Ammerman identifies eight ‘major streams’ of religious leanings in the U.S.

The United States has always been a religiously pluralistic place — now, more so than ever, said Nancy Ammerman, a sociologist of religion.

In a recent lecture series, Ammerman described how she sees things lining up — saying the United Stattes now has eight major streams of religious leanings, what she referred to as eight points on the compass.

As she mapped them out, they are:

o Conservative Protestants, evangelicals and Pentecostals. They constitute a quarter of the U.S. population and one half of the country’s congregations. There’s immense variation in this group, Ammerman said, but rest assured, “they’re going to teach the Bible and preach about the saving blood of Jesus.”

o Mainline Protestants. Mostly moderates to liberals, they make up about 15 percent of the U.S. population and a quarter of the congregations. Disproportionately well-educated and middle-class, they are held together as much by their acceptability in the culture as by shared theology, Ammerman said.

o Historic African-American churches. Including three Baptist and three Methodist denominations, the Church of God in Christ and independent congregations. This group makes up about 5 percent of the U.S. population and roughly 7 percent of the congregations. They share the evangelicals’ piety, but “with a concern for worldly engagement” that exceeds that of conservative white Christians, Ammerman said.

o Catholics and Eastern Orthodox. “Two grand international churches,” as Ammerman put it, they’re about one-fourth of the U.S. population but, because parishes tend to be large, only about 6 percent of the congregations.

o Jews. They make up less than 2 percent of the U.S. population and fewer than 1 percent of the congregations. In some parts of the country, Jews are very visible and influential; in others, less so, Ammerman said.

o Other world religions — or, as Ammerman described them, “the new-to-us world religions,” from Muslims to Hindus to Buddhists and on. They outnumber Jews, but still are on the margins of many American communities, she said. The Pluralism Project at Harvard University has identified 4,500 local congregations or worship centers in the U.S. that are not Christian or Jewish, Ammerman said.

o Sectarians. At least as with Jews or the “other world religions” category, this includes religious traditions that are Christian in heritage — from the Jehovah’s Witnesses to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints — but also take a separatist view of their relationship to society, Ammerman said. They also are known for their dedication to evangelism. “These are people who do in fact show up on our doorsteps,” she said.

o And, finally, what she calls “no organized religion.” One in six Americans claim no religious preference, and at least that many give a preference, but never attend worship, Ammerman said. Overall, about a third of the U.S. population does not actively participate in any religious community, she said. But “almost none of them are actually unbelievers. They may not be orthodox” and they are not involved in any congregation. “But they are not secular atheists. They do believe.”

— Leslie Scanlon