some other Christian tradition. Who are these Episcopal converts? It turns out there are a few consistent predictors.
Demographically, those who join the Episcopal Church tend to be a little older, whiter, and better educated than other Americans, largely in line with the demographic profile of Episcopalians in the U.S. as a whole. Religiously, they tend to be less prayerful (in terms of frequency of personal prayer) and less likely to interpret the Bible literally, “word for word.” They are also more likely than the average American to say that religion in an important part of their lives.
The single strongest predictor, though, is one’s attitude toward same-sex marriage. Those who strongly support same-sex marriage are roughly five times more likely to be an Episcopal convert than the average American. Or looking at it another way, 80% of Episcopal converts favor same-sex marriage compared to 58% of Americans as a whole. (Keep in mind these are still small numbers in an absolute sense. Strongly supporting same-sex marriage instead of strongly opposing increases the odds of being an Episcopal convert from about 1 in 400 to 1 in 100.)
The Episcopal Church experiences similar rates of membership churn as the country at large: about 40% of those raised Episcopalian now identify as something else, and about 50% of those who are now Episcopalian were raised in another religious tradition.
Statistically controlling for several demographic, social, and religious factors, those who have left the Episcopal Church tend to have more certain beliefs in God, are more “black and white” in their moral thinking, and are opposed to same-sex marriage. On the other hand, those who have joined the Episcopal Church tend to be a little older, whiter, and better educated than the average American. They tend to place a higher importance on religion while being less literal in their views of the Bible and engaging in personal prayer less frequently. Above all, they support same-sex marriage.
There is, of course, the question of correlation and causation. It could be that those who switch denominations for one reason or another adopt the prevailing views and behaviors of those in their new congregations. Research has shown, however, that Americans choose religious communities that fit their political and religious beliefs much more often than they change their political views to match their church’s teachings.
Thus, it is not unreasonable to conclude that the Episcopal Church’s more inclusive and thoughtful approach to spirituality as well as its prominent advocacy of marriage equality/LGBTQ rights are the most influential factors right now that are driving some people away from the Episcopal Church while simultaneously drawing newcomers in.
Dr. Benjamin Knoll is the John Marshall Harlan Associate Professor of Politics at Centre College in Danville, Kentucky. He is a political scientist specializing in American public opinion and voting behavior, specifically in the fields of religion and politics and race and politics. He is the co-author of She Preached the Word: Women’s Ordination in Modern America, (Oxford University Press, 2018). @benjaminknoll28
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