Richard Vara, Houston Chronicle, July 21, 2004
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.