Pew Research has issued some new polling data that drew a few raised eyebrows this week. Apparently for the first time (pretty much ever) the United States now is no longer a majority Protestant Nation. That’s right, in 2007 about 53% of Americans identified themselves as “Protestant” which was at the time a stunningly low-water mark for Protestantism in the US, and now, five years later that number has shrunk to 48%.
So what can explain this very large shift in such a very short time? Have massive numbers of Americans returned to Catholicism or flocked to Mormonism? Not according to Pew. Basically the entire 5% shift can be attributed to the growing number of Americans describing themselves as either non-religious/ or non-affiliated in their religious pursuits.
One-fifth of the U.S. public – and a third of adults under 30 – are religiously unaffiliated today, the highest percentages ever in Pew Research Center polling. In the last five years alone, the unaffiliated have increased from just over 15% to just under 20% of all U.S. adults. Their ranks now include more than 13 million self-described atheists and agnostics (nearly 6% of the U.S. public), as well as nearly 33 million people who say they have no particular religious affiliation (14%).
As a pastor, I can’t help but be troubled by the numbers. However, there is another take on the study, that someone like me who searches for silver linings might suggest, but you probably won’t like it. Here goes: I think America might finally be getting “real,”… maybe a little more honest with itself about its true spiritual condition. And the first step to addressing a problem is admitting a problem…. ‘Houston, we have a problem.’
Here is what I am talking about. I do not believe America suddenly shifted secular in a five year span. For generations in this country there was a stigma attached to being “unchurched/ unaffiliated” with a denomination. People would cling to a label that their family once embraced, be it Baptist, Methodist, or whatever other flavor of Protestantism you might imagine… even if their attendance habits and core values did not back up the claim. It was considered shameful, and heathen-like to be a “nothing” religiously-denominationally speaking. That stigma, that religious sense and sensibility is simply gone. Even among the “faithful” the labels barely matter anymore, so it is no surprise that they don’t matter at all to the nominal. (This is perhaps not such a terrible thing, actually). Most all believers I am around identify themselves simply as “believers,” or Christians, or evangelicals, but I suspect very few know what a Protestant is anymore, or if they are one.
When I first began in pastoral ministry every church I served had as many “inactive members” as active members. No more. Our membership now is lean and tight, organizationally speaking, and most fellow pastors I know describe a similar approach. I believe the massive numbers of “inactives” and “nominals” that used to clutter the roles simply faced up to the reality of their spiritual condition, or at least their church connection.
On a larger scale, and speaking more generally, I think we are getting over our facade of religiosity in this country and that is not all bad, because I believe soon we will see the truth of what we really are…. a very secular, and increasingly secular nation. And in seeing it and admitting it, perhaps we will finally be ready to quit fighting amongst ourselves over whose label is better, and quit waiting on politicians to transform our society, and start doing what Jesus left us here to do… start transforming lives by the power of the cross.
and the truth shall set you free…