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A new study of the American religious landscape shows a decline in mainline Protestant church membership while the numbers of religiously unaffiliated, Muslims and Hindus rise.

A dramatic rise in the number of spiritually "unaffiliated" Americans, mirroring a decline in the number of American Christians, has occurred in the past seven years, signaling significant changes for mainline Protestant denominations and the Roman Catholic Church, a new report reveals.

According to the "America's Changing Religious Landscape" survey released early Tuesday by the Pew Research Center, 71 percent of Americans claim a Christian label, down from 78 percent in 2007, while 23 percent identify as "religiously unaffiliated," which includes atheists, agnostics and those who are spiritual-but-not-religious," up from 16.1 percent seven years ago.

The survey, which includes responses from 35,000 Americans and reprises a 2007 effort, shows unaffiliated ranks are growing "at a pace that is really remarkable," said Greg Smith, Pew's associate director of research.

Just under 6 percent of Americans identify as members of non-Christian faiths, including Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism, the report said, up from 4.7 percent in 2007.

"If the religiously unaffiliated are growing, and non-Christian faiths are growing, it follows that another group is declining, and that's the Christian population," Smith said. Still, "the United States remains home to more Christians than anywhere else in the world, but seven in 10 Americans identify as Christians" now, versus nearly eight in 10 earlier.

Evangelical Christians, whom Pew defined as people who said they were members of churches "including the Southern Baptist Convention, the Assemblies of God, Churches of Christ, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, the Presbyterian Church in America, other (smaller) evangelical denominations and many nondenominational congregations," make up the largest segment of American Christianity. The Pew survey put their numbers at 25.4 percent of the population, down nine-tenths of a point over the past seven years. Similarly, membership in historically black Protestant churches also remained steady at about 16 million, the Pew survey found.

The evangelical stability is interesting, said University of Notre Dame political science professor David Campbell, who was briefed in advance on the study, "because it shows the evangelicals are holding on to their ranks to a greater extent than the mainline Protestants and Catholics."

Membership in mainline Protestant groups such as the United Methodist Church, the Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the United Church of Christ, has declined 18.8 percent during the period, and the Roman Catholic population has dropped 13 percent in the past 7 years.

Smith said that while the most recent waves of American immigrants "are more heavily Catholic" than the rest of the population, the passing of older generations is reducing the size of the Catholic cohort. Also notable, he said, was that for every person who converts to Catholicism, more than six Catholics said they've left the faith.

The changes in the religious makeup of the country could, observers said, have an impact on social issues, political outcomes and even charitable donations in the future.

Because the unaffiliated have "a real aversion" to mixing pulpit and politics, Campbell added, "the rise of that group should concern people across the political spectrum." He said the language of American religion has long influenced the country's social and political actions.

"Just given the amount of charitable giving that comes through churches, and every social movement has come out of the churches," Campbell said, a rise of unaffiliated people means that if "we can't use that (faith-based) language" to appeal to people's consciences, "I think America will in the long run be for the worse."

Unaffiliated rise

The Pew study, Smith said, charts a dramatic rise in the number of religiously unaffiliated. He noted there are more unaffiliated (23 percent of the population) than either mainline Protestants (14.7 percent) or Roman Catholics (20.8 percent).

"The number of religiously unaffiliated adults has increased by roughly 19 million since 2007," the study stated. "There are now approximately 56 million religiously unaffiliated adults in the U.S.," second only in number to the number of evangelicals.

Moreover, the Pew study also showed that in every age category — the "silent" generation born between 1928 and 1945; the baby boomers born between 1946 and 1964; members of Generation X, born 1965 to 1980, and "older" millennials born between 1981 and 1990 — the number of unaffiliated people rose between 2 percent and 9 percent from 2007 until now.

Only the "younger millennials," born between 1990 and 1996 and who were not surveyed in 2007, were not measured for a percentage growth change. However, that group topped this most recent survey with 36 percent of respondents claiming "unaffiliated" status.

Smith held out little hope the unaffiliated would return to faith later in life. He noted the number of unaffiliated people, in an age cohort such as millennials, "tends not to change, but to tick up as they age." Fewer than six in 10 millennials identify as Christians, he added.

