Martin Marty: Measuring religious intensity

Editor's note: This “Sightings” entry is written by Martin E. Marty, the dean of American religious scholars, and is published by the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

CHICAGO — 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 Service 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.

(Martin E. Marty is one of the most prominent interpreters of contemporary religion and culture. He is the author of more than 50 books, a sought-after speaker, columnist, pastor and teacher. He has been a professor of religious history at the University of Chicago for 35 years.)

About the author

Martin E. Marty

"Marty" is one of the most prominent interpreters of religion and culture today. Author of more than 50 books, he is also a speaker, columnist, pastor, and teacher, having been a professor of religious history for 35 years at the University of Chicago.