Winter 2005, Vol. 7, No. 3

Table of Contents
Winter 2005

Quick Links:
Articles in this issue

From the Editor:
Our New Religious Politics

Religion Gap Swings New Ways

A Certain Presidency

Schiavo Interminable

Iraq's Sunni Clergy Enter the Fray

Windsor Knot

Protestants in Decline

The Televangelical Scandal That Wasn't

Channeling Bleep

Cut-Rate Religion Coverage



Protestants in Decline
by Andrew Walsh

From the Heartland the word went forth. “America’s Protestant majority is about to disappear, according to a study by researchers at the University of Chicago,” Cathleen Falsani of the Chicago Sun-Times reported on July 21. “As early as the end of this year, Protestants will likely make up less than 51 percent of the population for the first time in history, sociologists at the university’s National Opinion Research Center (NORC) surmise.”

Even more intriguing was the discovery that the Protestant share of the population has been falling very quickly, almost lurching, over the past decade, from 63 percent in 1993 to 52 percent in 2002, after holding rock steady at 63 percent for three decades.

The United States has “been seen as white and Protestant,” Tom W. Smith, director of NORC’s General Social Survey, told the Associated Press on July 21. “We’re not going to be majority Protestant any longer.”

“Is everything suddenly different?” asked David Van Biema in the August 16 issue of Time. “Hardly. As Boston College political scientist Alan Wolfe notes, ‘Even if Protestants dip below 50 percent, they are still twice as large as any other group. They’re always going to be the largest group, ever, of anybody.’”

Others were not quite so sure. “When I was a boy in Woodstock, Illinois, 50 plus years ago, Protestant Christians ruled,” Bill Tammeus wrote in his August 16 column in the Kansas City Star. “I don’t think I ever heard anyone put it that way in my nearly all-white town of about 7,500 souls, but if you drove around and looked at the churches, you quickly grasped the theological lay of the land.

“America’s coming Protestant minority raises countless questions. If Protestantism no longer is privileged, in some respect, does it mean other groups will assume that mantle?” Tammeus mused. “Or, more likely, does it mean that America will be a land of many minority faiths that must find a way to live together?”

 “For those Protestants who still think that they are in charge of things, this study is a check to them that the world has changed,” David Roozen, a professor of sociology at the Hartford Institute for Religious Research told the St. Petersburg Times on August 29.

So, it may be that this autumn’s conservative Protestant campaign against retail stores that greet customers with “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” is the result of creeping anxiety among Protestants, rather than proof that they are feeling their oats in the wake of President Bush’s reelection. Certainly many conservative Christians seem to feel an urgent need to “recapture” American culture.

What the NORC study makes clear is that the Protestant decline comes chiefly from Protestantism’s moderate and liberal “mainline” branches. And that those leaving Protestantism are young adults who no longer identify with any organized religious group—those sociologists of religion call “nones” (because when pollsters ask what religion they adhere to, they answer “none.”).

The shrinking of the Protestant mainline was hardly breaking news, but many reporters thought the NORC study provided an occasion to check up on how far the decline had gone. Richard Vara of the Houston Chronicle provided a useful check list: “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.” Because of the rapid growth in the nation’s population over the last 40 years, the proportional shrinkage of their groups is even greater than the raw numbers suggest.

The CBS Evening News covered the story on August 23, by way of reporter Bob McNamara’s story from a small Nebraska town: “It’s a sign of the times: Baptists, Presbyterians, and Methodists worshiping together in Valley, Nebraska, not enough of them any longer to support a church of their own.” While McNamara failed to untangle how much of the decline had to do with a collapse in rural population and how much was more specific to mainline Protestantism, the images of shuttered churches made a strong impact.

Most mainliners, however, have long reconciled themselves to their loss of cultural hegemony. “We don’t worry about it,” a spokesman for the National Council of Churches blithely told Don Lattin of the San Francisco Chronicle on July 21. “Mainline Protestants have always been very involved in American life and they are still very active.”

 Overall, reporters gave conservative Protestants very little opportunity to gloat about the decline of the mainline, sticking mainly with mainline sources and social scientists for comment.

 The key changes cited in NORC study have to do with loosened mainline identity in the 1960s and 1970s and the subsequent decisions of many loosely affiliated Protestants not to raise their children as more than nominal Protestants.

  “There’s some evidence that a large portion of this [change] is that a fair number of marginal Protestants are not really engaged in their faith and therefore didn’t pass it on to their kids,” NORC’s Smith told the Sun-Times. “The mom and dad would say, for example, ‘Yeah, we’re Methodists, but they never went to church.’ They’d baptize their kids and that’s about it.”

