The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

October 22, 2012

Terry Mattingly: Fewer Protestants, but better Protestants?

By Terry Mattingly
Globe Columnist

JOPLIN, Mo. — After decades of sobering statistics about rising intermarriage rates, falling birthrates and their declining flocks, eventually Jewish clergy began talking about a future in which there would be “fewer Jews, but better Jews.”

Faced with sobering evidence that the number of priests was falling, along with statistics for Confession and weekly Mass, many Catholic leaders started talking about a future in which there would be “fewer Catholics, but better Catholics.”

Now, according to a new survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, Protestant leaders should start preparing for a future in which there will be “fewer Protestants, but better Protestants.”

For the first time, America lacks a Protestant majority, with only 48 percent of the population claiming ties to Protestant denominations.

Meanwhile, the surging tide of Americans rejecting ties to specific religious groups -- the so-called “nones” -- appears to pose a new threat to the declining “seven sisters” of liberal Protestantism. These churches, in descending order by size, are the United Methodist Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the Episcopal Church, the American Baptist Churches USA, the United Church of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).

This survey shows that “it’s going to be much more difficult for mainline churches to turn things around simply by focusing on higher levels of commitment,” said political scientist John C. Green, of the University of Akron, after a briefing at the annual meeting of the Religion Newswriters Association of America. This research was a cooperative effort with the PBS program “Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly.”

Part of the problem is that fewer Americans remain committed to supporting religious institutions, and a high percentage of those who do seem to favor faiths that embrace the very doctrines and traditions the unaffiliated often reject. It also appears that young people who are rejecting traditional faiths -- during the past five years, in particular -- are quitting organized religion altogether, rather than joining progressive institutions.

“It’s going to be hard for something like a ‘fewer Methodists, but better Methodists’ approach to work because these mainline churches are already so small, and there are so many of them,” said Green. “The mainliners will have to find their niche. But who are they? What do they believe? Do they know?”

Meanwhile, increasing numbers of Americans -- especially the young -- are now willing to say that they do not believe. The Pew Research Center numbers indicate that millions of Americans are no longer willing, as was common in the past, to remain lukewarm members of religious bodies in which they were raised. Other key survey findings include:

“It may very well be that in the future, the unaffiliated vote will be as important to the Democrats as the traditionally religious are to the Republican Party,” said Green, addressing the religion reporters. “If these trends continue, we are likely to see even sharper divisions between the political parties.”



Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities. Learn more at www.tmatt.net.