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Protestants lose majority in U.S. for first time; unaffiliated up

October 9, 2012 | 11:44 am

ChurchProtestants, who have played a central role in the nation’s founding and development, no longer make up a majority of Americans for the first time in history, according to a study released Tuesday.

The study by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found that Protestants now make up 48% of Americans, compared with nearly two-thirds in the 1970s and 1980s. 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, adding that the new study was the first to show a statistically significant drop in Protestants to less than half.

Funk said a major factor driving the decline is an increase in religiously unaffiliated Americans to 20% from 15% five years ago. But, she said, two-thirds of them still say they believe in God. They overwhelmingly expressed disenchantment with religious organizations for being too concerned with money, power, rules and politics.

The trend toward dropping away from organized religion is most apparent among the young, the study showed. A third of adults under 30 have no religious affiliation, compared with just 9% among those 65 and older.

But Richard Land, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, predicted that many of those young people will turn to the churches when they get married and have children.

“They’re going through youthful rebellion,” Land said.

However, Southern Baptists — the nation’s largest Protestant denomination — have stagnated in growth after many years of increase, Land said. One reason was the declining birthrate among whites, the traditional mainstay of the denomination, he said. Only the infusion of African Americans, Latinos and Asian Americans, who now make up 20% of members, have kept the Southern Baptists from dropping by as much as 10%, he said.

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. Two-thirds support President Obama, compared with 27% for Republican nominee Mitt Romney the study found. Nearly three-fourths support legal abortion and same-sex marriage.

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— Teresa Watanabe

Photo: A church member carries a large wooden cross with the friends of La Plaza United Methodist Church of El Pueblo de Los Angeles in 2011. Credit: Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times

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