Religious Denominations in the United States

There is no shortage of religious denominations in America. According to most estimates, there are upwards of 200 reasonably sized Christian denominations alone in America.

The Association of Religion Data Archives (ARDA) website contains an impressive amount of information about the religious makeup of the United States. Despite the increasing influence of secularism in America, Christians still make up about 70-80% of the American population, with the exact number depending on how “Christian” is defined. Here’s a chart of how other religions stack up:

 

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Percent of American population that adheres to each religion

American Christianity can typically be divided into smaller groups based on common beliefs. Most broadly, Christians can be thought of as being either Catholic or Protestant. Based on fairly recent estimates, there are about twice as many Protestant Christians in America than there are Catholics. Using information from ARDA, I created a map of the United States that shows if there are more Catholic or Protestant Christians in each state:

1. Prot Cat Map

 

As you can see, the vast majority of states (42 of them) have more Protestant Christians than Catholics. Only 8 states, all situated on the upper East Coast, have more Catholics than Protestants.

The Protestant Christian category can be further subdivided into Mainline Protestants and Evangelical Protestants. The Mainline Protestant category would include, for example, certain Reformed churches like the United Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), and the Episcopal Church. This category also includes the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Many of these churches are more theologically liberal than their Evangelical Protestant counterparts.

The other category, Evangelical Protestant, is typically composed of various Baptist, Pentecostal, Anglican, and some Reformed churches. This category would also include the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod (LCMS) and the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod. Most churches in the Evangelical category are known for being theologically and socially conservative.

Broken down into percentage, about 60% of Protestants belong to Evangelical churches, while the other 40% belong to Mainline churches.

There are a few other religious groups that have a strong showing in America, such as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), Judaism, and Islam. Using information from ARDA, I created another two maps that show the largest and second largest denominations in each state:

2. Largest Denomination.png

3. Second Largest.png

Only two non-Christian religious groups show up on these maps –

  1. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, also known as Mormons (although they are widely considered by many to be just another Christian group, their vast theological differences from historical Christianity are enough, in my mind, to consider them far outside of the Christian Church.) Looking between both of the above maps, it’s obvious that the Mormon Church has a great foothold in the Westernmost states, and, interestingly, Hawaii.
  2. Orthodox Judaism, which is the second largest religious denomination in New York

You might note that even in many states that have more Protestants than Catholics, the Catholic Church is still the largest single denomination. This is because Protestantism is so divided into different denominations and the number is split between them.

On the first map, it can be easily seen that the Southern Baptist Convention is the most prominent religious group in states around the “Bible Belt,” a region that is well-known for Evangelical Protestants with social conservatism.

On the second map, it’s also apparent that Lutheranism has a good showing within the Northeastern Midwest in the states of Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Nebraska. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is very prominent in these states, and the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod is the second largest denomination in Nebraska, only behind the Catholic Church.

The United Methodist Church has an impressive number of adherents in the middle of the Eastern portion of America, and is actually the denomination with the most adherents in West Virginia.

In Maryland, Alaska, and New Jersey, non-denominational Christians were the second largest “group.” I put them on the map because I thought it was very interesting that there were that many Christians without a denomination. If non-denominational Christians aren’t considered for this map (due to the fact that they are, as per their name, not a denomination), then the second largest group in Alaska is the Mormon Church, the second largest in Maryland is the United Methodist Church, and the second largest in New Jersey is Islam.

Here’s an interesting factoid: During the process of gathering information for these maps, I visited all 50 states’ Wikipedia pages to look for summaries of their religious demographics. Out of all of the 50 states, Vermont’s page was the only one that did not contain a section on religious demographics. In fact, the words “religion” and “Christian” do not even appear at all on Vermont’s Wikipedia page.


 

Although many of the more mainstream groups within American Christianity have abandoned some of the most basic Christian Biblical principles, we still ought to be thankful that the vast majority of Americans at least identify themselves as Christians. It is our mission as followers of Christ to live out our vocations and contribute to the things that make this nation great.