Evangelical author Ed Stetzer, who heads LifeWay Research in Nashville and was not briefed on the study results, said churches need to consider the specific backgrounds these people have when attempting to reach out to them.

"You need to ask and answer harder questions about why should a secular person have any interest in spiritual issues," he said. "There's no religious memory to appeal to" in today's unaffiliated, churches need to make a case as to why they should consider a Christian worldview at all.

Catholic, mainline decline

As the Pew study noted, some historically stable segments of American Christianity are now in decline.

"The large, traditionally white Christian churches, Catholics, mainline Protestants, continue to decline, and there appears to be an acceleration there as well," said the University of Akron's Green. "It's not just a decline in relative size, but also a decline in the absolute number. There are actually fewer members of those churches than there were several years ago."

Smith explained the decline in the Catholic population by saying it's in part a function of age. "Older generations of Americans among whom huge majorities are Christian and denominationally affiliated," he said. "Members of those (age groups) are beginning to pass away. Part of what's happening to explain those, they are being replaced by a younger generation of adults who are far less Christian and affiliated than their parents' generation."

The rapid, continuing decline of many historic "mainline" Protestant denominations has been "consistent" over the past 15 years, said Jeff Walton of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, a conservative Washington think tank.

Walton contrasted the mainline denominations' decline with growth found in more theologically conservative churches such as the Assemblies of God, a conservative Pentecostal denomination, or non-denominational associations such as the Vineyard or Calvary Chapel networks of churches, which he said show "pockets of significant vitality within the American Christian landscape."

Walton said the Assemblies of God "has been growing for over a generation and is now about 500 times the size it was in the mid-20th century."

In order to stem the decline, Walton suggested both "relational evangelism," where church members invite friends to their congregations, and a more compelling message that asks more of members than social activism.

"The Protestant mainline has focused so much on material needs and public policy that they've sort of become like a United Way with a religious veneer," he said.

Other religions grow

America's Jewish population, at 1.9 percent, is the largest among "other," or non-Christian, faiths in the country, the Pew survey found.

But it's "the Muslim and Hindu shares of the population (that) have risen significantly since 2007. And it is possible that the Religious Landscape Study may underestimate the size of these groups," according to the report, because the survey was only in English and Spanish, possibly restricting responses from people who principally speak other languages.

John Green, a political science professor at the University of Akron and a Pew fellow who was briefed on the study, noted the increase in non-Christian religions, Buddhists, Muslims and Hindus as "significant."

And while some individuals may shift affiliations to faiths comparatively newer on the American scene such as Hinduism and Islam, Notre Dame professor Campbell said birth rates and immigration may be more important factors.

"There is a lot of misunderstanding about how many Muslims there are," Campbell said. "I think almost all of it would be demographic, as you put it. In general, I would say, particularly with Muslims, it's going to be driven by a combination of immigration, their birth rate and the rate of retention, of being able to keep young Muslims within the faith."

Societal impacts

Overall, Green said, the changing American religious scene points toward potential shifts in politics. The era of Christian dominance in politics, particularly by the mainline churches, may soon be over.

"To the extent that numbers matter in politics, the total number of people that belong to a certain religious tradition has an important implication," Green said. "The number of white Christian voters is declining, and those (mainline Protestant) groups won't have the kind of dominance they once had" in the 1950s.

Green said it is unlikely America will see a rerun of 40 years ago, when the Revs. Pat Robertson, an evangelical, and Jesse Jackson, an African-American, both endorsed Democratic presidential candidate Jimmy Carter, at the time a Southern Baptist who continued to teach Sunday School classes during the campaign. While Robertson jettisoned Carter four years later, that election was a watershed moment in Christian political unity, he said.

Instead of counting on religious affiliations, political campaigns will turn more on questions of voter turnout, a candidate's personality and the "crisis of the moment" come Election Day, Green said.

"The raw material of politics is changing," he added. "The (voting) groups that can be motivated to vote, their relative size is shifting." Green said motivating white evangelical voters will become less important, while future Republican candidates will have to find new ways of reaching non-white religious believers as well as the unaffiliated.

Email: mkellner@deseretnews.com

Twitter: @Mark_Kellner