The United States will lose its historic status as a majority-Protestant nation as early as this year, according to a national survey released yesterday.
Between 1993 and 2002, the proportion of Americans who said they were Protestants fell from 63 percent to 52 percent after decades of stability, according to the study released by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago.
“Since Colonial times, the United States has been a Protestant nation. But this year or next, the proportion of all Protestants will fall below 50 percent” of the total U.S. population for the first time, said Tom Smith, director of NORC’s General Social Survey, which measures public trends.
The NORC survey identifies Protestants as “any post-Reformation Christian denomination,” including some groups, such as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) and Jehovah’s Witnesses, although their theologies differ substantially from those of most Christians and they are not universally viewed as Protestant.
While the United States “has been seen as white and Protestant, we’re not going to be majority Protestant any longer,” added Mr. Smith, co-author of the study titled “The Vanishing Protestant Majority.”
Mainline Protestant churches, such as United Methodist, Presbyterian and Episcopal, have been losing members for years, but those losses have been cushioned by gains in the number of people joining evangelical or fundamentalist denominations.
“Some evangelical faiths are growing, while none of the major liberal Protestant denominations are,” Mr. Smith said.
“But with the exception of Southern Baptists,” the largest Protestant denomination with more than 16 million members, he said, “most evangelical denominations are quite small,” so any gains they have made in members have not increased the total number of Protestants in the United States today.
Key factors in the decline of Protestantism are as follows, according to the NORC report:
The number of Americans who said they had no religion rose from 9 percent in 1993 to 14 percent in 2002. Many in this group were former Protestants.
Americans who said they belonged to religions other than Christianity or Judaism rose from 3 percent to 7 percent between 1993 and 2002. Other religions included Islam, Orthodox Christianity, Buddhism and other Eastern faiths, and those who describe themselves as inter-denominational.
Large numbers of young people and adults have been leaving Protestant denominations, as the number of non-Protestant immigrants increased, making up a greater share of the population.
A lower percentage of U.S. residents are being raised as Protestants. Surveys indicate that 55 percent of U.S. adults today were raised as Protestants. But in the early 1980s, 67 percent to 68 percent of U.S. adults were raised in Protestant households.
Fewer U.S. Protestants are maintaining their faith as adults. In the 1970s through 1993, Protestant denominations enjoyed a retention rate of 90 percent or more. But since then, retention has remained in the 80 percent range.
cA growing number of Americans who have become inactive in Protestant denominations are describing themselves as Christians, rather than Protestants.
“About 2 percent of Americans today are what we call generic Christians. That’s up from less than 1/2 percent who described themselves that way” a decade ago, Mr. Smith said.
NORC is not the only national research or polling organization whose data indicate Protestantism is close to losing its majority status. Similar findings have come from the Gallup Poll, the 1988-2002 National Election Studies (NES); and the 1990 and 2001 American Religious Identification Studies (ARIS).
Frank Newport, editor in chief of the Gallup Poll, which tracks religious affiliation, said yesterday that in his group’s survey, “the percentage who say they are Protestant is getting close to the 50 percent level. It was 51 percent in 2003.”
As recently as 1996 or 1997, the proportion of Protestants was 58 percent, he said.
“It’s not that people are abandoning Christianity. They may just be abandoning the label Protestant,” Mr. Newport added.
Figures from both Gallup and NORC indicate Roman Catholics make up about 25 percent of the total U.S. population, a statistic that has remained stable for decades, and that Jews constitute 2 percent.
Asked why the percentage of Catholics has not risen, given all the immigrants that have come from Mexico and other Latin American countries, Mr. Newport said that Hispanics arrive in this country as Catholics, but do not always retain their Catholic roots. However, Roman Catholicism remains the nation’s largest Christian faith, with more than 65.2 million members.
Unlike NORC, Mr. Newport says Gallup has found no evidence that the percentage of Americans with no religion is climbing. Gallup data indicate the share of those with no religion remains at 9 percent, where it was in 1992.
But Mr. Smith of NORC said Gallup stands alone with its finding that the number of nonbelievers has remained flat and said he is convinced Gallup is wrong.
Gallup does not include Mormons in its Protestant category. But its “other” religion category accounts for 13 percent of the total.
“An increasing number of people are saying they are something other than Protestant … but some [who identify themselves as ‘other’] could actually be Protestant,” Mr. Newport said.