- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Evangelical Christianity has become the largest religious tradition in this country, supplanting Roman Catholicism, which is slowly bleeding members, according to a survey released yesterday by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

Evangelical Protestants outnumber Catholics by 26.3 percent (59 million) to 24 percent (54 million) of the population, according to the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, a massive 45-question poll conducted last summer of more than 35,000 American adults.

“There is no question that the demographic balance has shifted in past few decades toward evangelical churches,” said Greg Smith, a research fellow at the Pew Forum. “They are now the mainline of American Protestantism.”

The traditional mainline Protestant churches, which in 1957 constituted about 66 percent of the populace, now count just 18 percent as adherents.

Although one in three Americans are raised Roman Catholic, only one in four adults describe themselves as such, despite the huge numbers of immigrants swelling American churches, researchers said.

“Immigration is what is keeping them afloat,” said John Green, a Pew senior fellow. “If everyone who was raised Catholic stayed Catholic, it’d be a third of the country.”

Those who leave Catholicism mostly either drop out of church entirely or join Pentecostal or evangelical Protestant churches, Pew Forum director Luis Lugo said. One out of every 10 evangelicals is a former Catholic, he said, with Hispanic Catholics leaving at higher rates; 20 percent of them end up in evangelical or Pentecostal churches.

“It’s a desire for a closer experience of God,” he said. “It’s not so much disenchantment with the teachings of the Catholic Church but the pull of what they see in Pentecostalism.”

Switching denominations is not unique to Catholics. More than one-quarter of American adults have left their childhood faith for another religion or none. Factor in changes of affiliation from one form of Protestantism to another, and the number of switchers rises to 44 percent.

The survey, which reveals the rapidly shifting religious leanings of some 225 million American adults, has a margin of error of less than one percentage point. It also revealed there are twice as many Jewish adults (3.8 million) as there are Muslim adults (1.3 million).

Black and Hispanic Americans were the two most religious ethnic groups, although not all of the historically black churches are monochromatic. More than 10 percent of the Church of God in Christ are white and 13 percent are Hispanic.

And the group with the highest losses? Jehovah’s Witnesses: Two-thirds of those raised in the faith depart it as an adult. At the other end, three out of every four U.S. Buddhists is a convert.

The survey, the first of several parts to be released this year, comes with an array of graphs and maps posted on www.pewforum.org by which one can determine America’s “religious geography”: what percentage of each state’s population is affiliated with various religious groups.

The country’s religious mix changes so quickly that “if you rest on your laurels, you’ll soon be out of business,” Mr. Lugo said.

One of the fastest-growing groups is Americans unaffiliated with any religion, now at 16 percent, although just 4 percent of the population identified itself as agnostic or atheist. The West Coast shows the highest percentage of nonchurched people. Even this group experiences huge shifts; more than half of those polled who were raised outside a religion ended up affiliating with one as an adult, and the unaffiliated also showing the highest rates of marriage to someone outside their group.

Hindus and Mormons showed the lowest rates of intermarriage. Hindus stood out for their unusually high education levels, with 48 percent having post-graduate degrees, the survey said.

The Episcopal Church may have the most gray hairs: more than six in 10 are older than age 50 compared to a national average of four in 10 Americans that age.

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