For the first time in its history, the United States does not have a Protestant majority, according to a new study.
The percentage of Protestant adults in the U.S. has reached a low of 48 percent, the first time that Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life has reported with certainty that the number has fallen below 50 percent. The drop has long been anticipated and comes at a time when no Protestants are on the U.S. Supreme Court and the Republicans have their first presidential ticket with no Protestant nominees.
Among the reasons for the change are the growth in nondenominational Christians who can no longer be categorized as Protestant, and a spike in the number of American adults who say they have no religion. The Pew study, released yesterday, found that about 20 percent of Americans say they have no religious affiliation, an increase from 15 percent in the last five years.
The Pew analysis, conducted with PBS’ “Religion & Ethics Newsweekly,” is based on several surveys, including a poll of nearly 3,000 adults conducted June 28-July 9, 2012. The finding on the Protestant majority is based on responses from a larger group of more than 17,000 people and has a margin of error of plus or minus 0.9 percentage points, Pew researchers said. Pew said it had also previously calculated a drop slightly below 50 percent among U.S. Protestants, but those findings had fallen within the margin of error; the General Social Survey, which is conducted by the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center, reported for 2010 that the percentage of U.S. Protestants was around 46.7 percent.
Growth among those with no religion has been a major preoccupation of American faith leaders who worry that the US., a highly religious country, would go the way of Western Europe, where church attendance has plummeted.
The trend also has political implications. American voters who describe themselves as having no religion vote overwhelmingly for Democrats. Pew found Americans with no religion support abortion rights and gay marriage at a much higher-rate than the U.S. public at large. These “nones” are an increasing segment of voters who are registered as Democrats or lean toward the party, growing from 17 percent to 24 percent over the last five years. The religiously unaffiliated are becoming as important a constituency to Democrats as evangelicals are to Republicans, Pew said.
Now, religion scholars say the decreased religiosity in the United States could reflect a change in how Americans describe their religious lives. In 2007, 60 percent of people who said they seldom or never attend religious services still identified themselves as part of a particular religious tradition. In 2012, that statistic fell to 50 percent, according to the report.