Explaining religious decline in the Northeast

It has everything to do with Catholics.

The Northeast Region
The Northeast Region

The Northeast Region

Last week, American Conservative blogger Rod Dreher asked for help in understanding the decline of Christianity in the Northeast. Here’s my submission.

Let’s think of the decline in terms of the proportion of self-identified adult Christians (with Christians defined broadly to include Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses, among others). Based on the American Religious Identification Survey and PRRI’s American Values Atlas, between 1990 and 2013 the proportion of Christians in the country as a whole shrank from 86 percent to 71 percent. (The proportion of Nones — those who disclaim a religious identity — grew by an almost equivalent amount, from 8 percent to 21 percent.)

The Christian decline was in fact most pronounced in the Northeast, which went from 84 percent to 64 percent. The West, by contrast, only shrank from 80 percent to 71 percent. The decline in the Midwest was from 88 percent to 72 percent and in the South from 92 percent to 77 percent. In short, over the past quarter-century, the Northeast has supplanted the West as the country’s least Christian region, going from near the national average to well below it. How come?

The answer has everything to do with Roman Catholicism, the region’s largest religious tradition. From 1990 to 2013, the proportion of self-identified Catholics in the Northeast shrank dramatically, from 43 percent to 31 percent. By contrast, the Catholic proportion of the population in the rest of the country has declined by only four points, from 26 percent to 22 percent.

Much of the regional disparity has to do with the church’s Latinization. Latino immigration has been disproportionately into the West and the South, increasing the percentage of Catholics in each region. But this does not explain the difference between the Northeast and the Midwest, where the Catholic proportion of the population has declined by just six points (27 percent to 21 percent), despite having fewer Latino immigrants.

To be sure, shrinking Northeastern Catholicism does not account for the entire decline in Northeastern Christianity. The proportion of non-Catholic Christians in the Northeast shrank by 17 percent between 1990 and 2013, from 41 percent to 34 percent. That, however, is equivalent to the shrinkage of non-Catholics in the Midwest (16 percent) and well below the West (26 percent) and the South (29 percent). In other words, to the extent that the Northeast has de-christianized relative to the rest of the country, it has to do with Catholics — and specifically, with white Catholics.

The key event was the sexual abuse scandal that exploded in Boston in 2002. In Massachusetts, the epicenter of the crisis, the proportion of Catholics has shrunk by fully one-third, from 54 percent of the population to 36 percent. In Rhode Island and Connecticut, the shrinkage was 27 percent and 22 percent respectively. Although the scandal rippled across the country, nowhere has the disaffiliation of Catholics been greater than in southern New England, which has historically been the most Catholic part of the country.

As was clear to those who followed the scandal as it unrolled, middle-class white Catholics became more disaffected as a result of the scandal than did immigrant communities, dependent as the latter were on the church for social service support. So it’s been in the Northeast, led by New England (where the proportion of immigrant Catholics was smaller and the scandal hit hardest) that Catholicism, and thus Christianity, has declined more than anywhere else.

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