Measuring Religious Intensity -- Sightings (Martin Marty)

Is religion in America experiencing a period of decline?  Most observers would answer yes to that question.  Even Evangelicals are doing a bit of hand-wringing after a couple of decades of triumphant crowing.  But, they are doing better than Mainliners and Catholics in terms of religious intensity -- or so it seems.  Martin Marty explores recent analysis that points to a significant gap between Roman Catholic intensity and Evangelical intensity.  Although Catholic Churches continue to attract a faithful following, there are a lot of disaffected Catholics out there.  Perhaps it's the conservative turn away from Vatican II trajectories or breaking free of old world ties, but whatever it is the gap is widening.  Marty suggests that perhaps Mainline Protestants and Catholics have a symbiotic relationship -- rising and falling together.  It's an interesting read, helping us make sense of the trends facing us.  Oh, and he even notes that the categories are interesting, with Mainline Protestantism incorporating everything from small rural Disciples of Christ churches in Oklahoma (I'm a Disciple) as well as High Church Anglicans who don't think of themselves as being Protestant (focus of my academic studies!).  Thanks Dr. Marty for including me.

Martin Marty Center for the Advanced Study of Religion
The University of Chicago Divinity School
 Sightings  12/10/2012
 Measuring Religious Intensity

-- Martin E. Marty
Sciences live by measurement, be it of size, temperature, numbers, or pace. So do social scientists in the world of religion. David Gibson in Religion News and the Washington Post’s “On Faith” blog featured the concept of “intensity” in a much-noted recent item. “Catholic Intensity Fades as Evangelical Devotion Surges.” How is intensity measured? Is an ecstatic Pentecostal “intense” and a Quaker or contemplative mystic less so? Are fundraisers and public relations leaders intense and believers dying in hospices less so? Gibson did not have to answer such questions; he properly reduced “intensity” to degrees of participation in religious institutional life. What he saw was revealing.
Background: social scientists’ subtleties get reduced to short-hand and headlines when they identify the groups that make up such institutional life. Thus, “Catholic intensity” has to cover everyone from Dorothy Day or Thomas Merton and their acolytes to political interest groups which claim to speak for authentic Catholicism. Group two, “Mainline Protestant” was invented several decades ago to cover what was then thought of as an “establishment” brand. It includes congregations of Disciples of Christ in little churches on Oklahoma hilltops as well as High Church Anglicans, who may not even want to be thought of as Protestant. The third of the Big Three settles for the category “Evangelical,” and includes politically-connected Fundamentalists at one pole and an array of church-related colleges on the other. And then there is “Everyone Else.”
On the political front, lazy newcomers to the observation of religion often identify “The Evangelical Vote” with the “Christian vote,” a practice which irritates many others who are Christian. So be it; they shrug shoulders, and settle for mis-identifications.
Now, to David Gibson on “intensity.” He features University of Nebraska sociologist Philip Schwadel, who measured the temperature and pace of Evangelicals in the 1970s and found back then only a five-point difference between how strongly Catholics and Evangelicals felt about their religion. By 2010 he found that the “intensity gap” had grown to around 20 points. Here was the shocker in his finding: today 56 percent of Evangelicals describe themselves as “strongly affiliated” with their religion compared with 35 percent of Catholics and, get this: “Even mainline Protestants reported a higher level of religious intensity than Catholics at 39 percent.” African American church members tend to have a measurable intensity comparable to that of Catholics. 
Schwadel will report more fully in a forthcoming issue of the journal Sociology of Religion. “Sociologists have been writing about declines in mainline Protestantism for a few decades, but the more drastic measurable decline in Catholics’ strength was “somewhat surprising.” Another surprise: decline in Catholics’ intensity “did not necessarily correlate to a decline in Mass attendance by younger Catholics.”
My take-away, call it “the Marty Thesis,” if you will [I will!] is: “Mainline Protestantism” and “Catholicism” in America rise together, hold steady together, and, though one would not know it from the writings of some kinds of Evangelicals and secularists, decline together. The reasons for the decline, topics for other days, may vary, from group to group, but few in church life have it easy today. Not a few Evangelicals would agree, noting that “decline” is contagious.

David Gibson, “Catholic Intensity Fades as Evangelical Devotion Surges,” Washington Post, November 29, 2012.
 Martin E. Marty's biography, publications, and contact information can be found at

This month’s Religion & Culture Web Forum features "My Homosexuality Is Getting Worse Every Day": Norman Vincent Peale, Psychiatry, and the Liberal Protestant Response to Same-Sex Desires in Mid-Twentieth Century America” by Rebecca Davis (University of Delaware). The Rev. Norman Vincent Peale was a champion of "positive thinking," "a theory of channeling God’s infinite energy to attain exalted spiritual power--and personal success."  But when Peale responded (in Dec. 1956) in his bi-weekly Look magazine column to a young man seeking help because of his same-sex desires, Peale did not recommend positive thinking and prayer, but psychiatric treatment.  Rebecca Davis argues in her essay, "'My Homosexuality is Getting Worse Every Day,'" that  "Peale’s ideal of human happiness ... was a middle-class (or upper-middle-class) consumerist, heterosexual, Christian, marital norm"; for people troubled by their inability to conform to this norm, Peale believed that "no amount of prayer or positive visualization could help until a psychiatrist had reoriented his sexual desires to make marriage possible." Peale reflects, according to Davis, the stance of other liberal Protestant clergy in the 1950s: they did not did not regard homosexuality as a "religiously transgressive"  threat to "traditional" marriage, but as a psychiatric disorder.

We present here a portion of Davis' essay (from the volume, American Christianities), which won the LGBT Religious History Award from the LGBT Religious Archives Network (RAN).  As an introduction to that excerpt, we present Davis' talk in accepting the award. Read the talk here.


Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center for the Advanced Study of Religion at the University of Chicago Divinity School.


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