Nebraska's changing religious landscape: How immigration is diversifying the state's beliefs

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May 17, 2011 - 7:00pm

On any given Sunday, about one in four Americans will attend a religious service. In Europe, it's maybe one in ten.

Barry Kosmin, research professor of public policy and law at Trinity College in Connecticut and director of the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture, said that illustrates the paradox of America and religion.


Photo by Hilary Stohs-Krause

Latinos represent 32 percent of Catholics nationwide, up from 20 percent in 1990. Many Nebraska churches have started offering Spanish-language services, like Cristo Rey Catholic Church in Lincoln.

Courtesy of the 2008 American Religious Identification Survey

Chart on the religious self-identification of American Latino adults

Full text of the 2008 American Religious Identification Survey

"The United States is sort of separation of church and state, and a country where there's no established religion," he said, "but the politics of the United States, or the political rhetoric, is much more religious.

"The French president or the British prime minister or German chancellor doesn't say, God bless Germany' or God bless France' at the end of any speech."

Kosmin has been the principal investigator for ARIS, or the American Religious Identification Survey, since 1990. The data collected by ARIS is what the U.S. Census Bureau uses in its statistical abstracts. The most recent ARIS survey was conducted in 2008; more than 54,000 people nationwide were surveyed in both English and Spanish.

Some of the results might surprise you.

"That undoubtedly are a lot of cleavages in certain areas of the country along religious lines," Kosmin said. "What we've noticed, when I write about this, is where they're used to be a lot of cleavage between religions, like Catholics and Protestants, it's not (anymore). It's within the groups. So you've got very liberal Catholics and very strong, conservative Catholics."

In 1990, 86 percent of Americans considered themselves Christian; by 2008, that number had dropped ten percentage points. In Nebraska, that number dropped even further, from 89 percent to 75 percent.

And perhaps most tellingly, the number of "nones" - or people who don't adhere to any specific religion - jumped from seven percent of Nebraskans to almost one in five.

Check out part 2 in this series, airing tomorrow, for more on the Nones.

The two largest trends nationally involved the impact of Latino immigration on Catholicism and the movement across the board away from mainline Christian denominations.

From Latin to Latino: Catholic churches increasingly filled with Hispanic congregants

"Immigration has brought a significant number of Hispanic Catholics to the state of Nebraska, and particularly the Archdiocese of Omaha," said Deacon Tim McNeil, chancellor of the archdiocese. You only have to visit some of our South Omaha parishes to see that."

He said Catholic parishes in Nebraska have had to adjust as the cultural and ethnic makeup of congregants has shifted. McNeil estimated the number of Latino Catholics in the archdiocese at about 17 or 18 percent, up from an estimated 8 or 9 percent a decade ago.

"So a parish that might have been maybe ethnically oriented to, let's say, the polish or the Italians, are now becoming oriented towards Hispanics."

According to the ARIS survey, the proportion of Latino Catholics nationally has jumped from 20 percent to 32 percent. Without the roughly 9 million adult Latinos who emigrated to the U.S. in the last two decades, the Catholic Church would have shrunk as a share of the total U.S. population.

Even so, Nebraska's Catholic population fell from 29 percent of the state in 1990 to 22 percent in 2008. And the longer a Latino man or Latina woman lives in the U.S., the less likely he or she is to remain Catholic.

You have to feel secure to change your religion, Kosmin explained; the prosperity of the 90s is a large reason why the decade saw so much religious turnover.


Click here for the American Congregations 2008 report from Faith Communities Today

Click here for a report on "U.S. Latino Religious Identification 1990-2008: Growth, Diversity & Transformation" from the American Religious Identification Survey

Click here for the 2008 U.S. Religious Landscape Survey from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life

"The children of immigrants are usually better off than their parents," he said. "They're more modern, if you want to call it that. And more educated. And all that gives them confidence to change."

Additionally, the share of Catholics on the East Coast has decreased as scandals shook people's faith in their faith. Nebraska and the Midwest, however, didn't seem as affected, McNeil said.

"In our jurisdiction, we haven't seen much drop-off or loss of memberships that maybe has occurred nationwide," he said.

"Not American enough"

Additionally, Nebraska has seen some significant increases in its Muslim population in the last few decades, including Somalis, Sudanese and Iraqis. Specific numbers are hard to come by, but University of Nebraska at Omaha Islamic studies professor Bridget Blomfield estimated there are as many as ten or fifteen thousand Muslims in the state.

But while the Omaha archdiocese is busy teaching its priests Spanish and working to assimilate its Latino parishioners, she said Nebraskan Muslims often feel like they're caught between two worlds - especially young Afghanis.

"They say that they typically feel kind of like they're not Afghan enough to go live in Afghanistan because they were brought up in the United States," Blomfield said, "but they're never going to be American enough to be accepted by American culture."

She mentioned a student of hers in his early 20s who has an American mother and an Afghani father.

"He grew up in Omaha watching Nickelodeon, playing basketball, playing soccer," she said. "They celebrated Ramadan, they celebrated Christmas. He said it was just like this really relaxed experience. And then after 9/11, then he became an Arab, which of course Afghans aren't. But people started calling him Osama, and asking if his dad was one of the terrorists."

Unlike Latino Catholics, who become less religious as they become Americanized, Blomfield said several of her students became more devout after moving to the U.S. as a way to maintain community and cultural ties.

Overall, one of the biggest changes to Christianity in the last few decades has been movement away from the centrist denominations, Kosmin with the ARIS study said.

"If you look at the United States as a whole, there's been a kind of not polarization but shift away from the middle ground, religiously."

According to the ARIS study, 38 percent of mainline Protestants now identify as born again or Evangelical Christians, and the number of non-denominational Christians - often associated with megachurches - increased from fewer than 200,000 in 1990 to more than 8 million in 2008.

"Yes, there's been a rise in piety," he said. "There's no doubt about it. Liberal religion has lost out to middle-of-the-road people, who've lost to traffic going both ways, as it were."

The Midwest has been isolated from those changes to a certain extent, mostly due to less immigration and emigration than other parts of the country.

But politically, there could be big implications down the road for Nebraska.

Learn more in part two of this series, airing May 19, 2011.



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