A 'spiritual salad bar'
"Americans believe in everything. It's a spiritual salad bar," says Rice University sociologist Michael Lindsay.
Rather than religious leaders setting the cultural agenda, today, it's Oprah Winfrey, he says.
"After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the national memorial service was at Washington's National Cathedral, conducted by Episcopal clergy. After the 9/11 attack, Oprah organized the official memorial service at Yankee Stadium, and while clergy participated, she was the master of ceremonies.
"The impact of Oprah is seen throughout this survey. She uses the language of Bible and Christian traditions and yet includes other traditions to create a hodgepodge personalized faith. Exclusivism (the idea that one religion has the absolute and exclusive truth) has gotten a bad name in America today," says Lindsay, author of a book on the rise of evangelical social and political clout.
He also noted the political ramifications of findings that "half of evangelicals and half of Catholics say they really don't think about politics all that much."
By measures of "religiosity" — people who attend church at least weekly, pray at least daily and have an absolute belief in a personal God — the survey finds overall that Democrats and Republicans hit the same levels.
The difference is in their behavior, however, says Green. "Those who lean Republican and attend church are likely to vote at a high rate while religious Democrats don't turn out to vote at the same levels."
If the candidacy of Barack Obama, the first black major-party nominee for the presidency, brings religious Democrats to the polls, that could all change, Green says.
Lugo predicts "rip-roaring debates" over whether evangelicalism, which has been a driver in the American religious and political marketplace for a decade now, has peaked in its spiritual, social and political clout as its distinctive teachings lose ground.
Neither are people likely to return to the denominational fold, says political science professor Alan Wolfe, director of the Boise Center for American and Public Life at Boston University.
"Overall people say they are religious, but they have no command of theology, doctrine or history so it's an empty religiosity. They don't call themselves spiritual, however, because that word has New Age baggage," says Wolfe, who finds "a very forgiving quality" to this non-sectarian, no-mention-of-sin view.
"Americans are deeply suspicious of institutional religion," says Green. Some see "religion as about money, rules and power and that is not a positive connotation for everyone."
Adults under 30 are further from strict religious adherence than their parents and even though other studies show they cycle back to religion at key moments such as marriage or rearing children, those spirals are smaller and smaller, says Tom Smith, director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Society. It is part of the University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center, which has measured religion and society for decades through the General Social Survey.
"We may see that unlike the past, people are not going to return to the church they left or to any one at all," says Green.
Indeed, Pew found fewer people starting out in any church.
Among couples (married or living together) with children, 63% say they read the Bible or pray with their children and 60% say they send them for religious education.
But those numbers drop significantly for religiously mixed couples with children — 37% of those surveyed. In mixed marriages, only 48% say they pray or read Scripture with their children and 44% say they send their children for religious education, says Greg Smith, a Pew research fellow.
"Every religious group has a major challenge on its hands from all directions," Lugo says. "It is extremely difficult to maintain the integrity of the tradition and the strength of a community, given all these findings."