A Land of Immigrants, a Shifting Religious Marketplace

Luis Lugo

Based on more than 35,000 interviews, the RLS is some twenty times larger than a good-size survey. This allows us to dig deeper into the smaller religious traditions but also to examine some interest- ing dynamics within the larger religious traditions. The results underscore the impact of immigration and other religious trends on the U.S. I’d also suggest that the Roman Catholic Church is the leading edge of this change, the harbinger of the national religious demographic transformation underway today.

The first thing to notice from our findings is that the U.S. remains an overwhelmingly Christian country (see chart, p.15). That percentage has been declining, but it is still quite high – 78 percent. Immigration is not dramatically altering the Christian percentage of the U.S. If you look at immigration in Europe, a large percentage is Muslim. That is not the case in the U.S. As sociologist Stephen Warner has said, what immigration is bringing to the U.S. is not so much the “de-Christianization” of American society as the “de-Europeanization” of American Christianity, and our numbers bear that out.

The Coming Protestant Minority

Within Christianity we found the total Protestant population to be slightly over half, 51.3 percent. But in the not-too-distant future this country is going to become minority Protestant – and also minority white as well. (The subset of white Anglo-Saxon Protestant, for instance, now represents only slightly over one-third of the U.S. public, about 37-38 percent.) American Christianity is becoming less Protestant even as it remains predominantly Christian.1

Our survey suggests that two major forces are reshaping the American religious landscape. One is conversion from one faith to another, and the second one is immigration. We asked everybody we interviewed, “What was your childhood religion?” and “What is your current religion?” What is happening is a constant churn. The figures show that every single religious community in this country is losing members – and every one of them is gaining members. The key question is always, What is the ratio of those two? For example, the unaffiliated are a big winner in terms of net change, picking up 12.7 percent of the American people – the people we interviewed who said they were raised in some religious tradition and have left whatever tradition that was. But note, too, that 3.9 percent of Americans who were brought up unaffiliated have now gone back to religion.

In short, there’s an unbelievable rate of change going on out there – people moving around, not much brand loyalty – in today’s religious “marketplace.”

The drama of immigration intensifies these dynamics of religious change. Catholicism, in particular, looks poised to be transformed in fundamental ways by immigration – ethnically and socially – making it the leading edge of a broader religious demo- graphic transformation, and suggesting where the country as a whole might be going.

Among the native-born, Protestants outnumber Catholics almost three-to-one. But among the foreign-born, Catholics outnumber Protestants two- to-one; 23 percent of all Catholics in this country today are foreign-born. Compare this to other groups such as Muslims, nearly two-thirds of whom are immigrants.2

Among the foreign-born we noticed an interesting pattern when we asked, “When did you come to the country?” If you divide the answers by decade, the numbers of foreign-born Protestants over time has been decreasing, 22 percent today compared to 33 percent before 196o.3 The Catholic number, which started fairly high, has gone up even higher, to 48 percent. As a result, today some three out of ten adult Catholics are Latino – three in ten. Among the major religious traditions, Catholicism has by far the heaviest immigrant, specifically Latino, influence.

A Catholic Surge

The “age and racial composition” chart (p.17) rein- forces the point. Our findings indicate that the over- whelming majority of Catholics who are 50 and over are white. However, Latinos are almost half of all Catholics under 40 in this country today. This foreshadows what’s coming: as the older, less His- panic cohorts die off, the next cohorts will be increasingly Hispanic.

This has consequences for the geographic distribution of Catholicism in this country. Catholics overall are fairly well spread out, although the Northeast predominates (white Catholics are heavily concentrated in the Northeast and, to a lesser extent, the Midwest). Among Latinos, however, the concentration is towards the South and particularly the West. So, immigration and the Latino growth in the Roman Catholic Church is shifting the demographic center of gravity of American Catholicism.

This trend also will be a socio-economic challenge for the U.S. Catholic Church, which as a whole is fairly middle class. The large presence of Latinos is introducing some important differences socio- economically within the Catholic Church. For ex- ample, the percentage of Catholic adults overall who are not high school graduates looks very similar to the rest of the country. However, there’s a seven- fold difference between Hispanic and non-Hispanic Catholics when it comes to not graduating from high school. Only 6 percent of non-Hispanic Catholic adults have no high school degree; for Hispanic Catholics, the figure is 42 percent. There’s a similar pattern when it comes to income. The percentage of Catholics overall who make less than $30,000 per year is identical to the rest of the country. But non-Hispanic Catholics are a lot better off than the country as a whole, while Hispanics are a lot worse off. Hispanic Catholics are almost three times more likely than non-Hispanic Catholics to make less than $30,000 per year.

