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Ask Professor Burge 23: Born-Again Catholic


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Publication (Outlet/Website): Canadian Atheist

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2021/07/14

Professor Ryan Burge‘s website states: “I am an Assistant Professor of Political Science as well as the Graduate Coordinator at Eastern Illinois University. I teach in a variety of areas, including American institutions, political behavior, and research methods. My research focuses largely on the intersection between religiosity and political behavior (especially in the American context). Previously, I have completed an appointment as a post doctoral research fellow at the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute in Carbondale, Illinois. While there I was an adviser on issues of survey methodology and polling, as well as providing data collection and analysis.

I have published over a dozen articles in a number of well regarded peer reviewed journals including Politics & Religion, the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, the Review of Religious Research, the Journal of Religious Leadership, RepresentationPoliticsGroupsand Identities, the Journal of Communication and Religion, the Journal of Religion, Media and Digital Culture and the Social Science Computer Review. 

In addition, my research has been covered in a variety of media outlets including The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, NBC, Vox, 538, BuzzFeed News, Al-Jazeera, Christianity Today, Religion News Service, The Daily Mail, Deseret News, World Magazine, Relevant, and C-SPAN. I am the co-founder and frequent contributor to Religion in Public, a forum for scholars of religion and politics to make their work accessible to a more general audience.

Finally, I am a pastor in the American Baptist Church, having served my current church for over thirteen years.”

Here we talk about the Born-Again Catholics and the rest.

*Interview conducted October 12, 2020.*

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Something interesting is a 2019 CCS report looking at the number of Nones – atheists, agnostics, and nothing in particulars. The Silents were sitting at 15% Boomers at 25%, Gen X 38%, Millennials are 43%, Gen Z are 47%, identifying as Nones. Now, I’m less interested in the obvious trend. I’m more interested in the gap between the Silents and the Boomers, Boomers and Gen X, because those gaps are much bigger than between Gen X and Millennials, and Millennials and Gen Z identifying as Nones. Why those big gaps of 10% and 13% compared to 5% and 4%?

Professor Ryan Burge: Yes, I think there is a plateau happening. You can see a shadow of it in the data. There’s a hard cap on how big the Nones can get in America. But I think it is right about 40%, maybe a little bit higher, 45%. But I just think there’s a strong contingent in America that is not going to give up. But the other part of this, too, we have a lot of immigrants, the younger generations who are Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and those groups too. So, if you add those groups together, then you get close to 50%. So, what’s going to happen is your Nones can never go above that; unless you get a lot of hardcore religious people to give up their faith and become Nones. I think what you’re getting right now is the low-hanging fruit. That’s what the younger Boomers and Gen X are doing. You get a lot of those people becoming Nones. But once you get to that 40, 45% threshold, I think you get a lot of resistance.

And I don’t think those numbers are going to continue to climb into the ether. They’re not going to go like 55%. I just don’t see any future in America where, at least in my lifetime, 55% of Americans are Nones because there’s just this large and strong bloc of Americans who are going to be faithful people no matter what. About half of Americans have not just a little bit more. So, I think that’s why you’re seeing that increase is slow and the generations get younger because you’re bumping up against that ceiling that’s going to be there for a long, long time.

Jacobsen: Within Catholic news or Catholic circles, there’s been a literal crisis of faith for many. Not in traditional terms, it is in real terms based on what they sincerely believe, the idea of the particular incantations during baptism being wrong for prior generations, for decades, even using the wrong words and, therefore, their baptisms becoming illegitimate in the eyes of the Catholic Church. In other words, they’re going to hell, not heaven, in their theology. Mike Pence had another situation, in which October 7th, was talking about himself as self-describing as a Born-Again Catholic. As Jerry Seinfeld would say, “What’s the deal with that?” Why is that so problematic when there is an increasing sentiment among conservative Catholics of being “devout”?

Burge: Yes, so, the Catholics, I call it the Evangelicalization of all of Christianity. The whole born again idea was an Evangelical idea rooted in Evangelical culture, Evangelical theology, Evangelical history. But I think other groups have begun to – I don’t want you to co-opt it – borrow that language. When they talk about their own faith tradition. I think for some Catholics, I don’t even look at Evangelicals and say Evangelicals are devout. They’re serious about their faith. And I’m a Catholic. I’m serious about my faith too, where a lot of people are just cultural Catholics. They’re Catholic by default. They want to say to people, “I’m Catholic. I go to Mass. I believe in the doctrines. I practice a certain lifestyle.” So, they take on that Evangelical moniker because it is a way to differentiate themselves from just the casual Catholics they see around. So, what we’re seeing is more and more people now, almost 40% of Catholics are saying they’re born again, which is crazy in some surveys.

It just doesn’t make any theological sense. And even here is the one that I look at, I saw that almost 20% of Catholics said they were born again or Evangelical in 2016. So, the numbers are increasing when it comes to these “Born-Again Catholics.” I think for Mike Pence as a way for him to say, “I like you. I know I’m Catholic, but I’m one of you. So, you don’t see me as being different or other. We’re fighting for the same causes and playing on the same team.” And I think we’re seeing more and more of that in Catholicism, this divergence between the Evangelical Catholics and the non-Evangelical Catholics. I think it poses a real problem for a church because they can’t split like many churches do. They have to fight out their differences and try to keep it all together.


In-Sight Publishing by Scott Douglas Jacobsen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Based on a work at


© Scott Douglas Jacobsen and In-Sight Publishing 2012-Present. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Scott Douglas Jacobsen and In-Sight Publishing with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. All interviewees and authors co-copyright their material and may disseminate for their independent purposes.

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