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Protestants lose their majority status in religion survey

October 9, 2012 |  6:10 pm

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% of Americans, compared to 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, 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.

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

Land added that the decline of Protestants and absence of them on the high court or presidential ticket has not caused consternation in his denomination because of growing religious tolerance and a sense that traditional Catholics share many of the same political values as evangelical Christians like himself.

“I have a lot more in common with Pope Benedict than Jimmy Carter and Al Gore, my fellow Southern Baptists,” he said. “The struggle in this country is not between Protestants and non-Protestants, it’s between traditional morality and post-modernism.”

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 Obama, compared to 27% for Republican nominee Mitt Romney. The majority support legal abortion and same-sex marriage.

The trend toward dropping away from organized religion was broadly 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 to just 9% among those 65 and older.


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

--Teresa Watanabe