Friday, October 12, 2012

Pew report: Protestants no longer U.S. majority.

Earlier this week, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life released the results of a recent survey indicating that one in five Americans - and one in three adults under 30 - now claim no religious affiliation. The survey also suggest that, for the first time, Protestants may be a minority in the United States. Here's a snippet from the Pew Forum's executive summary of the report:
While the ranks of the unaffiliated have grown significantly over the past five years, the Protestant share of the population has shrunk. In 2007, 53% of adults in Pew Research Center surveys described themselves as Protestants. In surveys conducted in the first half of 2012, fewer than half of American adults say they are Protestant (48%). This marks the first time in Pew Research Center surveys that the Protestant share of the population has dipped significantly below 50%.

The decline is concentrated among white Protestants, both evangelical and mainline. Currently, 19% of U.S. adults identify themselves as white, born-again or evangelical Protestants, down slightly from 21% in 2007. And 15% of adults describe themselves as white Protestants but say they are not born-again or evangelical Christians, down from 18% in 2007. There has been no change in minority Protestants’ share of the population over the past five years.
The survey results include a lot of fascinating data, so I urge readers who are interested to take a look at the full report. For now, I'd like to look at a couple of questions that are not included in the report. One question is this: where are Americans who have moved into the ranks of the unaffiliated in recent years coming from? The Pew report notes that the share of the U.S. population that identifies as Catholic has remained fairly steady in recent years, fluctuating between 22 and 23 percent in each of the last six annual surveys. At the same time, there seems to be at least some degree of correlation between the drop in the Protestant population and the rise of the religiously unaffiliated or "Nones": the percentage of Americans who identify as Protestant dropped by 5 points between 2007 and 2012, falling from 53 to 48 percent, while the "Nones" increased by 4.3 points over the same period, going from 15.3 percent to 19.6 percent. In the absence of more data to fill out the picture, it seems safe to conjecture that the greatest number of those moving into the "None" column over the last five years have come from the Protestant churches.

My second question is this: how do "Nones" who came from a religious tradition relate to that tradition once they have left? Does it still mark them somehow, even if they no longer place themselves within the fold? This may be a difficult question for statisticians to formulate and analyze, but I think it's a question worth asking. According to the Pew report, a majority of the "Nones" still claim a belief in God, and a high plurality (41 percent) pray at least monthly; a third of "Nones" also affirm that religion is somewhat or very important in their lives. Given all of this, I think it's fair to ask whether the religious traditions that the "Nones" came from still have some hold on them insofar as those traditions shaped their views on God, prayer, and religion in general.

Answers to the questions that I pose above could serve to test the Pew report's assertion that Protestants are now a minority in the United States. Is it fair to make such a claim if it can be shown that many of the "Nones" remain 'cultural Protestants' on some level? More broadly, what would it mean for a person to be a 'cultural Protestant'? Even today, one still encounters people who left the Catholic Church but remain cultural Catholics to the core: their identity is still at least partly shaped by their Catholicism, even if they personally reject everything that the Church teaches. I'm curious about the extent to which this does or does not happen in a Protestant context, as I've long wondered whether the Protestant Reformation opened the door to a deeper and more pervasive form of secularization than might have been possible in a purely Catholic society, insofar as the privatization of faith weakened the bond between religion and culture in the West (I believe that Brad Gregory makes a similar claim in his recent book The Unintended Reformation, which I'd like to read but haven't gotten to yet). The presence of cultural Protestants - if they are present - could tell us something about the relationship between faith and culture in the contemporary United States.

As I ponder the possibility of cultural Protestantism, I think of people like the British astrophysicist Martin Rees, who once said that he was not religious but still chose to attend Anglican church services because "those are the customs of my tribe." I wonder how many American "Nones" could say something similar - I really don't know, but perhaps there are agnostic ex-Episcopalians who retain a distant affection for the cadences of the Book of Common Prayer, or lapsed Lutherans in the Upper Midwest who still respect the link between church and community. For my part, I'll admit that I can more readily understand non-believers who retain an aesthetic or intellectual appreciation for the cultural legacy of Christianity than I can understand people who buy into all that SBNR business and dismiss the faith of their ancestors as entirely disconnected from their sense of self.

