Male circumcision rates in the

U.S. have dropped steeply over the last few decades, as an Associated Press article by Rachel Konrad highlighted this week:

According to data from the National Health and Social Life Survey, the

U.S. circumcision rate peaked at nearly 90 percent in the early 1960s but began dropping in the ’70s. By 2004, the most recent year for which government figures are available, about 57 percent of all male newborns delivered in hospitals were circumcised. In some states, the rate is well below 50 percent.

For Jews and Muslims, the question of whether or not to circumcise their infant boys often hinges around questions of faith, since male circumcision is a deeply rooted tradition in both religions.

But what significance does circumcision hold for American Protestants and Catholics?

According to the 2005 book, Circumcision: A History of the World’s Most Controversial Surgery, by public health analyst David Gollaher, the practice of “routine” infant circumcision was introduced in the U.S. in the late 19th century, carried by arguments that the surgery was a way to avoid disease. One doctor who advocated routine circumcision wrote in 1882 that American Christians would do well to borrow a leaf from the Jewish tradition:

Moses was a good sanitarian, and if circumcision was more generally practised at the present day, I believe that we would hear far less of the pollutions and indiscretions of youth; and that our daily papers would not be so profusely flooded with all kinds of cures for loss of manhood.

As Konrad notes in her AP article, a number of factors have led to the decline of routine circumcision in the U.S., including immigration from Asian and Latin American cultures where circumcision is not common and the popularity of “natural” childbirth and breastfeeding, beginning in the 1980s.

But evangelical Christians have also been considering the issue from a scriptural point of view. The question of circumcision raises the thorny and never-quite-answered question of how Protestants should relate to the Laws of Moses.

One evangelical mother, quoted in a 2000 Christian Parenting Today article, saw the issue this way:

I figured if God ordained circumcision for his people in the Old Testament, there probably were some good spiritual reasons as well as health reasons.

But other anti-circumcision Christian advocates point to passages in the letters of Paul, where the apostle writes:

I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all.

Catholics have been joining the debate as well, as this discussion on conservative commentator Sean Hannity’s site demonstrates.

The question for now: Will opposition to routine circumcision in the

U.S. increasingly take on a scriptural, religious bent?

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A new study out this morning from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life and the

Pew Hispanic Center includes a chapter on religious conversion among Hispanics in


Basic Data on Latino Conversion:

The vast majority of Latinos (82%) give no indication of ever having changed their religious affiliation. However, almost one-in-five (18%) Latinos say they have either converted from one religion to another or to no religion at all,” study authors write. Most Hispanics are Catholic, and most of those who convert join evangelical churches, study data reveals.

Notable Findings on Conversion:

Second-generation immigrants are eight percent more likely to convert than first-generation immigrants. “Though it is impossible to determine the precise extent to which conversion is a product of assimilation, it does appear that migrating to the

United States, learning English and undergoing the other changes that occur with exposure to American ways do seem to be somewhat associated with changes in religious affiliation,” study authors write. Of those Latinos who convert, nearly one in four leave religion in favor of secularism – and men are twice as women to make this move.In spite of extensive media coverage of Latino conversion to Islam in America, the study found that less than 0.9% of Hispanics are Muslims. (See examples of media coverage here and here and here.)

Questions The Data Raise:

Does conversion happen simply because Hispanics who leave Catholic-dominated countries are now exposed to Protestantism, and evangelicalism in particular, in the Protestant-dominated

United States? In other words, is conversion simply about exposure to new religions? Or is there something about “becoming American” that is associated with religious seeking and conversion?

Related Content:

“For Many Americans, Religious Identity is No Longer a Given,” by Andrea Useem, Religion News Service, Feb. 12, 2007. This article begins with the story of a Mexican-born Catholic woman who now practices a Hindu-influenced New Age faith with her Jewish American husband .

“Religion in a Globalizing World,” transcript of a talk by religion scholar Peter Berger at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, Dec. 4, 2006, in which he argues that modernity and globalization inherently destabilizes religious identification.American Religious Identification Survey 2001, from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York (CUNY). This survey is one of the most comprehensive studies to date on American religious identification. Interestingly, one of the fastest growing categories was “no religious identification.” According to this morning’s study from Pew, 7.8% of American Latinos identified as secular: Will this number continue to grow with assimilation?

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