BILL TAMMEUS Protestant America is losing ground



When I was a boy in Woodstock, Ill., 50-plus years ago, Protestant Christians ruled.
I don't think I ever heard anyone put it quite that arrogant way in my nearly all-white town of about 7,500 (now nearly 21,000) souls, but if you drove around and looked at churches, you quickly grasped the theological lay of the land.
Not far from the central business district was First Presbyterian, to which my family belonged. Around the corner was a Methodist church. A Lutheran church was a few blocks away, past a small Christian Science church and an unusual church that combined Congregationalists with Unitarians. You also could find Baptists, Free Methodists, Episcopalians and others.
The one Catholic church in town, St. Mary's, had a sizable membership (including two of my closest high school buddies) as well as a school, but there was no doubt that it was a minority operation.
How things have changed -- perhaps not so much in my hometown, where Protestants still hold a commanding majority, but throughout the country.
Minority religious group
A new study by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago says the era of Protestant domination in America is nearly over. Within a year or two, the study says, Protestants, which were 52.4 percent of the population in 2002, will be a minority religious group for the first time since the nation began.
Beyond that, the percentage of the population that identifies itself as Christian (here we include the 25 percent of Americans who are Catholic) has been slipping, too. It's hard to nail down religious affiliation numbers with precision, but if current demographic trends continue, it's possible that before the end of this century -- perhaps well before -- there will be more non-Christians in America than Christians.
Tom W. Smith, director of the National Opinion Research Center's General Social Survey, says many scholars have written about the growing number of Americans who say they belong to no religion -- sometimes called the "nones" -- but "they haven't noted what faith group these people have been leaving. It is clear that many of these people are former Protestants."
Protestants, by the way, are not a homogenous group who all believe the same thing or look alike. For one thing, this survey includes among Protestants some groups that most Protestants consider outside the fold, such as Mormons and "New Age Spirituality" adherents.
Beyond that, Protestantism is even more atomized than many outsiders imagine. In fact, most surveys now show that people who identify themselves as fundamentalists or evangelicals outnumber mainline Protestants -- Lutherans, Baptists, Presbyterians, Methodists, Disciples of Christ and others -- by something approaching 2-to-1. And the theological differences between and among such groups can be deep and wide.
If people called by the same name -- Protestant -- disagree about a lot, think about the "nones," who, this new survey says, have more than tripled in 30 years from 2 percent of the population to about 7 percent today. ("Religion and Public Life in the Pacific Northwest: The None Zone," edited by Patricia O'Connell Killen and Mark Silk.)
Belief in God
It's intriguing that surveys regularly show that even those who profess no religion still express a belief in God. That's part of the reason national polls on that question consistently put the percentage of believers well into the 90 percent range.
But the nones are not getting their theology directly from Protestant or Catholic churches or from the many other religions that have been growing in America -- especially since immigration reform in 1965 produced a flood of new citizens from Asia.
America's coming Protestant minority raises countless questions. If Protestantism no longer is privileged, in some respect, does it mean other groups will assume that mantle? Or, more likely, does it mean that America will be a land of many minority faiths that must find a way to live together?
Beyond that, can Protestants adapt in healthy ways to their new minority status? Will they begin to understand that, though they still may rule in Woodstock, Ill., and other places, they must learn how to share prominence and influence with others?
X Bill Tammeus is a columnist for The Kansas City Star.

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