A new survey shows that mainline Protestants, the religious group that has dominated America’s religious terrain for most of the country’s existence, and Catholics, the largest single denomination in the country, may be beginning to ceding size and influence to new religious groups. The 2012 Religious Congregations and Membership Survey (RCMS), released on May 1, shows that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (in other words, Mormonism) reported 2 million new adherents and new congregations in 295 counties where no Mormons lived a decade ago, making Mormonism the fastest-growing religious group in the United States. Muslims came in second, with growth of 1 million adherents in 197 new counties.
The RCMS is conducted every 10 years. Rather than focusing on beliefs or worship attendance, it tabulates the precise number of people who are affiliated with U.S. congregations. This tallying method enabled the researchers to uncover differences between the more than 8-in-10 Americans who say they are Christians, and the 49% who report being involved in a local congregation.
According to Kevin Eckstrom of the Religion News Service,
The rapid growth among American Muslims likely has several explanations, researchers said: growth in the suburbs, an increased willingness by U.S. Muslims to stand and be counted, and more mosques being built to serve more worshippers.
Americans remain ambivalent about whether the values of Islam conflict with American values (47% say yes, 48% say no), but a majority (51%) say they would be comfortable with a mosque being built near their home.
There are a few caveats that should be noted. First, the data on African-American religious bodies is incomplete due to low response rates among this religious community. Researchers were also unable to reach two-thirds of U.S. mosques, and were forced to estimate. They also predict that the rapid growth among American Muslims is unlikely to be duplicated in future decades.
The RCMS also did not count the religiously unaffiliated, because they are not part of religious congregations. This is, however, an important and growing part of the U.S. religious landscape. For example, according to the 2012 Millennial Values Survey, one-quarter (25%) of white younger Millennials (age 18-24) who were raised Catholic now identify as religiously unaffiliated.
The growth and movement of minority religions like Mormonism and Islam is likely to have a profound impact on attitudes toward these groups and American culture more broadly. Last September, PRRI found that around 4-in-10 Americans had never had a conversation with a Mormon (41%) or a Muslim (40%). Looking at the results of the 2012 Religious Congregations and Membership Survey, it seems highly plausible that these numbers will shift in the coming decade. This type of interaction matters, since Americans who report more frequent interaction with groups like Muslims and Mormons also report more positive feelings toward the group in question.