Protestants no longer a majority in the U.S.

Pew study finds group makes up only 48% of Americans

Los Angeles TimesOctober 9, 2012 

Southern Baptists Name

In this June 19, 2012, file photo, participants in the Southern Baptist Convention, listen during a debate about changing the name of the organization, at the convention in New Orleans. The nation's largest Protestant denomination has voted to adopt an alternative name for churches that feel the title "Southern Baptist" could be a turn-off to potential believers. Although the denomination's name will officially remain Southern Baptist Convention, many delegates still opposed the optional "Great Commission Baptists."


  • Religious affiliations in the U.S.
    * Atheist, agnostic or nothing in particular **Faiths such as Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu Note: The percentages for Mormon and Orthodox (Greek and Russian) remain unchanged. Figures may not equal 100 percent due to rounding. Source: Pew Research Center

— Protestants, whose ideals of hard work, individualism and democratic governance have fundamentally shaped the national character, no longer make up a majority of Americans for the first time in history, according to a new study released Tuesday.

The study by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found that Protestants now make up 48 percent of Americans, compared with nearly two-thirds in the 1970s. The decline, concentrated among white members of both mainline and evangelical denominations, is amplified by an absence of Protestants on the U.S. Supreme Court and the Republican presidential ticket for the first time.

“It’s a slow decline but a noticeable one,” said Cary Funk, a Pew senior researcher. Funk said a major factor driving the decline is an increase in religiously unaffiliated Americans to 20 percent, up from 15 percent five years ago.

Two-thirds of Americans still say they believe in God, she said. But they overwhelmingly expressed disenchantment with religious organizations for being too concerned with money, power, rules and politics.

The study did not give reasons fewer Americans now identify with any religion. But it presented theories that included political backlash against the religious right, delays in marriage, broad social disengagement and secularization related to economic development.

Some analysts said a softening of American religiosity could affect such areas as charitable giving and volunteerism, which traditionally have been driven by churches.

Others, however, said that ideals originally identified as Protestant and Puritan have become firmly entrenched as secular American virtues. The idea of America as a “city set on a hill” – a biblical phrase – with a special destiny to lead the world to freedom and democracy remains a bedrock civic value, said Richard Land of the 16 million-member Southern Baptist Convention, the nation’s largest Protestant denomination.

“America is a nation with the soul of a church, and that soul is Puritan-Protestant,” said Land, president of the convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. “But in terms of defining the purpose of the nation, it’s been secularized long ago.”

The study was based on a national survey of 2,973 adults conducted between June 28 and July 9 using land lines and cellphones. An additional 511 interviews were conducted with religiously unaffiliated adults.

In a counterweight to evangelical Christians who tend to back Republicans, the vast majority of religiously unaffiliated Americans – who number 46 million – vote Democratic and are politically liberal, the study found. Two-thirds support President Barack Obama, compared with 27 percent who back Republican nominee Mitt Romney. A majority of the unaffiliated support legal abortion and same-sex marriage.

The trend toward dropping away from organized religion was evident across gender, income and educational levels. But it was most apparent in the Northeast and West and among the young, the study showed. A third of adults under 30 have no religious affiliation, compared with just 9 percent among those 65 and older.

Mark Chaves, a Duke University sociologist of religion, said some young people turn back to churches when they marry and have children.

Land said that Southern Baptists have stagnated in growth after increasing for many years in large part because of a declining birthrate among whites, the traditional mainstay of the denomination. Only the infusion of African-Americans, Latinos and Asian-Americans – who now make up 20 percent of members – have kept the Southern Baptists from dropping by as much as 10 percent, he said.

The United Methodist Church, the nation’s largest mainline Protestant denomination, declined to 7.6 million in 2009 from 8.3 million a decade earlier.

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service