Study Finds Number Of Protestants Is Falling

Richard Vara, Houston Chronicle, Jul. 21

For the first time in U.S. history, the number

of Protestants soon will slip below 50 percent of the nation’s population,

according to a new survey.

“As early as this year and certainly, if

the projections hold, within the next two years, the majority of American adults

will not be Protestants for the first time since the founding of colonial Jamestown,”

said Tom W. Smith, director of the National Opinion Research Center’s General

Social Survey.

“We were always at least a majority Protestant

country, and that is about to change.”

The survey, which was released Tuesday, has studied

various aspects of American life, including its religious dimension, for 32

years.

From 1972 to 1993, it found that Protestants constituted

63 percent of the national population. But the total declined to 52 percent

in 2002.

The study mirrors results from a recent Harris

County survey. Protestants decreased from 56 percent in 1994 to 34 percent in

2004, according to the Houston Area Survey directed by Stephen Klineberg, a

Rice University sociology professor.

One reason for the national decline, Smith said,

is a failure to keep youths and young adults within the Protestant fold.

From the ‘70s through the early ‘90s,

Protestant churches retained 90 percent of young people, but that dropped to

83 percent after 1993, he said.

Another reason: Once-nominal Protestants are more

open to stating that they are no longer affiliated with any denomination, he

said. In the survey, the number of people saying they had no religion grew from

9 percent in 1993 to 14 percent in 2002.

And, some people who once identified themselves

as Protestant now call themselves “Christian,” which would put them

in the survey’s growing “other” category. Latter-day Saints,

Muslims and Eastern religions are also in the “other” category, which

grew from 3 percent in 1993 to 7 percent in 2002.

In the survey, people were identified as Protestants

if they were members of such denominations as Southern Baptist, United Methodist

and Episcopal.

Jews represented just under 2 percent of the U.S.

population.

The study found that Roman Catholics have stayed

at about 25 percent of the population over the three decades. With immigration,

Smith said, the percentage of Catholics should remain stable.

The Houston survey reflects the national picture,

Klineberg said.

Immigration from Central America, Asia, Africa

and other nations have changed the Houston religious landscape from white and

Protestant to a diverse mix, he said.

The percentage of Catholics in Harris County grew

from 26 percent in 1994 to 34 percent this year.

The number of people claiming other religions

increased from 26 percent to 32 percent. The study results do not surprise statisticians

who study religious groups.

The Rev. Eileen Lindner, editor of the National

Council of Churches’ Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches, pointed

out that even with the decline, Protestants constitute millions of believers.

Combined with Roman Catholics, they keep Christianity the predominant religion

in the country, she said. She cautioned about certain interpretations from the

study, although she had not studied it.

“If you are growing up in a megachurch, you

don’t have a denominational affiliation,” she said. Most megachurches

are nondenominational.

Lindner also noted that the boundaries separating

Protestant denominations have become blurred, and many people see no reason

to affiliate with one particular “brand.”

Mainline Protestant denominations have been hemorrhaging

members for decades.

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has dropped from

4.1 million members in 1960 to 2.5 million. Over the same period, membership

in the Episcopal Church decreased from 3.4 million to 2.5 million and United

Methodists have seen their numbers drop from 11 million to 8.3 million.

“Regular participation in a church is not

as central as it once was, even if you are a believer,” said Jack Marcum

of the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies.

“It is much more individualized spirituality

than it may have been in the past.”

The national survey indicates the drop has been

sharper in the last decade, but Marcum said he does not know why. Nor is there

much hope the decline can be erased.

“I don’t see anything that is going

to turn this around, certainly not in the short run,” Marcum said.

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