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Looking a Little More Closely at Religious Decline

The Pew Research Center just released a new study on religious decline in America. The big findings which grabbed the headline were that the overall percentage of religious persons in America is on the decline and that those Americans who consider themselves “unaffiliated” had enormous and fast growth. These two observations are not really news, however, as the American media has been covering (promoting?) them for some time now. But what I did find interesting, and somewhat surprising, was the fact that “Evangelical Protestants” actually claim the largest percentage of the American population, and they are growing in membership. Also surprising to see was that the Roman Catholic Church is losing its overall representation in the population at rates only slightly less than those of the Mainline Protestant Churches.

The “Evangelical Protestants,” so often maligned in the news and said to be losing credibility with “Millennials,” are actually not doing so bad. They experienced some loss as a percentage of the overall population, it’s true, but they actually gained around 2 million members over the last 7 years, and they still make up a quarter of the US population. While their drop of .9% of the overall population is significant, it does not strike me as a crisis within Evangelicalism as such, but rather a sharing of the overall decline in religious affiliation across the board.

Contrast this with the Roman Catholic Church. Rome has lost 3 million (depending on how the statistics are counted, of course) members and went down 3.1% of the overall US population. It’s true that the Protestant Mainline lost twice as many overall members (which is an incredible implosion), but when you apply the numbers to total percentage of the US population, Rome experiences a 3.1% loss of overall population whereas the Protestant Mainline is losing 3.4%. If immigration were not a factor, one wonders if Rome wouldn’t be experiencing exactly the same implosion as the Protestant Mainline.

Also, less surprising but still worth mentioning, Eastern Orthodoxy makes up less of a percentage of the US population than either Jehovah’s Witnesses, Buddhists, or Hindus.

By Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the Rector of Christ Church Anglican in South Bend, Indiana. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a founding member of the Davenant Institute.

6 replies on “Looking a Little More Closely at Religious Decline”

It would be interesting to see what percentage of the non-ethnic EO population are former Protestants. In particular, I’m curious what percentage of the clergy are former Prots and how that colors the “Orthodoxy” presented to us here in the states.

This is also interesting:

‘Viewed as a share of all U.S. adults, “strong” Protestants have remained remarkably stable over time. In the 2012 GSS, 27% of American adults identified as Protestants with a strong religious identity – exactly the same percentage as in 1974

…“Strong” Catholics, by contrast, have been declining both as a share of all Catholics and as a share of the U.S. public. The proportion of all American adults who identify as “strong” Catholics has fallen in the GSS from 12% in 1974 to about 7% today.’

Thanks for the stats, Steven. I wonder how much of the RCC decline is impacted by continuing fallout of the sex abuse scandal. If so, the decline could perhaps level off in a decade. I just read recently that priestly vocations are actually increasing in the US.

I would also be interested in how this breaks down by region. Here in the Charlotte area, there are only about a dozen Catholic churches (that I know of), but almost all of them are practically mega-churches. And the masses that I’ve attended, at different points at four different parishes over the past several years, are always packed with people. I’ve heard similar reports from other Southern cities. They certainly benefit from the greater religiosity and conservative ethos of the South.

As for the EO, I’m also curious with Nick about how many are converts from Protestantism.

Thanks for the links. I’ve read some of that already, and it corresponds with my experiences with Catholics. However, I am not sure how significant it is ultimately. Rome is not going to change its views on sexual ethics or gender norms. I’m an evangelical Presbyterian, so it’s not about Rome’s “infallibility” on dogma. But it’s not hard to see where the church is growing: the global South, especially Africa and Asia. Even if a future pope or the curia wanted to adapt the church in conformity with the affluent West, it would never happen — because it would create division with the global South and with a minority in the North.

This will mean, of course, that cultural Catholics in the West will continue to leave. But the result will be that Rome actually embraces a more evangelical, non-mainline mentality. The mainline Protestant denominations deserve a quick death, as they are increasingly experiencing. The RCC will be smaller, yes, but it will still vastly outsize any of its evangelical alternatives — especially as Protestantism continues to splinter at an alarming rate, with Pentecostalism looking to overwhelm the whole enterprise.


I guess the question is whether or not that will actually occur in the US. It might simply be the case that Rome just straight up loses more members and doesn’t fully replenish or re-calibrate. Perhaps the Mexican and Latino immigrants’ children do not remain in the church, or they begin following the same movement as the earlier white catholics. Perhaps the priest scandals and others continue to be ugly, and we see something similar to what is occurring in Ireland. It’s hard to predict these kinds of things. Additionally, the official leadership doesn’t have to “cave” on any issue, but they can just put in more bishops like Dolan who sound confusing signals on social issues or take no action at all. Notice the earlier link I gave above where it says that “strong Catholics” have fallen from 12 to 7% whereas “strong Protestants” have remained at 27%. We have not seen any real resurgence among traditionalists RCs thus far, even if the theological “theory” would suggest that we should have.

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