Picking Your Religion

Lincoln Mullen, an assistant professor of history at George Mason University, calls our attention to a recent Pew Research Center poll reporting that nine percent of Americans of people claim that they are Catholics, but that Catholicism is not their religion.  Pew calls these people “cultural Catholics.” 

Mullen writes:

There is a basic assumption about religion at work in the claims cultural Catholics make about their identity. Even though about 13 percent of them occasionally attend Mass, they do not consider that practice sufficient for them to claim Catholicism as their religion. Instead they say they are Catholic “because of their Catholic background,” which mostly means that they were raised in Catholicism as children. They feel they have inherited a Catholic identity, but have made a conscious choice not to embrace Catholicism as their religion.

When asked what it means to be a Catholic, some people say that it is “a matter of religion,” others that it is a matter of “ancestry or culture.” Religion and religious identity are seen as distinct from the cultural identity. It is not simply an assemblage of beliefs and practices, but the fact that one has chosen to believe and practice, that marks something as religious to Americans. One basic assumption that Americans make about religion, then, is that it is something they actively choose, not something that they simply inherit.

As Mullen points out, the idea of picking one’s religion instead of inheriting it is a distinctly American phenomenon dating back to the early nineteenth-century:

The idea that people must pick their religion is by no means natural. Americans came to think of religion as a matter of choice because of a long historical process. When religion was disestablished in the aftermath of the American Revolution, the removal of state encouragement for religion had the effect of encouraging people to decide matters of religion for themselves.

The 19th-century expansion of evangelicalism into the Protestant mainstream intensified conversion as a live option, as evangelists preached revivals and traveling pitchmen brought tracts and Bibles to people’s doors. Irreligion, whether in the occasional growth of real atheists or agnostics or in the constant fears of imagined “infidels,” also played an important role.

And he concludes:

Plenty of Americans have picked their religion, and so they think of religion as something to be picked. Americans have developed this distinction, which would not have made sense centuries ago. As the Pew report shows, American Catholics hold onto the identity that they have inherited, but they don’t think of that identity as religious unless they have chosen it for themselves.

We are bombarded by these religious reports put out by Pew and other polling organizations.  What I like most about Mullen’s piece is his attempt to bring some historical context to these contemporary trends.  Of course his piece echoes scholarship about religious consumerism and democratic religion made popular by scholars such as R. Laurence Moore, Nathan Hatch, and others.