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Racial-Ethnic Diversity and the Decline of Predominantly-White Mainline and Evangelical Protestant Denominations: A Spatial Fixed-Effects Approach

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Abstract

Predominantly white Mainline and Evangelical Protestant denominations are in a state of stagnation or decline in the United States. This is partially because these denominations fail to thrive in the ever-growing racial-ethnic diversity of the U.S. In fact, despite increases in the non-white population, diversity within these Protestant groups remains low. The organizational ecology approach asserts that the mismatch between the potential pool of adherents and the demographic niche occupied by the white Protestant groups encourages decline in areas that are diversifying. Past research supporting this theory, however, have relied on limited samples/timeframes and neglected the spatial autocorrelation of religious adherent rates and its predictors. This study re-examines the linkage between racial-ethnic minority growth and white denominations’ adherent decline using a fixed-effects spatial Durbin model to predict the adherent rates of Mainline and Evangelical Protestants in U.S. counties from 1980 to 2010. Results from the non-spatial fixed effects model fail to identify a significant association for Mainline denominations, but adjusting for spatial dependency reveals a direct effect for Mainline denominations and a spatial spillover effect for Evangelicals. Future studies on religious change and diversity must take their spatial structure into account.

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Notes

  1. Based on author’s calculations using the merged Religious Congregations and Membership Studies, which cannot be precise due to measurement changes in congregation counts for Southern Baptists (Bacon et al. 2018).

  2. There are 3123 counties in the contiguous United States in the 1980-2010 NHGIS dataset prior to correcting for over-time boundary changes and harmonization with the RCMS dataset. Therefore, 2.4% of the original counties were dropped or altered to achieve the final sample of 3051.

  3. The sensitivity measure of racial-ethnic diversity using the entropy index is defined as:

    $$E = \mathop \sum \limits_{r = 1}^{R} \Pr \ln \left( {\frac{1}{Pr}} \right)$$

    which was then standardized by dividing by its maximum multiplied by 100. A score of 100 indicates equal representation among the racial-ethnic groups, Pr, and a score of 0 indicates that all residents in a county belong to a single group. I recoded race-ethnicity from the census was into five mutually-exclusive categories: non-Hispanic white, non-Hispanic black, non-Hispanic Asian and Pacific Islander, Hispanic of any race, and an ‘other’ race category that included Native Americans and those identifying as two or more races.

  4. Past use of this measure to predict overall religious participation is controversial due to non-substantive correlations between the size of religious groups and adherent rates in cross-sectional studies. This problem is alleviated when using longitudinal approaches such as fixed effects regression (Voas et al. 2002; Kocak and Carroll 2008).

  5. Using congregation rates instead of adherent rates to calculate competition was also not advisable because of changes in measurement among Southern Baptists between 2000 and 2010 (Bacon et al. 2018).

  6. Adherents and congregations are highly correlated with each other (over 0.80) for these two groups.

  7. Change in adherent rates between decades (see Fig. 1) also have statistically significant spatial structures that change over time. For Mainline denominations, the Moran’s I value starts at 0.112 for the 1980–1990 decade, peaks at 0.219 for 1990–2000, and is at 0.147 for 2000-2010 (p < 0.001 for all years). For Evangelicals, the Moran’s I value declines linearly from 0.218 for 1980-1990 to only 0.048 for 2000-–010 (p < 0.001 for all years).

  8. To run the SDM models and specification tests, I used the spmat and xsmle procedures in Stata as specified by Elhorst (2010) and Belotti et al (2017).

  9. When percent non-white is included as the only predictor, the coefficient is negative and significant, but if time is added to the model the sign flips without any other covariates included. The variance inflation factor is not available for the SDM, but in the non-spatial version of the full Methodist model the value is 6.14. The correlation between percent non-white and time is only 0.15.

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Acknowledgement

I acknowledge assistance provided by the Population Research Institute at Penn State University, which is supported by an infrastructure grant by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (P2CHD041025)

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Bacon, R.J. Racial-Ethnic Diversity and the Decline of Predominantly-White Mainline and Evangelical Protestant Denominations: A Spatial Fixed-Effects Approach. Spat Demogr 7, 195–218 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40980-019-00053-3

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