c. 2008 Religion News Service
(UNDATED) The United States is firmly 78 percent Christian but barely 51 percent Protestant, according to a survey released Monday (Feb. 25).
The findings, part of the sweeping U.S. Religious Landscape Survey produced by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, reaffirm a decades-long decline toward minority status for the family of churches that long steered American politics and culture.
“We’re a society that over the long-term _ meaning over the last several decades or the last century _ (has) begun to embrace not just religious diversity but appreciate religious diversity,” said Mark Chaves, a sociologist of religion at Duke Divinity School.
In some ways, Protestants may be victims of their own success at founding a nation and society that cherished a full range of religious expression, said Diana Butler Bass, who has studied the mainline Protestant churches.
“Sure, it’s a little rueful that there aren’t as many Protestants as there used to be, but it’s also a great pleasure to know that the Protestant experiment in religious pluralism has worked in America,” said Butler Bass, author of “Christianity for the Rest of Us.”
The survey reveals a fluid and diverse religious landscape in which Protestants are fragmented into hundreds of denominations loosely knit around three traditions _ evangelical Protestant (26 percent of American adults), mainline Protestant (18 percent) and historically black Protestant (7 percent of adults).
Catholics, meanwhile, account for 23 percent of American adults, making them the nation’s single largest religious group. Other Christian groups are much smaller; Mormons account for just under 2 percent of adults, and Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Eastern Orthodox each account for slightly less than 1 percent.
The survey found that as Protestants have shrunk in recent years _ down from as high as two-thirds of Americans before the 1990s, based on figures from the National Opinion Research Center in Chicago _ the number of Americans not affiliated with any religious group has risen.
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Like the Pew survey, Chaves attributes the trend to a small but growing number of Americans who do not view themselves as part of a religious group. He also points to the fast-growing number of non-Protestant immigrants, many of them Hispanic Catholics.
“It’s historically true that our country has been predominately Protestant,” he said. “I’d see it as more of another step in a long-term trajectory toward a declining Protestant majority and increasing religious diversity.”
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Still, Protestants _ long the church of the establishment without being an established church _ will continue to wield cultural impact, Butler Bass said. She noted that 42 of the 43 U.S. presidents have been Protestants, and all four of the remaining candidates in the 2008 race are Protestants.
“Mainline Protestantism is still culturally influential in the sense that its fielding political candidates, college professors, writers and other elite cultural figures,” she said. “You still have cultural impact, and that will continue … even with that decline.”
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