If the Pew report is correct and Protestants are no longer a religious majority in the United States, what should we make of that fact? In practical terms, Protestant hegemony has long since become a thing of the past. A couple of years ago, the media quietly noted the fact that there were no longer any Protestants on the United States Supreme Court following the retirement of Justice John Paul Stevens; some have also pointed out that 2012 is the first year in which neither major party presidential ticket includes a white Protestant. The apparent end of the Protestant majority may not be that surprising or dramatic, but it's still something of a milestone given the historic dominance of Anglo-Protestant culture in the United States. As one who takes milestones seriously, I suggest that we give this one its due. AMDG.


At 10/12/2012 11:49 AM, Blogger Robin said...

You raise so many interesting questions. I would venture that there are almost as many cultural Protestants as there are "nones" who at one time identified themselves as Protestant. But the boundaries are so porous now that it's hard to know what the definitions might be. In my own family, my husband and children are nones, but what does that mean? They come to church in support of me on major occasions, and they want a Christmas tree in December more then I do; my daughter and I engaged in a sophisticated discussion on the differences between evangelicals and mainliners a few days ago in which it became clear that she has a solid understanding of at least mainline Protestantism; and my son is developing a relationship with a woman of another faith, and indicating that he, too, has absorbed a solid intellectual understanding of Christianity. But so what? Many of the people in the little town where the church I serve is located are not affiliated with a church, but I am sure that if they were to walk into one on Christmas Eve, it would be Protestant. My husband and especially my children are probably far more acquainted with other faith traditions than the people in small town, but all of them would return to their familiar Protestant roots if pushed. That might serve as a definition - but what's to push them?

For those of us serving a church of dwindling participants, the Pew report is going to generate some significant discussion.

At 10/12/2012 5:07 PM, Blogger Joseph Koczera, S.J. said...


I was looking forward to reading your perspective on this, given that you're on 'the front lines' pastorally speaking. I think you captured the exact point that I was driving at: how do we categorize people like the ones you mention, who aren't involved in a church and may not identify as religious when polled, but would still return to the church they're most familiar to if pushed by one circumstance or another? Does it really make sense to call them "Nones" if they still relate to a particular religious tradition in that way?

One reason I wish that the Pew researchers had asked more follow-up questions is that doing so would allow us to make more categorical distinctions among the Nones, e.g. between those identify as unaffiliated but are still connected to a religious tradition in some way (by family, culture, etc) and those who have no religious roots at all. I think that having that kind of information would give us a truer picture of where we stand - in the meantime, it's hard to know how churches should think about the Nones because "None" remains such a broad catch-all category.

Getting back to the the basic majority/minority question, I think it's hard to conclusively say that Protestants are now a minority because of questions like the ones that we've been thinking about. Do people like the small-town residents you refer to really count as "nones" if they hearken back to Protestant roots on some level? My hunch is that it would be more accurate to say that they're cultural Protestants of a kind, but that still doesn't answer the question of what this all means for churches.

I suppose another way to frame the pastoral question is this: is the fact that many nones still have a cultural connection to one or another church good or bad news for those churches?

At 10/12/2012 9:40 PM, Blogger Robin said...

My hope is that as the church dwindles in numbers, it will also experience another Great Awakening in the form of people genuinely committed to following Jesus Christ. Dwindle it seems it will continue to do, as it is no longer necessary as a gathering place, social club, entity promoting and acting on behalf of the common good, instigator of social justice efforts, or expectation of one's employer. Perhaps as those who understood church primarily in one or more of those terms fall away, those who are left will be the ones who are deeply engaged in faith and may find themselves evangelizing in spite of themselves. Whether the church is reborn as a consequence is up to the Holy Spirit, I'd say.

At dinner tonight we tried to decide whether there is a distinctive Protestant culture as there are distinctive Jewish and Catholic cultures. It seems to us that there is not, but maybe someone from China or India would see us differently. If Protestants identify as primarily "American Christians," then it may be much easier for them/us to let religious identity slip away than it might be for Catholics or Jews, for whom the religious component of identity is so distinct and significant.

I find it extremely difficult to convey to people that the distinctive aspects of Protestant faith are worth understanding and protecting, as they are seen as cultural givens. (That might not be the case at all in southern hemisphere cultures, where both Catholic and Protestant churches continue to grow.)


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