There is a basic assumption about religion at work in the claims cultural Catholics make about their identity. Even though about 13 percent of them occasionally attend Mass, they do not consider that practice sufficient for them to claim Catholicism as their religion. Instead they say they are Catholic “because of their Catholic background,” which mostly means that they were raised in Catholicism as children. They feel they have inherited a Catholic identity, but have made a conscious choice not to embrace Catholicism as their religion.

When asked what it means to be a Catholic, some people say that it is “a matter of religion,” others that it is a matter of “ancestry or culture.” Religion and religious identity are seen as distinct from the cultural identity. It is not simply an assemblage of beliefs and practices, but the fact that one has chosen to believe and practice, that marks something as religious to Americans. One basic assumption that Americans make about religion, then, is that it is something they actively choose, not something that they simply inherit.

The idea that people must pick their religion is by no means natural. Americans came to think of religion as a matter of choice because of a long historical process. When religion was disestablished in the aftermath of the American Revolution, the removal of state encouragement for religion had the effect of encouraging people to decide matters of religion for themselves.