According to a study released today by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, less than 50% of Americans (48%, to be specific) identify as Protestants, either mainline or evangelical. This marks the first time in the history of the United States that the country does not have a Protestant majority.
Pew attributes the decline in large part to the fact that many former Protestants didn’t simply switch faith traditions, but rather jettisoned faith affiliation entirely. The group of Americans claiming no religious affiliation, which the Pew study refers to as “Nones,” is now 19.6% of the population, meaning that nearly 1 in 5 Americans no longer identify with a religious group. The Nones are second only to Catholics (22%); they also outnumber the nation’s largest Protestant group, the Southern Baptists.
This does not sit well with Rev. Albert Mohler (right), president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, who is clearly upset that it’s becoming increasingly more difficult to shame nonbelievers into religious conformity:
“Today, there’s no shame in saying you’re an unbeliever, no cultural pressure to claim a religious affiliation, no matter how remote or loose,” Mohler says. “This is a wake-up call. We have an incredible challenge ahead for committed Christians.”
If Mohler’s definition of a “committed Christian” is someone who sanctions the use of shame and cultural coercion in the name of spreading the faith, it’s no wonder his numbers are declining.
An examination of the Pew report may also provide an answer for those who may wonder if the “Nones” category includes a significant number of so-called “non-denominational” Christians (many of whom do not self-identify as Protestant, and some of whom would not even necessarily identify as religious at all):
“With their rising numbers, the religiously unaffiliated are an increasingly important segment of the electorate. In the 2008 presidential election, they voted as heavily for Barack Obama as white evangelical Protestants did for John McCain. More than six-in-ten religiously unaffiliated registered voters are Democrats (39%) or lean toward the Democratic Party (24%). They are about twice as likely to describe themselves as political liberals than as conservatives, and solid majorities support legal abortion (72%) and same-sex marriage (73%). In the last five years, the unaffiliated have risen from 17% to 24% of all registered voters who are Democrats or lean Democratic.”
Further down, the study’s authors are even more direct: “The religiously unaffiliated are heavily Democratic in their partisanship and liberal in their political ideology.”
The fact that a majority of Nones support or lean towards the Democratic Party, self-identify as liberals, and support abortion rights and marriage equality indicates to me that there’s probably relatively little overlap between the Nones and “non-denominational” Christians, since most “non-denominational” Christians support or lean towards the GOP, call themselves conservative, and oppose both abortion rights and marriage equality.
With the Nones growing so quickly at the expense of Protestant groups like the Southern Baptists, it’s not surprising that people like Mohler are alarmed. After all, if current trends continue, they’ll eventually be forced to abandon their socially conservative teachings, including their anti-LGBT beliefs, if they hope to remain relevant — and we all know that the Southern Baptist Convention is none too eager to do that.