According to the study, 75 percent of Americans born before 1910, 66.5 percent of those born in the 1930s, and 59 percent of those born in the 1950s identify themselves as Protestants. Those numbers have remained consistent over successive surveys. By contrast, the number of adults born in the 1960s who described themselves as Protestants dropped by 8.7 percent between the early 1990s and the early 2000s, to 49 percent. For those born in the 1970s, the drop was almost 16 percent, to 43 percent.

To sum up, the long-term shrinkage of the Protestant proportion of the American population has been accelerated by the tendency of younger born-and-bred Protestants to cease identifying with the tradition. The bottom line is that only about 49 percent of American adults born after 1980 say they were raised as Protestants.

 Survey totals for Roman Catholics have held fairly steady for several decades at about 25 percent of the population. In part, this is the result of strong Catholic immigration. But in addition, Smith told the San Francisco Chronicle, “[n]ominal Catholics who rarely go to church or don’t adhere to Catholic teaching are less likely to stop calling themselves “Catholic” because religion tends to be more a part of their “core identity” as Italians, Irish, Poles, Filipinos, Latinos, or people from other Catholic homelands.

The survey reported that the number of adults who described their religion as “other” grew from 1.3 percent of the population in 1990 to 4.5 percent in 2002. (“Other” in the coding of the General Society Survey includes everyone who has a religious identity that is not Protestant, Catholic, Jewish or None.) Numerically, that’s less than half the increase in the number of “nones,” who nearly doubled over the same period, from 7.7 percent to 14 percent.

So the news in the survey is the movement of Protestants largely into the “none” category. This is one of the least understood changes in recent American social life. Although it certainly has something to do with the rise of individualized spiritualities, one of the fascinating things about this growing class of “nones” is that, as the Chronicle’s Don Lattin noted in his piece, many of them tell survey researchers that they believe in God and an afterlife. There’s room for a lot of reporting to fill out this change.

Nevertheless, the question of what’s happening to Protestantism remains intriguing. That discussion was best pursued by Sharon Tubbs of the St. Petersburg Times on August 29. She found scholars willing to offer provocative, large-scale interpretations.

One possibility, David Roozen of the Hartford Institute told her, is that the “liberal vs. conservative debate has usurped the Protestant vs. Catholic debate in importance.” Until the 1960s, deeply shared hostility to Catholicism did a great deal to nurture a common identity among Protestants. With the Catholic bogeyman on the wane, it seems less urgent to marginal Protestants that they stay on the reservation.

Alexander Sharp, executive director of the Protestants for the Common Good, a Chicago public policy group, added that, these days, “there is more variation within Protestantism than (there is between) Protestants and other groups.”

John Corrigan of Florida State University, an astute historian of liberal Protestantism, told Tubbs that as liberal Protestants deemphasized doctrinal positions in the twentieth century, “it was only a matter of time before Protestantism would lose its definition.” The process of de-definition has affected liberal Protestants far more than conservative ones, Corrigan said. “Increasingly, ‘Protestant’ is coming to mean ‘evangelical Protestant.’”

If liberal Protestants, embattled though they be, appear undisturbed by that prospect, it may be that they have already come to terms with what it feels like to lose “majority status.” New England, the homeland of American Protestantism, lost its Protestant majority to Catholics more than a century ago. There and in other bastions of Catholic growth, Protestants shifted the game from counting heads to leveraging influence as a privileged interest group in a complex, pluralistic society.

That memory may be what made the Rev. John Buchanan, pastor of Chicago’s rapidly growing, 5,200 member Fourth Presbyterian Church, so upbeat. Buchanan told Falsani of the Sun-Times that he “welcomed the demise” of the Protestant majority. “I’m not applauding the Protestant decline,” he told her, in a classic mainline spin. “[W]hat I’m applauding is the viability of a truly diverse nation, a nation that opens its arms and heart to different races, different religions.”

David Van Biema of Time had that in mind when he observed that Protestantism’s “main theological message of radical individualism…is deeply encoded in our national self-understanding—and even upon other religions, once they have spent a few generations here.”

As Time toted things up, “[F]or centuries Protestantism’s huge numbers had significant consequences: it bred most of America’s founders and elite, and served as a template for its civil institutions and cultural assumptions. Samuel Huntington, a cheerleader, has credited it with our ‘core culture’ of ‘individualism, the work ethic, and moralism.’ Protestant tropes of human perfectibility and the city on the hill continue to keep echoing through our political rhetoric.”

So, even though they are dwindling, (mainline) Protestants are still worth keeping an eye on.




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