America's Vanishing Protestant Majority: What Does it Mean?
- Wednesday, June 28, 2006
Writing in 1927, French observer Andre Siegfried described Protestantism as America's "only national religion." To miss this, Siegfried advised, is "to view the country from a false angle." Now, less than a century later, a major research report provides proof that Protestantism no longer represents a clear majority of Americans.
Researchers Tom W. Smith and Seokho Kim of the National Opinion Research Center [NORC] at the University of Chicago have released "The Vanishing Protestant Majority," a report documenting the declining membership of Protestant churches in the nation.
The decline of American Protestantism will come as a shock to many observers, whose understanding of American religion was well summarized by sociologist Will Herberg in his classic 1955 study, Protestant-Catholic-Jew. Herberg characterized America at the midpoint of the twentieth century as a population settled into a tripartite religious identification made up of three great "denominations" -- Protestantism, Catholicism, and Judaism. Celebrating this renegotiation of the American religious establishment, Herberg observed: "In net effect, Protestantism today no longer regards itself either as a religious movement sweeping the continent or as a national church representing the religious life of the people; Protestantism understands itself today primarily as one of the three religious communities in which twentieth century America has come to be divided. The 'denominational' system -- the word 'denomination' here referring both to the religious community and to the denomination in its more restricted sense -- has become part of the basic assumptions of Protestants about America, as it has become part of the basic assumptions of all Americans."
According to the NORC study, Americans identifying themselves as "Protestant" fell from 63 percent to 52 percent between 1993 and 2002 -- a massive decline in less than one decade. According to the University of Chicago press release, the percentage of Americans identifying themselves as Protestant "has been falling and will likely fall below 50 percent by mid-decade and may be there already."
The NORC study is based on a sizeable research sample, tested to be representative of the U.S. population. The study is not without methodological difficulties. For one thing, the definition of Protestantism used in the report includes "all post-Reformation Christian faiths." Defining the issue sociologically rather than theologically, the analysts included members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints [Mormons] and other non-Christian groups in the Protestant sample. Some New Age devotees were also included under the Protestant classification.
Nevertheless, methodological issues aside, the group's extensive research is sufficient to prove the validity of its central thesis -- that Protestantism is declining relative to the total U.S. population.
The rapid decline of the nation's Protestant majority is an issue of significant sociological interest -- along with the percentage of Americans claiming no religious preference and the rise of non-traditional religions in American culture. The report offers interesting points of analysis, including the fundamental failure of most Protestant denominations to evangelize and assimilate their own youth and young adults, and the fact that the nation's immigrant groups have not followed the older pattern of eventual identification with the nation's Protestant majority. Denominations concerned about membership losses and evangelistic opportunity will note both developments with grave concern. Nevertheless, churches needing this report to awaken themselves to trends as obvious as these are probably beyond help already.
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