Study: Fewer faithful in U.S.

| Tuesday, Oct. 9, 2012, 12:01 a.m.

For decades, if not centuries, America's top religious brand has been “Protestant.”

It still is, but there's a large and quickly growing group that does not have a religious identity.

The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life released an analytic study on Tuesday titled “Nones on the Rise,” now that one in five Americans (19.3 percent) claim no religious identity.

This group, called “Nones,” is now the nation's second-largest category only to Roman Catholics and outnumbers the top Protestant denomination, the Southern Baptists. The shift is a significant cultural, religious and even political change.

In the 1960s, two in three Americans called themselves Protestant. Now the Protestants — evangelical and mainline — have slid to 48 percent from 53 percent in 2007.

Count former Southern Baptist Chris Dees, 26, as a participant in this culture shift. He grew up Baptist in the most religious state in the country: Mississippi.

By the time he went off to college for mechanical engineering, “I just couldn't make sense of it any more,” Dees says. Now, he's a leader of the Secular Student Alliance chapter at Mississippi State and calls himself an atheist.

Fueled by young adults like Dees, the Nones have leapt from 15.3 percent of adults in 2007, according to Pew studies.

One in three (32 percent) are younger than 30 and unlikely to age into claiming a religion, says Pew Forum senior researcher Greg Smith.

The study points out that today's Millennials are more unaffiliated than any young generation ever has been.

“The rise of the Nones is a milestone in a long-term trend,” Smith says. “People's religious beliefs, and the religious groups they associate with, play an important role in shaping their world views, their outlook in life and certainly in politics and elections.”

Protestants have dominated presidential politics, with only one Catholic president, John F. Kennedy. This year, however, the Republican Party nominated Mormon Mitt Romney for the presidency, while both the Republicans and Democrats nominated Roman Catholics for vice president.

Rev. Eileen Lindner, a Presbyterian pastor and editor of the Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches, observes, “We are still twice as likely to be affiliated with a religion than Europeans, but there is strong evidence that our religious institutions, as we configured them in past centuries, are playing a less significant role in American life.”

Rev. Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptists Theological Seminary in Louisville, saw a welcome clarity in the report, even if he didn't like the new picture in focus.

“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.”

Wanda Melchert, whose great-grandparents helped found Vang Lutheran Church in rural North Dakota a century ago, sees her church about to shut its doors and become part of a local heritage museum.

“Out here in the middle North Dakota, religion is still very important and families still teach their children. There's a strong faith base still here,” she says. But when Melchert looks at the changing national picture of religion, she says, “we're praying about this. We feel there's a great need for people to turn back to God. When we lose that, it's dangerous for our country.”

However, Rev. Martin Marty, a historian of religion and professor emeritus of the University of Chicago, says he wrote a book half a century ago on varieties of unbelief and has long thought that religious cohesion “has long been overstated.” Says Marty: “The difference is now we have names for groups like Nones.”

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