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Study:  Number of Protestants in US Declines - 2004-07-23

Within a couple of years, a new study says, the percentage of Protestants in the United States will fall below 50 percent of the total population, marking a major shift in the nation's society. The results of the study reflect other changes taking place across the nation.

The United States was founded more than two centuries ago by men who could all be described as white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants. But a study by the University of Chicago-based National Opinion Research Center finds that the number of people who describe themselves as members of Protestant denominations has fallen, and that it will soon drop below 50 percent of the total population.

In 1972, the percentage of U.S. Protestants was at 63 percent, but survey results from 2002 show a decline to just 52 percent. Given the trend, researchers expect the figure to drop below 50 percent within a year or two.

Tom Smith, director of the National Opinion Research Center's General Society Survey, says this is part of an overall change in U.S. society.

"This is symbolic of a broader, ongoing and very important social reconfiguration of America," said Mr. Smith.

He says immigration and the increase in minority populations are reflected to some extent in the findings on religion. For example, the percentage of people calling themselves Roman Catholic has held steady at around 25 percent, mainly because of immigrants from Latin America. Jews represent a little less than two percent of the population, while groups categorized under the label "other" have grown. Included in the "other" category are Latter Day Saints, known as Mormons, Muslims and various religions from Asia. That category grew from two point eight percent of the population in 1993 to nearly seven percent in 2002.

The other major shift has been in the category of those who say they are not affiliated with any religion. That group has grown in the last decade from nine percent to close to 14 percent. Survey director Tom Smith says the decline in church membership mirrors a similar decline in membership in clubs and social organizations in recent years. Sociologists have a term for this trend, calling it a reduction in social capital.

Social capital refers to the institutions, relationships and norms that shape the quality of society's interactions. It is sometimes called the glue that holds societies together. That glue, says Mr. Smith, no longer seems as strong as it once was in America.

"Churches are the Number One type of group that people actively participate in, outside of their own family," he said. "But church attendance is down, and the proportion of Americans who do not identify with any faith is up. So perhaps the social capital critics are correct in saying that there is less social glue to hold us together than there once was."

The survey, released this week by the National Opinion Research Center, is part of an effort that began 32 years ago to study various aspects of American life. Founded in 1941, the National Opinion Research Center is the oldest national survey research facility that is not-for-profit and university affiliated.