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The End of Moral Absolutes?

I recently stumbled upon a poll by the Barna Group, an Evangelical Christian polling group that conducts surveys about the thoughts, attitudes, and spiritual beliefs of America. Over 1000 individuals of different faiths were surveyed and asked various questions regarding the state of morality in America and the nature of moral truth.

Frankly, the results are fairly disheartening to read, but they aren’t all that surprising. Let’s take a look at some of the most important findings here.

Question: Are you concerned about the nation’s moral condition?

Demographic Percent “Yes”
 Overall  80%
 Elders  89%
 Baby Boomers  87%
 Gen-Xers  75%
 Millennials  74%
 Practicing Christians  90%
 No Faith  67%
 Faith other than Christianity  72%

An overwhelming majority (80%) of the American population as a whole is concerned about America’s moral condition. As one might expect, the amount of moral concern decreases as the age of the group decreases. While 89% of elderly people show concern, only 74% of Millennials show the same. Practicing Christians are the most concerned about the nation’s morality at 90%, as they should be. The widespread acceptance of things like abortion and sexual deviancy have further polarized our nation’s moral views.

While a majority of adults with no faith (67%) said they were concerned about the moral state of America, I can only assume that some of these respondents said so because they believe America is too conservative in its moral convictions. There are many atheists who believe the moral constraints of our culture that result from being a majority Christian nation are problematic and need to be thrown off. Many of them view traditional Christian moral values as hindering to America’s “social progress” (whatever that means.)

Statement: Whatever is right for your life or works best for you is the only truth you can know.

Screen Shot 2016-06-01 at 9.03.17 AM
From barna.org

An overwhelming majority of Millennials (74%) agree with this statement to some degree. 31% of them strongly agree with this statement. Younger generations are increasingly given the impression by our culture that the only truth in this world is what you feel works for you. Obviously, this is a dangerous message to convey to a culture that increasingly needs to hear the absolute truths of God’s Word.

67% of adults with no faith agree with this statement to some degree. I’m puzzled by the other 33% who do not agree with the statement. While it’s possible for an atheist or agnostic to behave in a moral fashion, the belief that there is any kind of absolute moral standard is completely inconsistent with their atheistic worldview.

While it’s good that only a minority of Christians agree to some degree with this statement (41%), that minority is nonetheless alarmingly large. Take a look once again at the statement they were asked to react to: “Whatever is right for your life or works best for you is the only truth you can know.” I would agree that every individual has unique experiences and has a life that functions differently from other individuals. However, that’s not what this question is asking. To sincerely believe that “what works best for an individual is the only truth one can know” is to completely deny the foundations of the Christian faith. While some of the Christian respondents may not have recognized the implication of their response, or even misinterpreted the question, I still feel spiritual concern for the 41% who answered in the affirmative. God’s Word is ultimately the only truth we can know and trust, and anyone who believes differently is not familiar with the most basic tenets of the Christian faith.

Statement: The Bible provides us with absolute moral truths which are the same for all people in all situations, without exception.

Question 2.png
From barna.org

According to the survey description at barna.org, a majority of all American adults (59%) agreed with this statement. 83% of Christians agree with the statement to some degree. There are some interesting things about this. First, it would be interesting to have a conversation with someone from the 17% who disagree with this statement. While not every statement or commandment in the Bible applies to all people at all times (take, for instance, the Old Testament ceremonial laws), the Bible nonetheless communicates many absolute moral truths that are meant to apply to all people indiscriminately.

The other anomaly here is the disparity between the responses to this question and the previous one. 83% of Christians believe that the Bible has absolute moral truths for all people at all times, but 41% of Christians think that the only truth we can know is relative to the individual. Those numbers simply don’t add up. Either some of the respondents did not understand the questions, or they are simply inconsistent in their beliefs.

The other percentages in the graphic above aren’t too much of a surprise. What is fairly interesting, however, is the fact that 27% of adults with no religious faith still believe that the Bible has moral truths that apply to all people at all times.

Question: Is moral truth absolute or relative?

