The first American colonists were Protestant, and for roughly four centuries their descendants, along with successive waves of Protestant immigrants, have been the country's dominant religious group.
But now Protestants are on the verge of becoming a statistical minority in the U.S., according to a study released today. Whereas nearly two thirds of Americans identified themselves as Protestant as recently as the 1980s, only 51 percent identify as Protestant today, the study found.
The sharp decline in Protestant identifiers was one of several novel and potentially politically volatile findings reported in the study by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, which polled more than 35,000 Americans over the age 18.
One of the unifying themes of the study was its assessment that religious life in America remains remarkably fluid and dynamic, with an increasing trend toward diversity and specialization. Underlying the Protestant shift, for instance, is what appears to be an increasingly fragmented movement. Mainline Protestants, once the group's bedrock, now account for less than 20 percent of all Protestants. By contrast, evangelical Protestants now represent more than 50 percent of all Protestant adherents—and more than a quarter of the total population.
The findings, especially regarding evangelicals, hint at possible political consequences. As the 2008 presidential race has suggested, the religious right, which has typically enjoyed solid support from evangelicals, has lost its cohesion. Several factors likely explain this phenomenon, one of which is that as the evangelical movement has grown, it has also become more susceptible to multiple voices and more discordant opinions. "The homogeneity of evangelical politics has been overrated and overestimated for some time," said Randall Balmer, a professor of American religious studies at Barnard College. "You are now beginning to hear other evangelical voices besides James Dobson."
Among Catholics, the trend has been somewhat different, reflecting the heavy Catholic preference of foreign-born Americans. In recent decades nearly half of all U.S. immigrants have been Catholic, hailing predominantly from Latin America. As a result, the proportion of American residents identifying as Catholic has held steady, even as the number of native-born Catholics has dropped.
The study also found remarkable fluidity across different religions. Thirty percent of all Americans, it found, have switched their religion at some point in their lifetime, either to a different religion or to an "unaffiliated status." The "unaffiliated" category, in fact, nearly doubled in size from the 1990s to the most recent study, and most of the jump was attributable to Americans who described their religion as "nothing in particular," as opposed to self-described atheists or agnostics.
"American religion is likely to be even more diverse in the future than it is now," John Green, a senior fellow with the Pew Forum, told reporters. "One can make the case that Americans will be less Protestant and less Christian a century from now, but how much is hard to gauge."