Religion in North Carolina: Southern Baptists dominate, Catholicism and non-denominational affiliation rising

According to the most recent U.S. Religion Census, conducted in 2010, about half of the U.S. population (49% or nearly 151 million persons) are adherents to some religion. Nationwide, the largest denominational affiliation is Catholicism, with an estimated 59 million adherents. While Protestantism as a group has more than 77 million adherents, it is comprised of dozens of individual denominations. Among these, the Southern Baptist Convention is the second largest religious group in the United States with 20 million adherents. It has a strong regional presence: more than three-quarters of Southern Baptists live in the South according to a 2007 Pew Foundation survey. Nationally, non-denominational Christians (12.2 million) are the third largest grouping of adherents, followed by United Methodists (9.9 million) and Mormons (6.1 million).

Nearly half of the North Carolina’s population (48% or 4.5 million) are adherents to some religion. The largest concentration of adherents—more than 1.5 million—are members of the Southern Baptist Convention, representing a third of all religious adherents in the state. The United Methodist Church has the second largest number of adherents statewide (659,000), followed by non-denominational Christian (565,000), Catholic (393,000), and Presbyterian (186,000). The African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Zion Church is the only other denomination with more than 100,000 adherents in North Carolina.

Southern Baptist is largest denomination in 82 NC counties

The Southern Baptist Convention is the religious group with the largest number of adherents in nearly every southern county, including 82 counties in North Carolina. Though Southern Baptists are the majority statewide, there is some variation by county, particularly in the eastern part of the state. The United Methodist Church is the largest denomination in 6 counties; non-denominational adherents are the largest group in five counties; the Catholic Church has the largest number of adherents in Orange and Wake counties; adherents of Christian Churches and Churches of Christ dominate in Washington and Beaufort; the Convention of Original Free Will Baptists is dominant in Tyrrell and Greene; and the AME Zion Church is the largest denomination in Jones.

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These patterns reflect both stability and change in North Carolina’s religious landscape. As far back as 1890, the earliest year for which religion data are available, Southern Baptists were the largest group in the state, accounting for 23% of all church congregation members. An additional 20% of churchgoers were Black Baptist, 19% were Methodist, and 17% were AME Zionist. The AME Zion church is affiliated with both Livingstone College and Hood Seminary in Salisbury. The Convention of Original Free Will Baptists originated in North Carolina and is affiliated with Mount Olive College. Catholicism and non-denominational affiliation are newer religious traditions in the state.

Migration drives growth of Catholicism

In 1980 there were fewer than 100,000 Catholic adherents in the state and just under 150,000 in 1990. This had increased to 316,000 in 2000 and increased again to 393,000 in 2010. What drove this marked increase? Immigration, both foreign and domestic.

Nearly three-fifths (58%) of Hispanics identified as Catholic according in a 2007 Pew Survey of religion in America. In 1990, there were just over 69,000 Hispanics in the state. Over the past 20 years, the Hispanic population increased more than ten-fold; in 2010, more than 800,000 Hispanics lived in North Carolina. Additionally, North Carolina is a migrant magnet and receives large groups of people from New York, New Jersey, and other northeastern states. Catholicism is the dominant religion in these areas and migrants bring their religious traditions with them when they move.

Growth in non-denominational affiliation occurring nationwide

Nearly 1 in 5 American Protestants (19%) reported no denominational affiliation in the 2010 General Social Survey (GSS). Between 1972 and 2002, the proportion of American Protestants reporting no denominational affiliation varied between a low of 3.5% (1972) and a high of 9.4% (2002). Non-denominational affiliation increased sharply in 2004—to 18.2%, nearly double previous rates—and has stayed high since then.

The growth of non-denominational churches largely reflects the shift of religious individuals away from “mainline” churches—Methodist, Episcopalian—and into these independent churches with no formal denominational affiliation. Some suggest that this is because religious denomination is no longer as tightly aligned with ethnic and regional identity as it once was:

“We are seeing a breakup of regional identity. We are now a global community with global communication. …And so we are finding a melding of culture, a melding of regional identity and with that goes a melding of denominational identity.”
– Rev. Canon Mary June Nestler, executive officer of the Episcopal Diocese of Utah, quoted in “The rise of the nons”, Deseret News

The 2007 Pew Religious Landscape Survey found that the American religious marketplace is characterized by “constant movement, [with] every major religious group [simultaneously] gaining and losing adherents.” Consequently, we can expect both stability—religion remains a shaping factor for the lives of many individuals—and change—denominational affiliations are increasingly fluid—in the state’s religious landscape.

About the 2010 U.S. Religion Census

Since 1952, the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies (ASARB) has conducted surveys of religious congregations throughout the United States. With the exception of the first two surveys—conducted in 1952 and 1971—the surveys have been conducted in the same year as the decennial census. The most recent data were collected in 2010 and include data for 236 religious bodies. The ASARB “invited all religious bodies that could be identified as having congregations in the United States to participate. … [They] also made several special efforts to identify and include data from several religious bodies that have not traditionally participated or been underrepresented in similar past studies.”

Additional data sources were the General Social Survey (1972-2010), the 1890 Statistics of Churches in the United States (U.S. Census Bureau), and the 2007 U.S. Religious Landscape Survey (Pew Research Religion & Public Life Project). All data were downloaded or extracted from the Association of Religion Data Archives.

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