Screen Shot 2016-06-01 at 9.35.30 AM

This question is the one that gets to the crux of the issue. Only 35% of American adults believe that moral truth is absolute. 44% believe that moral truth is relative, and 21% haven’t given it much thought. The fact that only 59% of Christians believe that moral truth is absolute is extremely disappointing and disheartening. These results all but confirm what many of us have sensed for a while now: America is rejecting moral absolutes that previous generations recognized.

Oh, but it doesn’t end there. I don’t want to ruin anyone’s day, but there’s even more frustration to be felt with these next results:Screen Shot 2016-06-01 at 9.43.01 AM

 

These results are pretty self-explanatory. Sadly, more Christians seem interested in living a life of pleasure and personal fulfillment than anything else. To the 76% of Christians who think we need to just “look within” to find ourselves: you need to read Colossians 2:9-10 –

For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, and in Christ you have been brought to fullness. He is the head over every power and authority.
We don’t “find ourselves” by looking inward. We find our true identity and fulfillment by looking to Christ who redeemed us and brought us to fullness. The same goes to the 72% who think fulfillment comes from pursuing the things you desire most.
The most disturbing thing here is the percent of Christians (67%) who believe the highest goal of life is to enjoy it as much as possible. I hope and pray that most of these people simply misunderstood the question. Where can you even start in responding to that kind of sentiment? Are these Christians so completely unfamiliar with what the Bible says about these questions? There’s certainly nothing wrong with wanting and striving for a happy and peaceful life, but I don’t recall any passages that address the importance of just doing whatever “feels best” and makes us happy. In fact, Scripture overwhelmingly says just the opposite –
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.
– Romans 12:2
Scripture makes it clear that we are not to be conformed to the hedonistic and self-seeking philosophies of this world. We are to be transformed by renewing our minds in Christ, which means that our ultimate purpose is found in him.
While the results of this survey are certainly disappointing and even frustrating, they give us all the more reason to reach out to those around us and share with them what God has to say on these issues. Apparently, even many Christians need to be reminded of many of the basic things the Bible has to say about morality. As Paul says in Colossians 3:16 –
Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.
Encourage, instruct, and admonish one another in love. And whatever you do, don’t be the 67%.

Why are There So Many Denominations?

(Check out my previous article with a similar theme, “Why are There So Many Bible Translations?“)

Take a good look at this “family tree” of Christian denominations here. Confusing, isn’t it? And that doesn’t nearly include all of them.

Why can’t there just be one label on there, titled “The Christian Church” founded by Jesus Christ in 33 AD? Why can’t that single Church have a line drawn from it all the way up to 2016 AD, with no other branches? Why can’t it look like this?

Denominations

Actually, in a sense, it is that way, but it doesn’t look that way. More on that in a bit.

The vast number of Christian denominations is something I’ve heard atheists cite as evidence against the Christian faith. As the argument goes, if Christianity is the truth and the only way to salvation, why are there so many divisions within it? Why would Christians be arguing among themselves? Surely, if Christianity were true, Christians would be in agreement concerning their faith.

Now, this argument mostly ignores that fact that historically, Christians across the entire spectrum of denominations have affirmed many of the same central truths – the importance of Scripture, the work and person of Jesus Christ, the doctrine of the Trinity, etc.

More importantly, this argument presents a bit of a strawman picture of Christianity. The claim that “Christianity must be false, because its own followers can’t completely agree on everything” makes a strange assumption about the nature of religion. In essence, it is saying that “if a religion is the truth, all of its adherents will be in complete unity concerning that religion.” This assertion does not have any foundation. It certainly isn’t an assumption that historical and orthodox Christianity has ever held.

