Death of the Protestant ‘majority’

America was Methodist, once upon a time…  Methodist, or Baptist, or Presbyterian, or Congregationalist, or Episcopalian. A little light Unitarianism on one side, a lot of stern Calvinism on the other, and the Easter Parade running right down the middle: our annual Spring epiphany, crowned in bright new bonnets.

Of course, the average American nowadays would have  trouble recalling the dogmas that once defined all the jarring sects, but their names remain at least half alive: a kind of verbal remembrance of the nation’s religious history, a taste on the tongue of native speakers.

And yet, even while we may remember the names of the old denominations, we tend to forget that it all made a kind of sense, back in the day, and it came with a kind of order. The genteel Episcopalians, high on the hill, and the all-over Baptists, down by the river. Oh, and the innumerable independent Bible churches, tangled out across the prairie like brambles.

Through most of the nation’s history, these endless divisions and  revisions of Protestantism renounced one another and sermonized against one another. They squabbled, sneered, and fought. But they had something in common, for all that. Together they formed a vague but vast unity. Together they formed America.

In truth, all the talk, from the eighteenth century on, of the United States as a religious nation was really just a make-nice way of saying it was a Christian nation — and even to call it a Christian nation was usually just a soft and ecumenical attempt to gloss over the obvious fact that the United States was, at its root, a Protestant nation.

Well, my friends, that culture is over.

Much of the parsing of this most recent data indicates that it’s going to be much more difficult for mainline churches to turn things around simply by focusing on higher levels of commitment. Part of the problem is that fewer Americans remain committed to supporting religious institutions and a high percentage of those who do seem to favor faiths that embrace the very doctrines and traditions the unaffiliated often reject. It also appears that young people who are rejecting traditional faiths — during the past five years in particular — are quitting organized religion altogether, rather than joining progressive institutions.

It’s going to be especially hard for the mainline churches who are already so small and there are so many of them. The mainliners will have to find their niche. But who are they? What do they believe? Do they know?

Meanwhile, increasing numbers of Americans — especially the young — are now willing to say that they do not believe. The Pew Research Center numbers indicate that millions of Americans are no longer willing, as was common in the past, to remain lukewarm members of religious bodies in which they were raised.

One-fifth of the U.S. public — a third of those under 30 — are now religiously unaffiliated, for a total of 46 million Americans. The unaffiliated have risen from just over 15 percent of the adult population to nearly 20 percent in five years. More than 70 percent of the unaffiliated called themselves “nothing in particular,” as opposed to being either atheists or agnostics.

Many “Nones” fit the “spiritual, but not religious” label used by many researchers, with more than two-thirds — including some self-proclaimed atheists and agnostics — saying they believe in God or a “higher power.” More than half claim a deep connection with nature.

In 2007, 60 percent of those who said they “seldom or never” attend worship services continued to claim some tie to a religious tradition. But today, only 50 percent in this camp retain such a tie — a 10 percent drop in only five years. At the same time, 88 percent of the “Nones” said they are not interested in considering future to ties to religious institutions, either liberal or conservative.

The unaffiliated overwhelmingly reject ancient doctrines on sexuality, with 73 percent backing same-sex marriage and 72 percent saying abortion should be legal in all, or most, cases. Thus, the “Nones” skew heavily Democratic as voters — with 75 percent supporting Barack Obama in 2008. The unaffiliated are now a stronger presence in the Democratic Party than African-American Protestants, white mainline Protestants or white Catholics.

It may very well be that in the future the unaffiliated vote will be as important to the Democrats as the traditionally religious are to the Republican Party. If these trends continue, we are likely to see even sharper divisions between the political parties.

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