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Faith in America: Shifting Demographics

America's religious landscape has been shifting quietly in recent decades, giving way to more diversity and pushing to prominence some faiths while submerging others.

Historically, the United States has been a religious nation. And most experts note that it remains more devout than the more secular European states, for example, or Japan. Being religious includes frequenting places of worship and practicing one's faith. But sociologist Cynthia Woolever of the Hartford Seminary's Institute for Religious Research in Connecticut says Americans are not practicing their faith as much as they used to, although more than 70 percent of them believe in God, according to a recent Harris poll.

"Americans are not as religious as they were, say in the 1950s. So Americans may go [to church] for a wedding or a funeral or some special occasion during the year. But on a week-in, week-out basis, if you just took a snapshot, only one-in-five would be attending some kind of worship service during a given week. It was much higher in the 1950s," says Woolever.

By some estimates, the number of congregations and faith-based communities in the United States exceeds three-hundred-thousand. About 96 percent of those are Christian churches. But recent polls reflect a decline both in the membership of some Christian sects and in the number of Americans frequenting places of worship.

Changing Faiths

And while Americans still value the importance of faith and religion in their lives, sociologist Christian Smith of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill says many people are declaring themselves non-religious. "People who will identify themselves as Christians are in the high 70 percent [range.] There is a noticeable growth in the number of Americans who will report themselves on surveys as not religious. That doubled from seven to 14 percent in a ten year period, recently. And there's a noticeable decline in the proportion of Americans who are Protestants. But overall, American religion is a pretty stable event," says Smith.

Recent studies by the Pew Research Center in Washington show that Protestants make up about 52 percent of the U.S. population, down from about 58 percent in 1988. And Emory University historian Brooks Holifield expects that number to drop even further, even though the decline has mainly affected what he calls the 'Old Protestant Mainline,' such as Presbyterians and Methodists.

"Those are groups that were here in the 18th century and that, for a while, in the 1930s, '40s and '50s, appeared to be an unofficial or informal kind of religious establishment in America. If you think about it in relative terms, Protestantism is on the decline. The number of people who call themselves Protestants has slipped," says Holifield.

According to the Pew Research Center, mainline Protestants account for less than 20 percent of the U.S. population. Some analysts say one reason for the relative decline is that Protestants typically have smaller families and place less emphasis on religious upbringing than some of their more conservative Evangelical counterparts.

Growing Diversity

Evangelical Protestants often include Baptists and other groups that call themselves 'born again' Christians. According to John Green, a Senior Fellow on Religion and Public Life at the Washington-based Pew Forum, Evangelicals and several other faiths are gradually overtaking many Protestant groups. "Evangelical Protestants have slowly but steadily grown, so that now they outnumber mainline Protestants by a substantial amount. At the same time though, non-Christian groups - - Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and so forth - - have also become more numerous in the United States. And while they are still relatively small, their rate of growth has been quite large until they are figuring more and more importantly in American public life," says Green.

While all Evangelical Christians account for about 25 percent of the nation's adult population, the largest single denomination in America is Catholicism. About 25 percent of those who claim a religious faith in the U.S are Roman Catholic. Some historians note that Catholicism, which has grown steadily in the U.S. since the 1960s, has benefited greatly from recent immigration trends, particularly from Latin America.

And while most analysts say these shifts are likely to continue, they expect America's future religious scene to be far more diverse than today. That kind of diversity, says the Pew Forum's John Green, could dramatically change the nation's religious landscape during the next 50 or 60 years. "It is a little hard to predict what that will look like, but two things do seem clear. One is that there will be a much larger number of non-Christians and non-believers in the United States than there have been in the recent past," says Green.

But, Green adds, "it also may be that certain types of Christianity, for instance perhaps Evangelical or Pentecostal Christianity, will have also done very well. And so we will see a different kind of Christianity than we've seen in the past."

Most observers agree that the more prominent these denominations become, the more influence they will have in American society.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program, VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.