In fact, the New Testament writers anticipated divisions within the Church. The Apostle Paul instructed the Christians in Rome to “watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them” (Romans 16:17). There were even apparent divisions in the Church within a few years of Jesus’ ministry. The entire book of Galatians was written in order to refute the teachings of those known as the “Judaizers,” a sect of Jewish Christians who taught that all Christians must observe Old Testament Jewish customs in order to be saved. IMG_2976

Whenever talking about “the Christian Church,” it is helpful to make a distinction concerning what we regard the church to mean. Christian theologians have typically described the church in a twofold manner: the invisible church and the visible church.  The invisible church consists of all those who have been called by the gospel and justified by Christ. It is termed “invisible” because we as humans cannot see into people’s hearts to discern who has faith and who doesn’t. In this sense, the invisible church is the “true” church due to the fact that all of its members have true faith. The visible church, on the other hand, is a manifestation of the invisible church. We cannot see into men’s hearts to discern their faith, but we can get an idea of who our fellow believers are due to their confession of faith and their works before us. Charles Porterfield Krauth, a great Lutheran theologian of the 19th century, summarized this by saying: “Faith makes men Christians; but Confession alone marks them as Christians… By our faith, we are known to the Lord as his; by our Confession, we are known to each other as His children.”[1]

Even though Christians belonging to different denominations can vary in their beliefs about the Christian faith, true believers in Christ can be found throughout the visible church, even with all of its divisions and debates. The invisible church, that is, those who have saving faith in Christ, can be found all throughout the visible church, in all manner of denominations. This does not mean, however, that every individual denomination is correct in its teachings. Edward Koehler describes this well in A Summary of Christian Doctrine:

The visible church is divided into many denominations or confessions, also called churches. There are three large branches of the visible church: the Roman Catholic Church, both Greek and Roman; the Reformed Church, comprising a large number of denominations; and the Lutheran Church, which is also divided into a number of bodies.

These denominations or confessions differ from one another in points of doctrine, and each asserts that its teachings are true. It is absurd to assume that all these churches have the true and right teachings. There is but one truth. A doctrine is either true or false. It cannot be both. . . There is only one true doctrine concerning the creation of the world, the Holy Trinity, the person of Christ, the redemption of the world, the conversion of man, etc. Whatever does not agree with this doctrine is false (323).[2]

So while we recognize that there are true believers (members of the invisible church) throughout various denominations, we also acknowledge that not every denomination can be correct in its public confession of doctrine, due to the exclusive nature of true doctrine. Additionally, there may be those who appear to confess true faith in Christ, yet still do not actually believe it in their hearts. Jesus tells us in Matthew 7:21 that “not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven.” These individuals would belong to the visible church due to their confession, but not the invisible church, due to their actual lack of belief. Again, Koehler states:

Unbelievers and hypocrites may be active and affiliated with a congregation. However, they do not belong to the [true] church because the terms used in the Scriptures to describe the church indicate that there exists an inner relation and spiritual communion between her members and God. . . All true believers, no matter to which denominational body they belong, are members of this church. However, if one does not have faith, then one is not a member of the church, though he is a priest, minister, or the pope himself (314).[3]

There is only one true and invisible church established by Christ. Anyone who has true faith in Jesus Christ for salvation is a member of this true church, regardless of denominational affiliation. Regardless, denominations are important because they allow Christians of similar conviction and confession to engage in fellowship. We are not to ignore these doctrinal differences, especially those that are blatantly false and harmful. We are told countless times throughout Scripture to avoid false teachers and those teach destructive doctrines.

Why are there so many denominations? It is simply due to the sinfulness of humans. We have a tendency replace God’s words with our own and, in some cases, ignore Him completely. Splits occur because division and disagreement arises along with false teaching. Regardless, God is faithful to His children. The large number of divisions within Christianity are not divisions within the true invisible church, but rather are divisions within the visible church, the imperfect manifestation of the true church.

If you feel troubled by the apparent divisions within Christianity, take heart in the fact that there are true believers throughout many different confessions. Take to heart the words of Jesus in Matthew 16:18 – “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.

 


 

[1] Charles Porterfield Krauth, The Conservative Reformation and Its Theology. Philadelphia: United Lutheran Publishing House, 1913: 166.

[2][3] Edward W. A. Koehler, A Summary of Christian Doctrine. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2006.