Abstract

Trends and patterns of religious mobility have played a central role in theoretical controversies in the sociology of religion. Early examinations focused on how social status might motivate religious switching, and recently scholars have claimed that diminishing status differences between denominations have opened denominational boundaries and led to higher rates of religious mobility. Scholars working from rational actor perspectives have generated several hypotheses. First, human capital and adaptive preference theories suggest that switching will remain infrequent, and will tend to occur between similar denominations. Second, “strict church” perspectives argue that demanding sectarian denominations will have higher retention, and be more attractive destinations. Third, market niche perspectives argue that niche overlap will foster high rates of religious mobility. Finally, theories emphasizing normative constraints on religious choices suggest that quasi-ethnic religious groups will have a greater hold on members. This article examines trends and patterns of religious mobility in the U.S. between 1973 and 1998 using data from the General Social Surveys. Retention rates, distributions of original and destination affiliations, and mobility tables are compared across three periods, and four broad cohorts using log-multiplicative association models. I find some support for hypotheses generated by status theories, and for several propositions from rational actor theories, however the decline of denominationalism perspective is unsupported.

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Data from the General Social Surveys were made available through the Interuniversity Consortium for Political and Social Research. I thank Patty Chang, Chris Ellison, Roger Finke, Bernie Lazerwitz, Armand Mauss, John H. Simpson, Jesper Sorensen, Rodney Stark, and the anonymous Social Forces reviewers for comments on earlier versions. Discussions with Victor Anderson, Stephen Hart, and Eugene Sutton were also beneficial.