A woman holds a Bible as she prays on the front steps of the Supreme Court. (Carolyn Kaster / Associated…)
Protestants, whose ideals of hard work, individualism and democratic governance have fundamentally shaped the national character, no longer make up a majority of Americans for the first time in history, according to a new study released Tuesday.
The study by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found that Protestants now make up 48% of Americans, compared with nearly two-thirds in the 1970s. The decline, concentrated among white members of both mainline and evangelical denominations, is amplified by an absence of Protestants on the U.S. Supreme Court and the Republican presidential ticket for the first time.
"It's a slow decline but a noticeable one," said Cary Funk, a Pew senior researcher. Funk said a major factor driving the decline is an increase in religiously unaffiliated Americans to 20%, up from 15% five years ago.
Two-thirds of the religiously unaffiliated still say they believe in God, she said. But they overwhelmingly expressed disenchantment with religious organizations for being too concerned with money, power, rules and politics.
FOR THE RECORD:
An earlier version of this article said that two-thirds of Americans said they still believe in God; two-thirds of those with no religious affiliation said that.
The study did not give reasons fewer Americans now identify with any religion. But it presented theories that included political backlash against the religious right, delays in marriage, broad social disengagement and secularization related to economic development.
Some analysts said a softening of American religiosity could affect such areas as charitable giving and volunteerism, which traditionally have been driven by churches.
Others, however, said that ideals originally identified as Protestant and Puritan have become firmly entrenched as secular American virtues. The idea of America as a "city set on a hill" — a biblical phrase — with a special destiny to lead the world to freedom and democracy remains a bedrock civic value, said Richard Land of the 16-million-member Southern Baptist Convention, the nation's largest Protestant denomination.
"America is a nation with the soul of a church, and that soul is Puritan-Protestant," said Land, president of the convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. "But in terms of defining the purpose of the nation, it's been secularized long ago."
The study was based on a national survey of 2,973 adults conducted between June 28 and July 9 using land lines and cellphones. An additional 511 interviews were conducted with religiously unaffiliated adults.
In a counterweight to evangelical Christians who tend to back Republicans, the vast majority of religiously unaffiliated Americans — who number 46 million — vote Democratic and are politically liberal, the study found. Two-thirds support President Obama, compared with 27% for Republican nominee Mitt Romney. A majority of the unaffiliated support legal abortion and same-sex marriage.
The trend toward dropping away from organized religion was evident across gender, income and educational levels. But it was most apparent in the Northeast and West and among the young, the study showed. A third of adults under 30 have no religious affiliation, compared with just 9% among those 65 and older.
Mark Chaves, a Duke University sociologist of religion, said some young people turn to churches when they marry and have children.
Land said Southern Baptist numbers have stagnated after increasing for many years in large part because of a declining birthrate among whites, the traditional mainstay of the denomination. Only the infusion of African Americans, Latinos and Asian Americans — who now make up 20% of members — have kept the Southern Baptist numbers from dropping by as much as 10%, he said.
The United Methodist Church, the nation's largest mainline Protestant denomination, declined to 7.6 million in 2009 from 8.3 million a decade earlier. That drop is mirrored locally by the church's California-Pacific Conference, which has declined from 120,000 members and 415 churches about 15 years ago to 81,000 members and 356 churches today, said the Rev. Gary Keene, executive assistant to Bishop Minerva Carcano.
Keene said the Methodists hope to turn things around by recruiting younger, more entrepreneurial pastors, focusing more on service projects and experimenting with different forms of church.
One minister, Rev. Nicole Reilley, has helped start 12 new "house churches" in the last year aimed at young adults who work on a community service project and socialize twice a month and meet to study Scripture, pray and share communion twice a month.
Another Methodist minister, Dan Lewis, holds a weekly "French fry ministry" in Claremont for young adults who gather to eat, talk and have fun. The congregation, which stresses a welcoming and inclusive environment for gays and biracial families, has reversed previous declines and is growing slowly, now numbering about 400, he said.