Another difference we found between Hispanic and non-Hispanic Catholics, in a survey we con- ducted with the Pew Hispanic Center, a sister organization under the Pew Research Center umbrella, relates to the significant charismatic element within Latino Catholicism. I don’t just mean “bringing the fiesta spirit to mass” – the clapping, the much more animated singing, the energetic worship. I am talking about “high-octane” Pentecostalism – speaking in tongues, divine healing, receiving words of prophecy. Pentecostalism is a remarkable global movement – perhaps the most dynamic religious force in the world today. And its impact is being felt far beyond Pentecostal churches. It is having a major impact on Christianity generally, whether Catholic or Anglican or Protestant. In some parts of the world,

Guatemala for instance, it has been difficult for us to find Protestant evangelicals to survey who are not Pentecostal. So this challenges the Roman Catholic Church to find ways to accommodate this increasing diversity of devotion and worship style.

Where will these trends take U.S. Catholics and everybody else? Looking at the foreign-born population by race and ethnicity, it is overwhelmingly non-white. Only one out of five immigrants in this country today is white. The two big groups are Latinos, who comprise about half of all immigrants, and Asians, about 25 percent. So, Latinos and Asians constitute three out of four of all immigrants in this country. That is going to have a significant impact.

Fertility Futures

Fertility rates also matter. The U.S. as a whole is at 2.1 percent, which demographers say is the replacement rate – that is, the population will remain constant if you are at 2.1 percent. In the U.S., Hispanics are at 2.9. Blacks are at not quite 2.1. Asians are not quite at replacement rate, but their numbers are growing because of immigration. Among whites the number is about 1.8 children per family.

There is not a European country that is even close to replacement rate. This defines part of their challenge to sustain a social welfare system that is much more generous than ours in the face of a decreasing number of workers to replace those who retire. The only way Europe can make up that difference, short of a radical restructuring of their social welfare programs, is immigration. But, as you know, this is causing quite a bit of anxiety in Europe. Europeans can’t seem to live with immigrants and they can’t seem to live without them; this is their dilemma.

When I came into this country from Cuba in 1962, there were very few Hispanics around. I went to Long Island, New York, for the first couple of years, and then the Washington, D.C., area. The high school I graduated from in the Washington area had a huge graduating class, but only a handful of Hispanics. If you go to that area of Prince George’s County today, there are Hispanics everywhere. In Long Island, too, I remember in our elementary and junior high school, a handful of Latino kids, very few. But look at today’s national pattern. The Pew Hispanic Center estimates there are more than 45 million Hispanics in the U.S. today. That number will triple by 2050, to 127 million, because of fertility rates, further immigration, and other factors.

What about the country’s race and ethnic mix in the future? In 1960, the overwhelming majority of the American people were white – over 80 percent. By 2005, it had dipped below 70 percent. By 2050 it will be about 47 percent. Blacks will remain fairly constant, at about 12-13 percent. Asians will grow to about 10 percent of the population by 2050. The big growth, however, will be among Hispanics, going from 3.5 percent in 1960, to about 14 percent today, to 30 percent of the population by 2050.

This is almost the exact same number right now in the U.S. Catholic Church: some 30 percent of adult Catholics are Hispanics, while in 2050, 30 percent of all Americans will be Hispanics. That is why I say that the Catholic Church is a harbinger in this demographic transformation in the U.S., which itself is but a chapter in an amazing global story – the massive movements of people within and across national boundaries and the profound religious changes this portends.

Luis Lugo is director of the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life in Washington, D.C.


  1. 1  We also note the rising significance of the unaffiliated, which we found to be the fastest growing group – 16 percent of the American
    public. But let me add a word of caution here. Unaffiliated does not necessarily mean “secular”
    or non-religious. Secular is not really a very good description of this community. We found that in
    fact 40 percent of those people who are unaffiliated are fairly religious. They have become disaffiliated from religious institutions but not necessarily from religion. In fact, some of them pray and attend church more often than many people who associate with a faith tradition but are not very observant. These “religious unaffiliated” as we call them – some people call them “spiritual but not religious” – are a very interesting subgroup that bears watching.

  2. 2  Coming into play because of immigration’s impact are world religions other than Christianity. The foreign-born percentage for Muslims, for instance, or Buddhists and Hindus, is much higher than for native-born adherents. About 5 percent of the American population now belongs to those traditions; this presents new challenges for accommodating religious differences in the workplace and other areas of public life.

3 The mix within Protestantism among the foreign- born is also shifting. The majority of Protestant immigrants who came to the country prior to 1960 told us they belong to mainline Protestant churches. For those who came during the ’60s, it was already pretty even between mainline and evangelical churches. In the last two decades, however, immigrants who are Protestant have overwhelmingly gravitated towards evangelical churches; many of them are now Pentecostal Protestant.