The American Religious Landscape is Volatile

by Ryan P. Burge

I was browsing a political science message board a few years ago and an anonymous poster commented that he/she wondered why those who study religion and politics think it’s somehow special compared to other group based identities. I am always trying to be aware of blind spots in my own thinking, so that argument has stuck with me. I think I have constructed a rebuttal. Put simply, religion is not an identity in the way that race/ethnicity is an identity because religion is a choice. It’s not immutable or unchangeable. While someone may grow up evangelical, they can choose to leave that identity at some point in their life (and many do). Others are born into a faith and never leave. That’s something that doesn’t really exist in other contexts.

Ever since I read “Switching Faith” by Darren Sherkat (who was on my dissertation committee) I’ve always wanted to explore religious switching in more depth, but never really had the data or the inclination to wade into the problem. However, I became aware that the Cooperative Congressional Election Study not only has a longitudinal survey that they conduct every two years, but they also conducted a panel survey in 2010, 2012, and 2014. For those who are not privy to survey methodology, a panel survey is when the same people are asked questions over an extended period of time. They are invaluable to track actual change in opinion or behavior over time. They are also perfect to track religious migration in the United States. The CCES Panel is especially valuable because it started with 9,500 respondents. That allows for a lot of subgroup comparisons. Let’s start as broadly as possible and look at the entire dataset and how much change occurred between 2010, 2012, and 2014.

Each of the three vertical bars represented the distribution of religious identities in each year. This visualization also contains an alluvial diagram, which are the bands that represent the flow of individuals from one tradition to another across the three panel waves. The thicker the band, the greater number of individuals migrated from one religious tradition to another. There is obviously a lot going on in this graph, but two things become apparent. One is that there is a tremendous amount of religious stability amongst some religious traditions, but there is also a great deal of movement from one tradition to another across these two year time periods.

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