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 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:
* One-fifth of the U.S. public -- a third of those under 30 -- are now religiously unaffiliated, for a total of 46 million Americans. The unaffiliated have risen from just over 15 percent of the adult population to nearly 20 percent in five years. More than 70 percent of the unaffiliated called themselves "nothing in particular," as opposed to being either atheists or agnostics.
* Many "Nones" fit the "spiritual, but not religious" label used by many researchers, with more than two-thirds -- including some self-proclaimed atheists and agnostics -- saying they believe in God or a "higher power." More than half claim a deep connection with nature.
* In 2007, 60 percent of those who said they "seldom or never" attend worship services continued to claim some tie to a religious tradition. But today, only 50 percent in this camp retain such a tie -- a 10 percent drop in only five years. At the same time, 88 percent of the "Nones" said they are not interested in considering future to ties to religious institutions, either liberal or conservative.
* The unaffiliated overwhelmingly reject ancient doctrines on sexuality with 73 percent backing same-sex marriage and 72 percent saying abortion should be legal in all, or most, cases. Thus, the "Nones" skew heavily Democratic as voters -- with 75 percent supporting Barack Obama in 2008. The unaffiliated are now a stronger presence in the Democratic Party than African-American Protestants, white mainline Protestants or white Catholics.
"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."