Americans are more loyal to their toothpaste or toilet paper than to their religious denomination, making consumers more choosy about Charmin or Colgate than they are about church, according to a new survey.
According to a Phoenix-based research firm, 16 percent of Protestants say they would consider only one denomination, while 22 percent of them would use only one brand of toothpaste and 19 percent would use just one brand of bathroom tissue.
Experts say the findings may be more telling about Americans’ views of the plethora of Protestant groups than how they choose between Quilted Northern and, say, Cottonelle.
“When you have a whole bunch of different brands out there and not a lot of differentiation among some of them — and not a lot of knowledge about them — the denominational world is facing the same problem as many other brands,” said Ron Sellers, president of Ellison Research, which conducted the survey.
Robert Thompson, professor of popular culture at Syracuse University, said at first blush the findings may indicate that “the United States worships at the church of consumption,” but thinks there’s more to the numbers than that.
“When you actually think about it for more than 10 seconds, none of this is all that surprising and I don’t think it’s actually bad,”
He said the statistics demonstrate that some of the age-old rivalries between Protestant denominations have simply dissolved.
“Those distinctions, which seemed so important as the various Protestant churches were identifying and evolving … are really not that important to the average churchgoer in the United States,” Thompson said.
He pointed to himself as Exhibit A: “I myself … a Protestant, have been a member of three different denominations in my life.”
The Ellison findings seem to echo a large national survey conducted last year by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, which found that
44 percent of Americans have switched from one faith, or one denomination, to another.
Ellison detected a profound difference between Protestants and Catholics on the question of denominational loyalty: 60 percent of active Catholics said they would only consider attending a Roman Catholic congregation.
“It’s not like there are 75 different Catholic denominations, where
(if) they don’t like the Southern Catholic Convention, they can go to the Progressive Catholic Convention,” said Sellers, whose findings were based on a nationally representative online panel of 1,007 U.S. adults, including 471 respondents who attended a Christian congregation one or more times a month.
Nancy Ammerman, a sociologist of religion at Boston University School of Theology, said the survey reflects changes in how people choose congregations.
“It has become unfashionable to claim to be denominationally loyal,”
she said. “It has become … kind of the way people expect to talk about their religiosity, to say that they wouldn’t put denomination above some other important criteria.”
What are those other criteria? Ammerman suggested worshippers put far greater emphasis on how closely preachers stick to the Bible, or how inspiring their sermons tend to be, than the name on the sign on the church’s front lawn.
In addition, she said, the lack of clarity between denominations — does the average layperson really know the difference between the Church of God and the Church of Christ? — makes labels less meaningful.
“You can have very, very theologically conservative Presbyterian churches and very, very liberal Presbyterian churches, so people have sort of also gotten into their heads that the label on the door doesn’t tell them what they need to know,” she said.
Still, denominations do have some competitive advantage. The 16 percent figure for denominational loyalty was higher than consumers’
loyalty to a particular brand of athletic shoe, department store, major appliance, light bulb and numerous other products, according to the study.
And even as some Americans move from one town to another, or meet potential partners from different backgrounds, Ammerman said there are some limits to denominational shifting.
“You don’t get a lot of Pentecostals becoming Episcopalians,” she said.
By Adelle M. Banks
Religion News Service
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