WASHINGTON A massive, groundbreaking new study of the American religious landscape shows that Protestants are losing their share of the nation's population and that the nation's broad religious diversity is paired with great religious dynamism.
The Pew Form on Religion and Public Life released the "American Religious Landscape Survey 2007" Feb. 25. The study the first in recent years to combine a huge sample size with in-depth questioning on Americans' religious preferences.
The study found that:
• Most Americans (78.4 percent) identify themselves as Christians of some sort.
• America's Protestant majority, which has been in place since the colonial era, has dropped to 51.3 percent and will soon become a minority.
• Evangelicals are the largest single group of American Christians (26.3 percent), followed by Roman Catholics (23.9 percent).
• More than a quarter of American adults have left the faith in which they were raised in favor of either another religion or no religion at all. If a change from one type of Protestantism to another is included, 44 percent of American adults have switched religious affiliation.
"Everybody in this country is losing members, everybody is gaining members, even though… There are some net winners and some net losers," said Luis Lugo, director of the Pew Forum, in a conference call with reporters announcing the survey results. "It's a very competitive marketplace, so if you rest on your laurels, you're going to be history."
The study involved in-depth questioning of more than 35,000 respondents throughout the continental United States. Among its most striking findings is that Protestants now comprise a slim majority 51 percent of U.S. adults. As recently as the 1980s, similar surveys showed that Protestants comprised nearly two-thirds of the population.
Roman Catholicism has lost the greatest number of adherents, said R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. While mainline liberal Protestant denominations also have seen a mass exodus. Even though evangelical churches have grown, the growth has a discouraging side, he said.
The study showed that evangelical Protestants, at 26 percent of the adult population, outnumber both their mainline Protestant and Catholic brothers and sisters.
Mainline Protestants, meanwhile, continue to lose their status as the closest thing to an established religious group that the United States has ever had. The study showed that Protestants affiliated with traditionally white, moderate-to-progressive denominations (such as the United Methodist Church and the American Baptist Churches USA) comprise only 18 percent of U.S. adults.
The decline in Protestantism owes to several factors, including conversion, immigration and declining birthrates, said John Green, a Pew Forum scholar and expert on evangelicals in America.
But the decline could mark the beginning of a profound change in American culture, he noted.
"So much of the values and institutions in American life came out of Protestantism, particularly mainline Protestantism," Green said.
He also noted that the term "Protestant" in the United States covers such a dizzying array of denominational groups, independent congregations, doctrinal outlooks and political perspectives as to render it almost meaningless.
"Protestantism is not just losing influence as a whole, but it is losing influence because of its divisions internally," he said.
Baptists including those the survey counted as evangelicals and those counted as mainline or in a separate category for historically African-American denominations have not been immune to the tendency of Americans to switch faiths.
The data about Americans switching religious affiliations is not all bad news, he said. Such changes are a byproduct of religious liberty, Mohler said.
While 21 percent of adults said they were raised Baptist, only 17 percent of the population are currently members of Baptist churches, the survey found. A full eight percent of those surveyed said they were raised Baptist but no longer identify as such.
Baptists fared better than Catholics, however. Approximately 32 percent of respondents who said they were raised Catholic have left for another faith or none at all.
The biggest gainers from the religious flux appear to be the ranks of the religiously unaffiliated. The survey found that more than 16 percent of adults are not affiliated with any particular faith or local congregation. Surveys in the past generally showed an unaffiliated figure of less than 10 percent.
However, the survey did not show an increase over similar polls in the percentage of the population who consider themselves atheist or agnostic. Only four percent of respondents said they believe that God doesn't exist or that there may be a supreme being who does not intervene in human affairs. Another 12 percent said they have no religious affiliation in particular, but a majority of those said religion is important in their lives nonetheless.
The study should remind pastors to preach messages grounded in Scripture that help believers remain faithful to orthodox theology, Mohler said.
"When people are deeply grounded in God's Word, and in their convictions, they're not going to switch," he said. "Now they may make a move from one church to another, but it's going to be on the basis of something other than they're switching their theology."
Pew Forum 'U.S. Religious Landscape Survey' interactive website
Wire reports were also used in this story.